BOSTON (CN) – Massachusetts’ highest court appeared skeptical Tuesday about the validity of a proposed 2018 ballot measure that would tax income above $1 million to fund education and transportation.
If passed, the state would increase its income tax rate from 5.1 percent to 9.1 percent on all income an individual earns beyond the first $1 million. However, the ballot measure’s requirement that the excess revenue go to education or transportation seemed to make some of the justices for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court uneasy.
“You’re connecting a progressive income tax to spending on transportation and education,” said Justice Frank Gaziano during oral arguments Tuesday. “Those seem to be three major policy decisions.”
“There are two preferences in there that are not entirely related,” added Justice Scott Kafker.
Attorney Kate Cook, representing the signers of the ballot petition, argued that the question features a single policy rather than three separate ones.
“The unified statement of public policy is to impose a tax on high income earners to provide revenue to transportation and education,” she said. “The original signers chose education and transportation because we believe they are the keys to social mobility. We also chose transportation and education because these are chronically underfunded government services.”
Opponents of the proposed 4 percent increase on all income above $1 million argued before the court that the amendment would violate the state constitution.
Attorney Kevin Martin, representing taxpayers suing in opposition to the ballot measure, argued that dictating how the new funds would be spent violates the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to decide how to spend tax funds, setting a bad precedent for the state.
“The danger is that it would encourage every special interest group in the commonwealth to get some piece of spending in the constitution, forcing the Legislature to spend it,” he said.
Chief Justice Ralph Gants seemed less convinced the ballot would force legislators’ hands, since the state already spends about $20 billion on education and transportation and the ballot measure is expected to generate just $2 billion.
“Is it of any consequence that the Legislature would have to pay $2 billion on education anyway?” he said before suggesting that legislators could even reallocate funding that would have gone toward education or transportation if the difference was made up from the new tax.
The Massachusetts Income Tax for Education and Transportation initiative is one of two ballot measures that have already been approved for the 2018 election.
The second, if passed, would allow voters to repeal the state’s anti-gender discrimination bill.