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Council in the News

 Mass. House passes $1.1 billion tax package it says will help families, businesses, and even the dead

The Boston Globe | April 13, 2023
By Matt Stout (Globe Staff)

House Speaker Mariano
House Speaker Ronald Mariano and state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the chamber’s budget chief, spoke to reporters in the State House last August.CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Facing little friction, the Massachusetts House on Thursday passed a bill overhauling the state’s tax code, a wide-ranging package that would boost tax breaks for renters, families, and others, and slash how much the state taxes profits on short-term investments.

The bill — worth nearly $1.1 billion once it takes full effect — cleared the Democrat-dominated House, 150-3, after about two hours of debate and with just three Democrats voting against it.

Its passage came just two days after House leaders unveiled its details, pitching it as a bid to improve the state’s competitiveness and stanch the flow of residents to other states. The bill would make a slew of changes, from increasing a low-income tax credit and adjusting how corporate taxes are calculated to reworking what estates are taxed.

“It will benefit people from birth to death — quite literally — and at all levels of the income spectrum,” state Representative Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat, said on the House floor.

The bill’s easy passage included a smattering of failed Republican-led amendments and pushback from one progressive Democratic lawmaker, who criticized several elements as unnecessary handouts to corporations and wealthy residents just as the state’s new surtax on annual income over $1 million kicks in.

“This bill has something for everyone. But the benefits skew to the very wealthy, and that’s inequitable,” said Cambridge state Representative Mike Connolly, who was among the three Democrats to vote against it. Erika Uyterhoeven, of Somerville, and Danillo Sena, of Acton, were the others.

If adopted, the multipronged package would cost the state $654 million in its first year. Similar to a proposal floated by Governor Maura Healey, it would combine two existing tax credits — child care and dependent care — to eventually create one $600 credit per dependent, with no limits to how many children or dependents a filer can claim.

The House is also seeking to double a tax credit for seniors who rent or own in Massachusetts from $1,200 to $2,400; raise the deduction for renters from $3,000 to $4,000; and hike the earned income tax credit from 30 percent to 40 percent of the federal credit.

Democratic leaders have repeatedly emphasized the need to make Massachusetts a more attractive place to live and do business in given its high cost of living, climbing child care costs, and thorny housing crisis. One recent UMass Amherst/WCVB poll found that nearly four in 10 Massachusetts residents have contemplated leaving the state for a more affordable locale.

In that vein, House leaders also want to overhaul the state’s estate and capital gains taxes, changes that would ease the burden on the state’s wealthier residents and have been long sought by the business community. Healey and others argue that the way the state taxes both areas makes Massachusetts an outlier among other states.

The House bill would cut the tax rate on short-term capital gains — profits on investments held up to a year — from 12 percent to 5 percent, phased in over the course of two years. It would also reshape the Massachusetts estate tax, considered among the strictest in the country, by raising the tax threshold from $1 million to $2 million and taxing only the value of an estate that exceeds $2 million. Under current law, the entire value of an estate worth $1 million or more is taxed once it hits the threshold.

Only a dozen states have an estate tax, and Oregon is the only other one that has a threshold as low as $1 million.

The House bill would also give the business community another item on its wish list: a switch in how state corporate taxes are calculated to what is known as the “single sales factor.” With some exceptions for certain industries, Massachusetts corporate tax is currently calculated using three factors: a company’s local employment, property holdings, and in-state sales.

The House would simplify it to rely solely on the amount of a company’s sales within the state — a change that, when fully phased in, is expected to cost nearly $80 million a year.

Overall, the House package would take full effect in three years, when its annual cost would reach nearly $1.1 billion.

In addition to the proposed tax relief, the House is seeking to change what’s known as Chapter 62F, a nearly 40-year-old law that requires the state to return excess revenue to taxpayers when the state’s revenues exceed a predetermined cap. In 2022, the obscure law triggered nearly $3 billion in taxpayer refunds in 2022, which state House and Senate leaders did not learn was possible until the closing days of their legislative session in late July.

That refund provision ultimately became one reason why lawmakers scrapped a tax relief package last year.

The current law stipulates that any credit is applied on a “proportional basis,” meaning the more someone owes in income taxes, the higher the refund they’re due. The House passed language to adjust the credit so that all taxpayers receive an equal amount.

The proposed change could assuage criticisms from progressive Democrats, some of whom pushed unsuccessfully last year to limit what taxpayers could receive in refunds. But proponents of the law questioned whether it was constitutional, hinting that, should the change survive and become law, it could be challenged in court or at the ballot box in 2024.

The House plan would be a “redistribution of income,” said Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which first pushed the law as a 1986 ballot question. “The return of the funds [would be] different from the way they were collected. . . . There’s a pretty clear line of cases that lead us to believe that this proposal likely violates the Constitution.”

State Representative Mark Cusack, the House chairman of the revenue committee, said on the House floor that the law concerns more than just the state income tax, but that “excess revenue — of all sources of revenue” — is reimbursed to taxpayers.

“And all people should share in our economic success,” the Braintree Democrat said.

The House rejected an amendment from Minority Leader Brad Jones, 26-128, that would have nixed the change.

Simultaneously, the House is also seeking to avoid triggering another potential give-back to taxpayers through the state’s emergency savings account.

Current state law effectively caps how much money Massachusetts can plow into the account, which is known as the Rainy Day Fund. If the amount in the fund at the end of a fiscal year exceeds 15 percent of the budgeted revenues and other funds, the state has to transfer the excess to what’s known as the Tax Reduction Fund. The money would then be transferred back to taxpayers in the form of one-time increases to the personal exemption they can claim against their income tax liability.

The state’s savings account has ballooned in recent years, topping $7.1 billion as of last month, and is estimated to reach $8.5 billion by the end of the fiscal year in June. Under the House’s budget plan released Wednesday, legislative officials estimate it could reach $9 billion by July 2024 — if the state does not make any withdrawals.

The House bill would hike the cap to 25.5 percent, which, Democratic leaders argue, would allow the savings account to keep growing. The change would also make it less likely taxpayers would get money back should it continue to expand.

The bill now heads to the Senate, which could reshape, add, or dismantle parts of the package. The two chambers will ultimately have to reach an agreement before sending a final bill to Healey.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.