Editorial: Three Legal Strikes

Dec 12, 2017Boston Herald, Council in the News

By Editorial Staff

It’s easy to complain that the proposed “millionaire’s tax” set to go before Massachusetts voters next year is just a cynical effort to squeeze the wealthy to fund more government jobs.  Easy, because it happens to be true.

But it’s even more worrisome to consider, as the plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit charge, that the initiative “threatens to undermine our representative system of government and our separation of powers, and the long-standing consensus that the Legislature must maintain ultimate control over public finances.”

And if that sounds like a big deal, that’s because it is.

Five Massachusetts business groups are challenging the proposed constitutional amendment, which is backed by a coalition of public employee unions and community activists.  The plaintiffs yesterday filed their written brief in advance of February oral arguments before the state Supreme Judicial Court, which is considering whether to exclude the initiative from the 2018 ballot.

The proposal, plaintiffs argue, is “truly radical” — and they outline their three reasons for tossing it out before the election:

  • The state Constitution forbids the grouping together of unrelated issues in a single initiative; this one does so by calling for a graduated income tax and earmarking the revenue for transportation and spending.
  • The initiative violates the constitutional ban on “specific appropriations” by initiative petition. The backers knew what they were doing when they combined a call for higher taxes with a plan to invest more in transportation and education, but in making that political calculus they stripped the Legislature of its power over the commonwealth’s purse.
  • It is a constitutional no-no to impose taxes or set tax rates via the state Constitution, because it leaves the Legislature, which is ultimately responsible for public finances, powerless to change or repeal them.

Buy the legal soundness of the suit or not — and we do — there can be little dispute that the lawmakers who support this initiative appear willing to trade away their authority over the state’s finances in exchange for political support.  Regardless of the outcome of this case, there ought to be consequences for that.

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