‘Nooooooooooo!’ and other reactions to the Massachusetts millionaire tax court ruling

Supporters of the nixed ballot question are considering their "next steps."

Boston, MA - 05/08/18 - Hundreds rallied inside the State House for paid leave and a $15 minimum wage.  The Raise Up Massachusetts coalition rally featured speakers and a march inside the building that passed by Speaker DeLeo's office.   (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter:  (in caps)  Topic: (09rally)
Raise Up Massachusetts, which backed the millionaire tax ballot question, lead a State House rally last month. –Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

By some estimates, the proposed Massachusetts “millionaire tax” ballot question seemed like a sure thing to pass this November. But first, it had to get past a challenge in the state’s highest court.

It didn’t.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court blocked the ballot measure Monday in a 5-2 decision. The so-called “Fair Share Amendment” would have imposed a four-percent surtax on any individual annual income over $1 million and called for the revenue to be used for the state’s transportation and education needs. However, the court ruled the measure violated a clause in the state constitution prohibiting two different subjects — in this case taxing and spending — from being included in a single ballot question.

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Raise Up Massachusetts, a progressive coalition that collected more than 150,000 signatures to qualify the question for the ballot, was stunned by the defeat Monday.

“We are incredibly disappointed that a few wealthy corporate executives and their lobbyists brought this lawsuit that blocked the right of Massachusetts voters to amend our state’s constitution,” the group said in a statement, adding that they would be determining their “next steps.”

The lawsuit that challenged the ballot question’s constitutionality was brought by a coalition of business groups, which said they opposed the question not on its merits, but on its methods.

“This case was not about whether a graduated income tax is good public policy or bad public policy, it was about how the proponents tried to achieve it – a method in direct violation of the Constitution under which the Legislature’s deliberative taxing and spending authority would have been severely limited,” the plaintiffs said in a statement.

However, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which was part of the group and had been campaigning against the millionaire tax, took the opportunity to applaud those who opposed the question for maintaining the status quo.

“Because of the united support, the positive conditions that foster fiscal stability will now continue,” Aron Ain, the group’s chairman, said in a statement.

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“Over several decades, the Legislature and a series of governors have developed a variety of economic development strategies and policies that incent [sic] employers to make investments in Massachusetts to support job creation and economic growth,” Ain said. “This is a landmark victory, and we thank our partners for their active and unified engagement, which is essential to the Commonwealth’s bright future.”

Not everyone’s outlook on the state’s future following the court ruling was so bright.

“Nooooooooooo!” tweeted Mike Connolly, a state representative from Somerville, who joined many fellow Democrats in mourning the loss of the revenue the tax would have provided for public investments.

Dan Koh, the former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Democratic candidate in Massachusetts’s third congressional district, tweeted that the decision “hurts all of us.”

Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford called the decision “a crisis” for Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

“The Court blocked the path to making critical investments in transportation and public education, which is overwhelmingly supported by the legislature and Massachusetts voters,” Bickford said. “Once again, we’re waiting for Governor Baker to take a stand.”

Jay Gonzalez, one of the two Democratic primary candidates running to take on Baker, said the decision “doesn’t change the fact that we desperately need additional state revenue to invest in our broken transportation system and in our education system that is leaving too many of our young people behind.”

Bob Massie, the other Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said he disagreed with the court’s reasoning.

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“This ballot initiative was ultimately about a single policy goal of raising revenue for the state, and the relatedness requirement Justice Gaziano cited is often applied arbitrarily,” Massie said, calling on the legislature to recreate a new progressive income tax amendment to put in front of the public, “who will most assuredly pass it.”

Massachusetts currently has a income tax of 5.1 percent and is one of only nine states with a flat income tax, which means everyone pays the same percentage of their earnings, regardless of how much they make. The amendment process was necessary to enact the millionaire tax, because the Massachusetts state constitution currently prohibits the legislature from implementing a progressive, graduated income tax.

As Massie alluded, the process of amending the Massachusetts state constitution can also be started with support of local lawmakers, but would still have to before voters in the form of a statewide ballot question for final approval. More than three out of four voters said they supported the millionaire tax, according to a WBUR poll last month.

Attorney General Maura Healey, who originally certified the ballot question, said she was “disappointed” that voters wouldn’t have the opportunity to decide on the millionaire tax this year, but hinted at the possibility of pursuing it through the legislature.

“The initiative petition process was designed to ensure that voters have a chance to be heard,” Healey said in a statement. “As a policy matter, I believe it is reasonable to ask those at the very top to pay their fair share. I look forward to working toward that goal with the legislature, advocates, and the many business leaders who supported this proposal.”