Politics

Question 1: What you need to know about the proposed millionaires tax in Massachusetts

Question 1 would levy an additional 4% tax on income over $1 million, to be put toward education and transportation.

Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe, File

The battle over the so-called “millionaires tax” has dominated TV airwaves leading up to the Nov. 8 election, when Massachusetts voters will decide whether to raise taxes for the state’s highest earners.

Question 1 — also called the Fair Share Amendment — would amend the state constitution to levy an additional 4% tax on income over $1 million, to be put toward education and transportation. The proposal has drawn support from prominent labor groups, as well as opposition from some of the biggest names in Massachusetts’ business circles.

Here’s a guide to unpacking Question 1:

What would Question 1 do?

Unlike most states, Massachusetts charges the same flat 5% tax rate for all income levels. The surtax proposed in Question 1 would apply to earnings above $1 million. For example, if someone earned $2 million in one year, the first $1 million would be taxed at 5% and the second at 9%.

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The amendment would kick in Jan. 1, 2023, and would raise the $1 million threshold over time to keep up with inflation.

A study from Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis estimated that the surtax would bring in $1.3 billion in 2023 and apply to 0.6% of Massachusetts households in any given year. 

Question 1

“Question 1 is needed because our economy is working really well for those at the very top, but it’s not working well for the rest of us,” said Andrew Farnitano, spokesperson for Fair Share for Massachusetts.

The amendment is a chance to raise funds to improve roads, bridges, schools, and public transportation, he said in an interview with Boston.com.

“The middle class can’t afford to pay more in taxes to make those investments, so Question 1 is an opportunity to ask those at the very top, who have benefited the most from our economy, to pay a little bit more to make those investments,” Farnitano said.

Dan Cence, spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment, pointed to the state’s budget surplus, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, and Massachusetts’ relatively high per-pupil education spending as reasons why Question 1 isn’t needed.

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But Massachusetts can’t make long-term investments with one-time revenues or budget surpluses that come as a result of federal aid, Farnitano argued.

“We can’t hire more teachers or bus drivers with one-time revenue and then expect to lay them off as soon as that revenue goes away,” he said. “Relying on short-term revenue like that is what got us into this mess to begin with.”

Who would the surtax impact?

One of the biggest talking points in the Question 1 debate has been the potential impact on so-called “one-time millionaires,” or people who only surpass $1 million in income once in their lifetime. 

“These aren’t uber-wealthy people,” Cence said in an interview with Boston.com. “These aren’t people who even consider themselves millionaires. These are people who would be selling a family home, selling a farm, selling a small business, or … taking their retirement monies out.”

In 2022, it’s not uncommon to have a home worth more than $1 million in many of Massachusetts’ suburbs and metropolitan areas, he added. 

“There may be a few people who have one really good year, and they make a little bit over a million dollars once in their lifetime,” Farnitano acknowledged. “If that’s true, they’re only going to pay a little bit more once in their lifetime.”

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The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a think tank that supports the amendment, estimates that 70% of the Fair Share tax would be paid each year by earners making more than $5 million.

However, Cence argued that the surtax could hurt small business owners who file taxes as pass-through entities, meaning they declare their business profits as personal income.

Small businesses are “coming out of COVID, inflation is growing, there are worker shortages everywhere,” he said. “Many of these businesses were propped up and held together by COVID money and [the Paycheck Protection Program] — that’s all dried up and gone now.”

The Tufts study concluded that any short-term impact on the state’s economy is likely to be negligible, with long-term effects depending on whether Massachusetts “durably increases the size of transportation and education investments or instead uses this money to support already-planned spending.”

Critics have also argued that the constitutional amendment offers less flexibility if future changes are needed.

“We’re attempting to change the constitution that John Adams wrote hundreds of years ago, and it’s worked pretty well to this point,” Cence said. “If this were to pass and all of a sudden we’re seeing the impact it’s having on retirees, small businesses, and others, it’ll take four more years at a minimum to undo.” 

Bottom line

If passed, Question 1’s revenues would be dedicated to education and transportation, but subject to appropriation by state legislators. Critics have argued that lawmakers could shift existing revenue elsewhere in the budget, effectively negating any increase. 

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However, Farnitano pointed out that the Legislature has already identified several transportation and education priorities in need of funding. 

Question 1 supporters will also hold lawmakers accountable, he said. 

“We’re going to be sticking around to ensure that the money ends up where it’s supposed to,” Farnitano said.

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