Surtax Backers Allege Opponents Are Lying About Effects
APRIL 20, 2022…..Most Massachusetts family farmers do not earn enough for a surtax on household income above $1 million to hit their regular paychecks, but they could feel significant effects if they sell land or if the change in tax code alters the state’s business climate, opponents of the proposal said Wednesday.
In the latest volley launched against the measure, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance hosted more than half a dozen small farmers to share their concerns about the ballot question on track to be decided by voters in November.
Several speakers said they are concerned that adding a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million would cut into the profits of selling property if a farmer needs to free up funding or eyes retirement — a financial hit the proposal’s supporters contend is unlikely.
Matt Fitzgerald, a fifth-generation farmer and owner of Mann Orchards in Methuen, recalled that his family sold a portion of their land in 2006 to invest more in their facilities.
“If this tax had gone through back then, would the sale have happened? More than likely,” Fitzgerald told reporters. “But I don’t know if I would be sitting in this office here today doing what I do. I don’t know if the reinvestment would have happened into continuing the oldest business in Methuen.”
The surtax, sometimes referred to as the Fair Share Amendment or millionaire’s tax, is on course to go before voters this fall after years of debate in Massachusetts and a previously upended ballot question campaign.
Business-aligned groups fighting against the measure argue that increasing the effective tax rate from 5 percent to 9 percent on household income above $1 million would reach beyond the Bay State’s wealthiest residents and impact small businesses organized as pass-through entities or whose owners plan to sell their companies when they retire.
John Hornstra of Hornstra Dairy Farm in Norwell said many farmers consider their agricultural land and property to be their only retirement asset, a contrast from many other workers who have pensions or separate retirement accounts.
“It’s discouraging to them to have all these extra taxes,” Hornstra said.
Supporters of the measure fired back that concerns about the surtax cutting into small business sales are overblown, pointing to a March analysis from the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center that said taxes would only be due on the capital gain — the increase in value over time — rather than the total price.
In a statement released Wednesday by the campaign in favor of the ballot question, Abundance Farm founder and director Rabbi Jacob Fine said, “It’s disappointing that the billionaire-backed opponents of the Fair Share Amendment are lying to farmers about how the tax would affect them.”
“It’s simple: if a farmer makes less than a million dollars in a single year, they won’t pay a cent more, but the funds raised by the Fair Share Amendment would help pay for better roads and bridges to get crops to market, more vocational programs to train future farmers in our agricultural high schools, and more affordable public colleges,” Fine said. “Investing in transportation and public education is the best way to strengthen our economy, for farmers and for everyone else in Massachusetts.”
Although the ballot question aims only at household income, its opponents have alleged it could prompt businesses to leave Massachusetts for new homes with looser tax systems. That’s something also on the mind of small farmers who themselves are unlikely to see direct paycheck impacts, according to Leo Cakounes of Harwich’s Cape Farm Supply and Cranberry Company.
“I can’t stress enough how people have to look out of the box when you’re looking at proposals such as this,” Cakounes said Wednesday. “It’s not just those millionaires that are making X amount of dollars a year. It has a trickle-down effect when large companies and large businesses no longer want to do business in this state. It’s going to affect me, who quite honestly has never seen a million dollars of income in family farm products in my 20 years in the cranberry business.”
The House and Senate jointly voted 159-41 in June 2021 to advance the surtax proposal to the November 2022 ballot, leaving its final fate in the hands of voters.
Before it gets there, the state’s highest court may rule on how the proposal will be summarized in official materials.
Question backers have long stressed that the new revenue from the surtax — which one independent study estimated would total $1.3 billion in additional collections from about 21,000 high-earning taxpayers — would go only toward education and transportation.
Opponents, including Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, filed a lawsuit in January asking the Supreme Judicial Court to require the ballot question summary to stress that “the Legislature could choose to reduce funding on education and transportation from other sources and replace it with the new surtax revenue.”
Craney said Wednesday that the lawsuit is still ongoing and that he expects oral arguments to take place May 4 ahead of a decision in June.