On May 18th, the House and Senate have a genuine opportunity to take the first step to substantially reduce income inequality in Massachusetts by approving the Fair Share Tax Amendment. I will be one of many progressive legislators proudly supporting this proposal to require our wealthiest residents to pay the same effective tax rate as our poorest citizens. This is a chance to engrave economic equality directly into our Constitution, and by generating nearly $2B in new revenue, we will not only strengthen our public schools, but finally have the resources we need to repair our crippled transportation system.
Boston recently earned the dubious distinction of being named the U.S. city with the widest gap between its top 5 percent and bottom 20 percent of earners. The Boston metro area, which encompasses the eastern part of our state, ranked sixth in the nation in income inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor in Massachusetts is nearing crisis levels, and manifests itself in many ways – public school achievement gaps, transportation access disparities, and the wider erosion of the middle class.
This inequality is only compounded by the growing divide between the effective tax rates paid by the bottom 20 percent of earners versus the top 5 percent. As it stands now, those making more than $860,000 per year pay, on average, an effective state and local tax rate that is 38 percent lower than that of those making less than $22,000 per year. Given that our state is grappling with problems such as backlogged road and bridge repairs, failing and inadequate public transportation infrastructure and a scholastic achievement gap between children of rich and poor families that only continues to widen, this disparity in tax rates is not just unfair, it is morally unacceptable.
The Fair Share Tax proposal – a constitutional amendment that would create a 4 percent state marginal tax on incomes over $1 million – is the best chance we have had in a generation to address these problems.
Constitutional amendments such as this need to be approved by a majority of Massachusetts voters. In order for residents to have a chance to vote on this proposal, the legislature must collect 50 votes from the combined House and Senate membership during constitutional conventions held in two different legislative sessions. While members have not yet had a chance to vote on the amendment, the most recent constitutional conventions were used to clear items off of the agenda so that the Fair Share amendment could be considered. It’s likely that the next constitutional convention on May 18th will be the first opportunity for members to vote on this proposal, and if it does receive at least 50 votes, the legislature will need another vote in the 2017-2018 session in order for it to appear on the November 2018 ballot.
If passed, this amendment would quickly bring the effective tax rates paid by residents at both ends of the income spectrum in line with each other. And by raising an estimated $1.9 billion to finance public education, roads and bridges, and public transportation, it would provide the state with the means to make long-overdue investments.
Critics of this proposal may point to national rankings that show the Massachusetts public school system outperforming most states in test scores. It’s indisputable that Massachusetts has some highly skilled students with impeccable academic achievements. So too is the fact that we have one of the nation’s highest income-based school achievement gaps. Unfortunately, our public education system is not an even playing field. The quality of public schools, in terms of amenities and infrastructure, varies dramatically from community to community, with household income being a determining factor to high school graduation rates and future college attendance.
One of the reasons for this is that we don’t have universal access to early education, which means that children from low-income households are at a disadvantage before they even enter elementary school. Only 48 percent of children from low-income families are ready for school at the age of 5, as compared with 75 percent of children from higher-income families.
Massachusetts is the nation’s education pioneer. We’re home to the nation’s first public schools and were the first state to establish a state board of education because we believed then, as we believe today, that education is our primary social equalizer. Our constitution requires our governing bodies to set standards that ensure all children a high-quality education regardless of class. The Fair Share Tax proposal would give us a greater opportunity to uphold these values.
On the other hand, it would be difficult for anyone to argue that our transportation system does not desperately need substantial investment in both its state of good repair backlog and in key system upgrades. Anyone who has waited for two full red line trains to leave a station before barely squeezing on to a third can tell you that capacity problems are only growing worse. And as the repair and replacement needs of the T’s equipment continue to be put off to close budget deficits, on-time performance and reliability suffer. As rising housing costs push our region’s poor and working-class residents farther and farther from the urban core, their access to reliable public transit diminishes, and yet their reliance on it grows. For these reasons, investment in transit is both a pressing moral and economic issue – without it, the gap between rich and poor will only continue to broaden.
In the parable of the faithful servant, Jesus says “To whom much is given, much will be required,” a phrase I have heard repeated often in recent weeks. While it is true that much of the wealth in this Commonwealth has been earned through skill, perseverance and hard work, without the things that we choose to provide as public goods – chief among them the education of future workers and the infrastructure that allows for the exchange of goods and services – much of that wealth would be impossible. The Fair Share Tax will require more of our state’s wealthiest residents, true, but no more than what we already require of the poorest. This is hardly a biblical standard to meet, and we would be foolish not to strive for it.
State Representative Tim Toomey