Words matter, particularly with poll questions

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave the incorrect date for the initial poll on the so-called millionaire tax. The two polls were a year apart, not a month apart.

A poll released in mid-January 2021 indicated 69 percent of registered voters in Massachusetts either strongly support or somewhat support the constitutional amendment poised to appear on the November ballot creating a higher tax on income over $1 million. 

On Wednesday, a poll of likely voters came to a very different conclusion on the proposed constitutional amendment — only 37.2 percent of those surveyed strongly supported or somewhat supported the higher tax.

Nothing much changed over that year-long period between the polls except who was asking the question, who was being asked the question, and the way in which the question was asked.

The poll in January 2021 was sponsored by a series of foundations and groups (Boston Foundation, Hyams Foundation, King Boston, Amplify LatinX, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and others) and conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, which is affiliated with MassINC, the parent nonprofit of CommonWealth. 

The poll said the ballot question would create an additional 4 percent tax on income over $1 million a year, a trigger that would rise with inflation. 

The poll in February 2022 was sponsored by the right-leaning Fiscal Alliance Foundation and conducted by Jim Eltringham of Advantage Inc., a Republican-affiliated polling company in Washington, DC. The February poll said legislative leaders have placed a referendum on the November ballot that would amend the state constitution to allow lawmakers to raise the income tax on some high-income earners and middle-class small businesses. 

The questions on both polls were accurate, but they emphasized different things, which probably influenced the poll results. 

The January 2021 poll question specified how much the tax would be (4 percent) and how it would apply only to income over $1 million. The February 2022 question never mentioned the figure of $1 million. Instead, it placed heavy emphasis on the fact that legislative leaders crafted the question, which would allow them to raise the income tax on “some high-income earners and middle-class small businesses.” 

The January 2021 question overall is more precise about how the tax would work and makes clear that it would only apply to millionaires. The February 2022 question is more vague about the particulars of the tax, but very specific about who put it forward and, to some degree, who might be affected. 

Eltringham said he wasn’t trying to include messaging in the poll question to steer respondents to a desired conclusion. “We really tried to strip down and make it as bland as possible,” he said. “Again, there’s going to be a campaign around this so there’s going to be messaging around it. It’s always going to be in some kind of context. We really don’t want to use terms that would try to skew it one way or another.”

Eltringham said another question in the February poll did have “some messaging.” The question said that if the ballot measure passes, the Legislature would be able to raise the income tax from 5 percent to 9 percent for some high-income earners and middle-class small businesses — “meaning that those people could see their taxes increase by 80 percent.” The question asked if the increase was too high, too low, or just about right.

It’s true an increase from 5 to 9 is an increase of 80 percent, but it’s not true that those affected by the tax would see their taxes increase by 80 percent. The ballot question would only assess the 4 percent surtax on a person’s income over $1 million, not all of the person’s income.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said the increase was too high, nearly 2 percent said it was too low, and 18.3 percent said it was just about right, according to the poll.

Eltringham said he did not want to refer to the million-dollar threshold — as the January poll did —  because it would sway those answering the poll questions. “There is a fair amount of connotation when you start talking about it as a millionaire’s tax, and you start conjuring up images of people in top hats and monocles,” he said. “So we didn’t want to talk about it in terms of that.” 

As for the inaccurate claim in the question that those affected would see their taxes increase 80 percent, Eltringham said the 80 percent increase in the tax rate was “an important talking point.”

The bottom line is words matter. Trying to boil down a complicated ballot question into a few sentences isn’t easy and involves a series of value judgments about what’s important and what’s not. Those value judgments can sway how voters view an issue and ultimately how they vote on it, which is why the actual ballot question summary and the “yes” argument in a voter information guide are currently being challenged in court. 

The lawsuit questions the accuracy of the claim that the money raised by the tax can only be used to fund new spending on education and transportation, when in fact the money is fungible and subject to legislative appropriation.

Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, who helped present the results of the poll on the ballot question Wednesday, is also part of the group challenging the wording of the information voters will see in November.

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Veto-proof margin: The House voted 120-36 to approve legislation that would allow undocumented residents of Massachusetts to obtain driver’s licenses as long as they can provide proof of their identity. Gov. Charlie Baker has opposed such efforts in the past, but Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett said the current bill as crafted meets the “Baker standard” on the requirements needed to prove a person’s identity. Read more.

