SJC knocks millionaires tax off November ballot

Court rules provisions of question not sufficiently related

THE SUPREME JUDICIAL ruled that a proposal to raise taxes on high earners in Massachusetts cannot appear on the November ballot because it violates a constitutional provision requiring that all the elements of such a question be “related” or “mutually dependent.”

The eagerly-awaiting ruling is a huge blow to public sector unions and other liberal advocacy groups that pushed the so-called “millionaires tax” as a way to generate badly needed new revenue for schools and transportation projects.

Backers of the measure came together under the umbrella of an organization called Raise Up Massachusetts, which said the new levy was also a way to address growing inequality. The ballot question would have asked voters whether they approved of a new 4 percent surcharge on top of the state’s existing state income tax for all earnings over $1 million.

It was estimated that the levy would generate close to $2 billion a year in new state revenue.

The court ruling will reset debate on Beacon Hill over tax and spending issues, and may have ripple effects on ongoing negotiations over three other possible ballot questions.

The language of the millionaires tax question said the new revenue would be directed to education and transportation needs. But the justices, in a 5-2 ruling, said the question combined unrelated elements in way that runs afoul of the state constitution.

“We conclude that the initiative petition should not have been certified by the Attorney General as ‘in proper form for submission to the people,’” wrote the majority, “because, contrary to the certification, the petition does not contain only subjects ‘which are related or which are mutually dependent,’” as required by the Massachusetts Constitution.

The opinion was authored by Justice Frank Gaziano, who was joined by Justice David Lowy, Justice Elspeth Cypher, and Justice Scott Kafker. Justice Barbara Lenk authored a separate, concurring opinion. Chief Justice Ralph Gants and Justice Kimberly Budd offered a dissenting opinion, authored by Budd, arguing that the question should be allowed on the ballot.

Several business groups opposed to the tax filed the challenge with the SJC, led by the Massachusetts High Tech Council.

“Today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the ongoing importance of the Constitution’s safeguards against citizens’ initiatives to amend the Constitution that combine multiple subjects that are unrelated,” the plaintiffs said in a statement.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, one of five plaintiffs challenging the ballot question, hailed the ruling.

“Today is a great day for all Massachusetts taxpayers because the court has upheld the time-honored constitutional principle that limits the initiative process,” Eileen McAnneny, the group’s president, said in a statement. “By rejecting the notion that a small special interest group can usurp legislative power by including unrelated tax and spending provisions in the same ballot initiative, the court has preserved the state’s ability to make deliberative and fiscally sound choices.”

Raise Up Massachusetts expressed disappointment in the decision, and vowed to push ahead on a campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage and guarantee paid family leave to employees in the state.

“We are incredibly disappointed that a few wealthy corporate executives and their lobbyists brought this lawsuit that blocked the right of Massachusetts voters to amend our state’s constitution,” the coalition said in a statement. “It is stunning that these business groups would overturn the will of the more than 157,000 voters who signed petitions to qualify the Fair Share Amendment for the ballot, and of two overwhelming majorities in consecutive Constitutional Conventions.”

Proposals for a graduated income tax have been put on the statewide ballot five times – in 1962, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1994 – and gone down to defeat each time.

The ballot question considered by the SJC differed from earlier efforts because it included language directing revenue generated by a new tax to specific areas of state spending. The court said that violated a constitutional requirement that an initiative petition “address only related or mutually dependent subjects.”

Justices signaled their doubts about the ballot question during oral arguments in the case in February. They peppered a lawyer for the groups backing the measure with questions that seemed to suggest skepticism over whether the question could properly appear on the ballot.

“Those seem to be three separate policy decisions,” Justice Scott Kafker said during the oral arguments of the idea of a tax on high-earners combined with identifying two areas of state spending that would be funded with proceeds from the levy.

“Typically we don’t view oral arguments as necessarily indicative of which way the court is leaning,” said Lawrence Friedman, a professor at New England Law Boston. “This is one of those rare instances where the discussion at oral arguments really foreshadowed how the court was thinking and how the decision would come down.”

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