Don’t let corporations limit our policy ambitions

Legislature should pursue bold agenda

LAST SESSION, one of the only significant bills that Massachusetts legislators passed before budget season was sweeping legislation to raise their own pay. By contrast, this year, the Legislature has already passed important bills to lift a retrograde welfare cap and ban the homophobic and abusive practice of conversion therapy.

This could be a sign that the Legislature is interested in being more proactive this session, and that would be a welcome change indeed.

There are plenty of issues that the Legislature can—and should—tackle this session, all of which require bold and comprehensive policy solutions and all of which face the same risk: that the Legislature lets the business lobby set the limits of its ambitions.

Revenue: Although conservatives in Massachusetts and around the country like to use the moniker of “Taxachusetts,” Massachusetts cut taxes more than all but two other states between 1977 and 2016.

Much of that came as a result of anti-tax ballot questions in the late 1990s and 2000s, which cost the state more than $4 billion in revenue each year (a full tenth of the state’s budget). Those tax cuts have been great for the wealthiest Massachusetts residents: The top 1 percent now pays a lower effective tax rate than the rest of us. But how about the rest of us? We got crumbling infrastructure, underfunded schools, and a steady disinvestment in the programs and services upon which we all depend.

The Fair Share Amendment, which would have created a surtax on income above $1 million to fund public education and infrastructure, would have been a step in the right direction. Fearing that the Fair Share Amendment would cruise to victory at the polls (it averaged around 80 percent), corporate lobbyists managed to get it kicked off the ballot. Legislators are working to place it on the 2022 ballot. But that four-year delay means four more years of underfunded schools for hundreds of thousands of children, unreliable public transit for millions of workers, and expensive child care for working families.

That realization is starting to hit the State House. Senate President Karen Spilka just put together a working group to overhaul the state’s tax code, and Speaker Robert DeLeo promised “further action” on the issue later this year.

Although Spilka’s working group has many members ready to offer bold, progressive ideas, it’s also stocked with appointees from chambers of commerce, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable (the lobby group for the CEOs of the state’s biggest corporations), and Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), the state’s largest corporate lobby group.

Similarly, DeLeo has encouraged the corporate lobby—many of the same characters who blocked the Fair Share Amendment, and fought for the recent massive tax cut passed by Trump and the Republican Congress two years ago—to come up with proposals for him, and they’re already working on it.

They can be expected to advocate for a menu of regressive taxes that put the burden on working- and middle-class residents, while leaving their profits and their executives largely untouched.

We are one of the richest states in the country—and one of the most unequal, with the top 1 percent having 31 times the average income as the rest of us.

We shouldn’t be letting the corporate lobby write our tax code for us. We can, instead, take steps that are more progressive and raise more revenue, from increasing taxes on unearned income (our tax on capital gains is the lowest in New England) to increasing the corporate minimum tax so that all corporations pay their fair share.

Housing. Massachusetts faces an affordable housing crisis. According to a recent report, there are only 46 affordable and available units per 100 extremely low-income households, and a minimum wage worker would have to work 84 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.

If we’re going to address this crisis, we need a variety of tools in our toolbox. Zoning reform is one such tool. Three years ago, the Massachusetts Senate passed a wide-ranging zoning reform bill that would have, among other things, required cities and towns to zone for multifamily housing, allowed municipalities to adopt inclusionary zoning, and made it easier for cities and towns to charge developers impact fees to address the costs of new development (e.g., traffic).

But we also need money. Sen. Joe Boncore, Democrat of Winthrop, and Representative Mike Connolly, Democrat of Cambridge, have a bill to allow cities and towns to levy a fee on real estate transfers, with the money designated for an affordable housing trust fund.

We also need stabilization and tenant protections. Rent control, long a pariah on Beacon Hill, is back on the table, as it should be.

But we won’t have any of this if commercial real estate developers have their way. Last session, Speaker DeLeo said that he wouldn’t be able to advance any plan without the backing of the powerful real estate group NAIOP. Pardon me for asking, but last I checked, no one elected NAIOP to write our state’s housing policies.

NAIOP, unsurprisingly, wanted Governor Baker’s housing bill (re-filed again this session), which reduces the threshold for zoning approval, making it easier to build. Absent from Baker’s bill is any real attention to affordability: no requirements for more multifamily housing construction, no promotion of inclusionary development, no accountability for developers, no new revenue streams or protections for at-risk tenants. Funny that.

Building more and more with no attention to affordability certainly suits the needs of developers, but if we aren’t building for different income levels, it won’t solve our housing crisis.

Housing and revenue aren’t the only issues that merit bold and comprehensive policy action. Our Legislature also needs to take action to curb both skyrocketing health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions. And in both cases, the business lobby — as it has done in every past session — will argue that we should be less ambitious and less comprehensive. It’s up to us to make sure that our legislators don’t listen.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Jonathan Cohn is chairman of the issues committee for the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts.

Clarification: This story has been updated to say the legislative pay raise bill was one of the only significant bills passed in 2017 before the state budget, not the only bill passed.