Popular “millionaires’ tax” referendum question blocked by a pro-business SJC
The Fair Share Amendment—better known as the “millionaires’ tax”—that would have gone before voters this November as a statewide referendum question was shot down this week by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). So the effort to increase taxes on people making $1 million-plus a year and spend the resulting funds on social needs is over. For the moment.
Organized over the last three years by Raise Up Massachusetts, a major coalition of labor, community, and religious organizations, the initiative had the support of two-thirds of Bay State voters in recent polling and had a good shot at passing.
The campaign was spearheaded by the Commonwealth’s two largest unions, Service Employees International Union and Mass Teachers Association. And naturally, most Massachusetts rich people had no intention of letting anyone—let alone a bunch of union leaders, social workers, and priests—raise their taxes.
Flunkies and front groups were then unleashed. The Massachusetts High Technology Council put together a bloc of capitalist lobby groups—including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership—and challenged the amendment’s constitutionality.
They were aided in this push by the fact that Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, was able to appoint five of seven justices to the SJC since taking office in 2015. Including one that, in fairness, wrote the dissenting opinion on the Fair Share Amendment ruling.
Thus, it was no big surprise that the SJC shot the millionaires’ tax down on a legal technicality. Since the wealth lobby had no convincing political argument against the tax beyond “we don’t want to pay it.” But they had high-powered lawyers, plenty of money, and a court stacked in the right direction. Theirs. A capitalist veto in the making.
Professor Lawrence Friedman of New England Law | Boston explained the decision succinctly on a special edition of The Horse Race podcast—hosted by Lauren Dezenski of Politico Massachusetts and Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group:
“What a majority of the court concluded was that this petition didn’t satisfy the requirements of article 48 [of the Mass constitution] for a valid petition that can go before the voters in November. Because it failed what’s called the ‘relatedness’ requirement—the various parts of the petition didn’t relate to each other sufficiently to pass constitutional muster.
“So the three parts of the petition involve the revenue raising measure, the so-called millionaire’s tax, and then two distinct dedications—one to education and one to transportation. And the court essentially said that, except at a very abstract level, those things are not sufficiently related to satisfy the relatedness requirement.”
The minority of the court, for their part, had a very different view. According to Justice Kimberly Budd (joined by Gov. Deval Patrick appointee Chief Justice Ralph Gants, and pardon the legalese here):
“Disregarding the plain text of art. 48, The Initiative, II, § 3, of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, as amended by art. 74 of the Amendments, which requires that an initiative petition contain ‘only subjects … which are related or which are mutually dependent,’ the court concludes that, in drafting this language the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1917-1918 inserted the words ‘or which are mutually dependent’ as superfluous text. … The court goes on to conclude that the people may not express their opinion on a one section, four-sentence petition because it contains subjects that are not related. … That analysis is flawed.”
In plain English, to rather brutally paraphrase further remarks by Friedman on The Horse Race, activists amended the state constitution a hundred years ago to allow the people of Massachusetts to make laws by referendum because even then the legislative process had been captured by corporations and the rich in ways perhaps unforeseen by John Adams when he drafted the document in 1780.
To block the Fair Share Amendment referendum from going on the ballot for a vote is therefore not in the spirit of the sentence at the core of the SJC majority’s case. The court’s pro-business majority focused on the “relatedness requirement.” Its pro-worker minority countered that referendum questions that contain “unrelated” items that are “mutually dependent” pass constitutional muster. But with five votes to two, the majority prevailed.
The result? The tiny percentage of Mass residents who make more than a cool million a year will not see their state taxes rise from 5.1 to 9.1 percent. And the estimated $2 billion that was expected to be raised from that levy annually will not be applied to the Commonwealth’s education and transportation budgets. Both areas that are ridiculously underfunded given our state’s wealth relative to much of the rest of the nation.
Worse still, the spurious myth that the Mass capitalists’ “coalition of the willing” flogged—and continues to flog in the case of the Boston Herald’s ever fact-light columnist Howie Carr—that rich people leave states that increase their taxes will continue to seem like reality to less careful onlookers of the local political scene. Despite the fact that a major study and a book entitled The Myth of Millionaire Tax Flight: How Place Still Matters for the Rich by Stanford University sociology professor Cristobal Young have used big data to dismiss the idea as mere scaremongering, according to Commonwealth magazine.
Now Raise Up Massachusetts has two options: 1) start the referendum process all over again with language that will pass muster with the narrowest and most conservative interpretation of the “relatedness’ requirement,” or 2) take the fight to the legislature.
With the chances of the legislature passing any kind of tax increase being approximately zero as long as Robert DeLeo is House speaker, starting the referendum process again from scratch is pretty much the only way to go.
Unless Raise Up leaders decide to make some kind of “deal” with the legislature. Which I sincerely hope is not the case. Because the whole Fair Share campaign is already a major compromise given that the real goal of any forward-thinking left-wing reformer in this arena has to be the repeal of article 44 of the state constitution that prohibits a graduated income tax system. Followed by the passage of such a system.
While I’m well aware that every attempt to do that has been defeated in the past, I’m also aware that if referendum questions aimed at the much broader goal of winning a fair tax system were on the table, then it would be possible to negotiate for something smaller like the “millionaires’ tax” if the effort ran into trouble.
As things stand, Raise Up Mass appears to have little room to maneuver. So, better to start preparing for a win in 2022 on an improved referendum strategy—preferably aiming for a graduated income tax to replace our anemic flat tax system—than to make a bad deal merely to be able to declare a false “victory” to its supporters and switch its public focus to the two other drives it still has in play: paid family and medical leave, and the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.