SJC approves millionaire tax ballot summary

Court says document describes constitutional amendment fairly

THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT on Wednesday decided that the summary of a ballot question raising taxes on income over $1 million can go forward as written, stating that the money raised will, subject to legislative appropriation, be used for education and transportation.  

Opponents had sought to change that language, arguing that it is misleading since the money could theoretically be directed to other spending. 

In a 16-page decision written by Justice David Lowy, the court decided unanimously that the language is not unfair and misleading, so it can appear on the ballot and informational materials. “The summary closely tracks the language of the proposed amendment and thus ‘fairly informs voters’ of its operation,” Lowy wrote. 

The constitutional amendment would increase the tax rate by 4 percentage points on income over $1 million. Opponents of the tax, led by Massachusetts High Technology Council president Chris Anderson, filed a challenge with the Supreme Judicial Court, which did not seek to keep the question off the ballot, but tried to change the wording of the summary that appears on the ballot. The opponents included a mix of Republicans and business groups. 

The opponents said the summary language approved by Attorney General Maura Healey and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin is “unfair and misleading” because it says the money raised by the surtax can only be used to fund education and transportation. The opponents say because money is fungible and subject to legislative appropriation, there is no guarantee that the tax will lead to any additional spending in these areas. Potentially, the Legislature could use the money to supplant existing spending on transportation and education.  

Supporters of the amendment have formed a coalition that includes labor unions, faith-based groups, and liberal-leaning organizing groups. They argued that including the language in the constitutional amendment dedicating the money for education and transportation is the clearest way to ensure the money goes for those purposes. 

The court wrote that there is no need for the summary to include the argument that the revenue could be used by the Legislature for non-designated purposes, since there is no requirement that the summary include legal analysis or interpretation. “The Attorney General’s summary need not opine on whether, as plaintiffs contend, monies that historically have been spent on education and transportation could, at some future point, be spent elsewhere,” Lowy wrote. “The summary need only describe the amendment itself; we hold that it does so fairly.”  

Steve Crawford, a spokesperson for the pro-amendment committee, Fair Share for Massachusetts, called the decision “a victory for everyone who wants Massachusetts to be a place where the very rich pay their fair share to make our schools great and our roads and transit safe and efficient.”  

Dan Cence, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment, the group opposing the ballot question, said the coalition “strongly disagrees” with the court’s ruling that the ballot summary is accurate. “The politicians who put this on the ballot are giving themselves a blank check to redirect existing funding for education and transportation to their own pet projects, with no accountability,” Cence said.  

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the conservative-leaning Fiscal Alliance Foundation, which opposes the ballot question and filed a brief in the case arguing against the summary language, called the language “extremely leading” and said the SJC, Healey, and Galvin dropped the ball. “This amendment allows lawmakers to play a shell game and, by moving money around, the Legislature could spend the new tax revenues on whatever it wants,” Craney said.  

Leaders of the Massachusetts High Technology Council said they are disappointed in the ruling. “Our goal with this effort was to assure voters are fully informed before voting on whether to make a far-reaching change to the Massachusetts Constitution,” said council president Chris Anderson. “On five previous occasions, Massachusetts citizens have considered ballot initiatives that would empower the Legislature to establish a graduated income tax and the citizens rejected all five. We are disappointed that this sixth attempt will be accompanied by a summary that misleads voters into believing that the Amendment will guarantee additional funding for either transportation or education.”