No tax breaks for Massachusetts residents, and few seem to care

It’s a measure of how insulated most Massachusetts’ legislators are from the whiplash of public opinion that they can in early July essentially promise a modest one-time $250 rebate to middle-income taxpayers and have no to little fear of repercussions when they fail to deliver .

Here we are less than a month later and those rebates and more permanent tax reforms are still up in the air. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if they will ever materialize. And now there is another wrinkle: The “rediscovery” of a 1986 law calling for the state to return excess revenue to residents upended late-session talks over tax relief, and lawmakers shelved their plans so they’d have more time to figure out just how much the state can afford.

The decision to hold off on the rebates was announced around 5 am Monday, amid an overnight scramble for the Legislature to finish its major bills by (or within a handful of hours after) a July 31 deadline. By the next day, the tax-break setback was already a talking point for statewide candidates.

Republican auditor hopeful Anthony Amore is talking about taking lawmakers to court if they don’t deliver, and GOP candidate for governor Chris Doughty was outside the State House Tuesday, where he said the Legislature has “just gotten too distant from the needs of the people.”

In fact, tax relief is a rare point of consensus among the three gubernatorial hopefuls. The other Republican in the race, Geoff Diehl, also wants to see money returned to taxpayers, and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Attorney General Maura Healey called it “incredibly disappointing” lawmakers didn’t get a tax break package done.

But regardless of how voters feel, most state lawmakers — including those who will make the ultimate call on how or if Beacon Hill handles tax changes — face little chance of consequences.

Incumbents are overwhelmingly reelected “pretty much everywhere,” but especially in Massachusetts, said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. While things like the mess at the MBTA and the unfinished business of this legislative session can shift public opinion, the Legislature here tends to have high approval ratings, he said, and incumbents seeking reelection benefit in a host of ways, from their names being listed first on the ballot to their ability to raise money even when not facing a challenge.

“There’s just a whole bunch of ways where Beacon Hill is set up to be a reelection machine, and it runs very smoothly,” Koczela said.

All 200 seats in the state Legislature are up this election cycle. In more than half of those races, incumbents are running without an official challenger in either the Sept. 6 primary or Nov. 8 general election. That means most lawmakers can’t be voted out, even if their moves are on taxes or anything else against the constituents.

While write-in candidates can and do emerge, running a sticker campaign is an uphill battle against a sitting lawmaker with a pre-existing campaign team, name recognition and usually a sizable bank account. And State House incumbents generally fare well against all challengers – only four lawmakers were unseated in the 2020 election, and one of those was under indictment on fraud charges at the time.

The 107 uncontested seats — 91 in the House, 16 in the Senate — include those held by top decision-makers House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka. Mariano’s budget chief, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz is the only candidate on the ballot in his district, and House Revenue Committee Chairman Mark Cusack is also unopposed.

On the Senate side, Revenue chair Sen. Adam Hinds, is not seeking reelection after he came up short earlier this year in his bid for lieutenant governor. Westport Democrat Sen. Michael Rodrigues, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and one of the lead negotiators on tax relief, faces a Republican opponent. There is a chance he could face some heat.

Lawmakers have been mulling tax breaks since Gov. Charlie Baker proposed his own relief package in January, but didn’t pass their own bills until July. Two days after the House and Senate began negotiating over the economic development bill that contained their tax relief ideas, Baker said he expected the 1986 law to kick in, adding a new wrinkle to the discussion.

Here’s how it would work:

The excess revenue law, triggered only once 35 years ago, caps allowable state tax collections at a level tied to annual wages and salary growth. Revenue above that cap is supposed to be returned to taxpayers through a credit.

Although the law was passed at the ballot in 1986 and is the subject of annual reporting by the auditor’s office, Democrats in the Legislature were caught off guard by it. Govt. Charlie Baker and his budget office say the state, flush with cash, can manage both those credits and other tax breaks, but legislative leaders are wary of a future downturn and say they want more solid numbers before they act.

Mariano described the revelation of the tax-cap law as “getting a $3 billion bill dropped on you” in the final days of the legislative session, and last week floated the idea of ​​changing or delaying it. Early Monday morning, though, he called it “law of the land.” Rodrigues said lawmakers are still committed to permanent tax relief, too – although it’s unclear when they’d get a bill done or what it would look like.

It’s up to Auditor Suzanne Bump to determine, in September, how much the state has collected above the tax cap – the Baker administration estimates it’s just shy of $3 billion.

If that projection holds and tax credits are announced this fall, then, the lawmakers who didn’t get their relief plans over the finish line this weekend could still find themselves with a tax break to tout on the campaign trail.

There is, of course, a chance that this will be worked out. But the uncertainty raises an uncomfortable question for folks who remember their high school civics classes: Do average Massachusetts voters really care what their legislators do?

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