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The Slow Descent of the Massachusetts State Income Tax

Fifteen years ago, voters told the state to roll back the personal income tax rate to 5 percent. But that mandate is just now being met, according to Gov. Charlie Baker, who announced the new rate for Jan 1.

(TNS) — Twenty years ago the Red Sox still played in the shadow of an imagined curse. The New England Patriots had been to two Super Bowls but never won. Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft pick and a fourth-string quarterback. Traffic on the Central Artery backed up above ground.

A little more than 20 years ago, 1.5 million Massachusetts voters told the state to roll back the personal income tax rate from 5.85% to 5%. Question 4 on the November 2000 statewide ballot, a citizen-driven referendum, won with 56% of the vote. It was a mandate the Legislature only partially accommodated and as years went by ignored.

Instead, Beacon Hill dropped the tax rate to 5.3% and passed a law conceding the rest — but only in small doses, and only if the state met certain financial targets. The first of those steps didn’t come for another decade. The final one didn’t come until last week.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s office made an announcement on Friday that, as of Jan. 1, the personal income tax rate will fall to 5%, in line with the wishes of the electorate. In the statement, Baker noted, “… we are finally making happen what voters called for almost 20 years ago.”

It’s hard to compare the Massachusetts of 20 years ago to today. The state’s finances were in far different shape. Two years after the tax question, Beacon Hill was carving into the money it sends to cities and towns, forcing mayors, town managers, city councils and selectmen to reconcile, at least partially, the demands of taxpayers with their own budgets.

Today, by contrast, state budgets increase local aid while the Legislature drags its feet over how to spend more than $1 billion from last year’s surplus.

So, it’s not hard to imagine why lawmakers resisted the constraints of Question 4. It’s one thing to acknowledge the wishes of taxpayers, it’s another to do so all at once — and at the expense of so many things taxpayers expect.

Still, it’s frustrating that the slow deflate of the income tax was drawn out for another 15 years. Even as the state’s financial condition improved, with a vibrant economy and increased tax revenues, our elected representatives left the income tax sunset on the slow setting.

Some would argue that eliminating or reducing taxes is against the nature of government, that they only go up but never go away. It’s a cynical view but one the Massachusetts Legislature reinforced time and again, year after year.

And, at this point it isn’t really about the money. Most taxpayers will see only a modest benefit from finally dropping the income tax rate to 5% — perhaps enough to have a good Friday or Saturday night. The real issue is the principle of the thing. How many taxpayers voted for a 5% personal income tax rate in November 2000, never to see it actually happen, having moved away or died in the span of the human generation that passed before it actually came to be?

Of course, Question 4 was also a testament to the messy, often impractical nature of citizen-led petitions. They play to the worst instincts of the electorate. Even the most well formed omit important details, or are blind to their consequences. Just look to legal pot for a case study, though that one also illustrates how the Legislature, once handed a referendum, can warp and distort the result.

But, again, those are issues resolved in the short term. Legal pot was passed, rewritten, implemented and sold in Massachusetts in less than one-quarter the time the state spent ratcheting down the income tax to the 5% threshold set at the ballot box.

A legislature unresponsive to the wishes of those it governs is reminiscent of another case study from history, albeit much older. That one involved an act of defiance inspired by the Townsend Acts and Parliament’s maneuver to force the East India Company’s cheap tea, along with the taxes imposed on it, upon the colonies. It was 246 years ago this past Monday that about 200 people got together and dumped the tea into Boston Harbor.

©2019 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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