Historic commutations: The Governor’s Council commuted the life sentences of Thomas Koonce and William Allen, both of whom were convicted of first-degree murder and served close to 30 years in prison. The decisions in the two cases represent  the first time in 25 years a first-degree murder conviction had been commuted to a second-degree murder conviction, which will allow both men to be released on parole after a hearing before the Parole Board.

– The vote was unanimous by the Governor’s Council, which counts among its members Robert Jubinville, an attorney who represented Allen at his trial. Jubinville said he had urged Allen to take a plea deal because he was involved in the crime that led to the murder of Purvis Bester.  Under the law at the time, Allen was guilty even though he didn’t commit the murder. Jubinville described Allen, then 20, as a naive “young kid” who kept insisting he did not kill anyone, and he wanted to go to trial. Read more.

Brayton Point breakthrough: Brayton Point in Somerset finally lands an offshore wind manufacturing company, but the industrial prize is unlikely to heal the divide in the community over the use of the 306-acre property, which currently is home to a controversial scrap metal export operation. Gov. Charlie Baker is headed to Somerset today for a press conference. Read more.

OPINION

Community colleges need help: Thomas Peisch, who recently stepped down as chair of the board of trustees at Massachusetts Bay Community College, said community colleges are vital institutions facing serious financial and demographic challenges that require the attention of state policymakers. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker signs Nero’s law, which allows police dogs injured in the line of duty to be treated by emergency medical personnel. The measure was named for Nero, a Yarmouth Police Department K-9, who was injured in a 2018 shooting in which his partner, Sgt. Sean Gannon, was killed in Marstons Mills. Several ambulances were on the scene, but none were allowed to assist Nero, who had to be transported to a veterinary clinic in a police cruiser. (Cape Cod Times)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Worcester officials want developers to build more condos to address the lack of available housing stock for new homeowners. (Telegram & Gazette)

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu wants to revamp the city’s Municipal Harbor Plan with a turn toward the East Boston waterfront and away from the downtown parcels where developers are eager to build new skyscrapers. (Boston Globe)  

Wu said the city is likely to appeal a judge’s order halting implementation of her vaccine mandate for municipal employees. (Boston Herald

ELECTIONS

As expected, interim Suffolk County DA Kevin Hayden said he is running for a full term. He framed himself as a more experienced and moderate candidate for the job, one willing to place an emphasis on the traditional priority of public safety while also pursuing systemic changes. (GBH)

A new gubernatorial poll sponsored by a Republican-aligned group again names Democrat Maura Healey as the front-running candidate – but critics of the poll explain why it may offer little useful information. (MassLive)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Daily Table nonprofit grocery market, which operates stores in Dorchester and Roxbury, is expanding to Mattapan and Salem. (Dorchester Reporter)

Wynn Resorts is selling the property that houses its Everett casino for $1.7 billion and will lease the facility back from the realty trust that is acquiring it. (Boston Globe

EDUCATION

With the Supreme Court hearing a case that seeks to restrict the use of race in college admissions, some are advocating that colleges should adopt “slave decent” as an admissions factor instead. (GBH)

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu says she will fight any effort by the state to take control of the city’s schools. (GBH)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Utility companies are seeking to increase rates for off-peak natural gas use. (Salem News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

John Wilson, the wealthy businessman from Lynnfield who refused to take a plea deal in the Varsity Blues case, is sentenced to 15 months in prison, the longest sentence handed down so far in the college admission bribery scandal. (Associated Press)

Firefighters from Worcester, Norwood, Brockton, Fall River, and Boston are suing the manufacturers of equipment they used, alleging that the equipment contained dangerous “forever chemicals” that are now showing up in their blood tests. (WBUR)

The brother of a man who is the prime suspect in setting fires at Boston area Jewish organizations in 2019 is arrested in Sweden for obstructing the investigation. The suspect is deceased. (Associated Press)

MEDIA

Dan Kennedy says Gannett weeklies in Massachusetts are preparing to shift their coverage from local news and events to regional matters. He doesn’t like the move. (Media Nation)