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Editorial: Senate Adds Progress and Progressivity to Its Budget…

The Massachusetts Senate chamber in January. (WMassP&I)

This week the Massachusetts Senate made a long overdue move in a fiscally responsible way that reflects the needs of our commonwealth and its neediest citizens. By a 29-11 vote—sufficient to override a veto if the House concurs—the Senate voted to permanently freeze the income tax and use the funds to expand the earned income tax credit and all taxpayers’ personal exemption.

Credit where credit is due, Gov. Charlie Baker proposed the EIC expansion. Yet his pay-for came from the film tax credit, which, whatever its faults, probably needs a more nuanced reform than simple annihilation. Moreover, as The Globe noted, that would not finance all of Baker’s proposal.

No one disputes the value of the EIC, which rewards and encourages lower-income residents who join the workforce without robbing any dignity as other “reforms” tend to do. The sweetener of raising the standard deduction adds to what fairness the state constitution permits in the state income tax code.

Some will say the Senate is thumbing its nose at voters, who approved a referendum in 2000 to sink the income tax to 5%. Fiscal crises limited the cut to 5.3%, but at some point the legislature approved a formula that automatically lowers the rate when certain benchmarks are met. It has fallen to 5.15% since.

Beacon Hill set the current course on income taxes and it can correct it. (WMassP&I)

Beacon Hill set the current course on income taxes and it can correct it. (WMassP&I)

The formula is flawed and, ultimately, only serves to starve the state of revenue. In exchange taxpayers save a pittance and receive poorer public services. For example thanks to January’s 0.05% cut, a family making the median income in Springfield will save a whopping $20 this year before any deductions. A YEAR! The savings for the Massachusetts family median income equals $43 before deductions.

Meanwhile the new rate meant $70 million less in 2015 for local aide, home care programs transportation etc. You name it. Such policy is not without its ironies. Localities become more pressured raise local taxes to cover the same services as state funds stagnated or were cut.

Cue the complaints about abrogating the people’s will. The initiative process is critical to our commonwealth, delivering what the legislature will not. Yet, the same constitution that endows the people with that right explicitly empowers the legislature to overturn referenda. Where is the outrage for the clean elections program, about as old as the tax referendum and long ago gutted legislatively?

We urge his excellency to eschew any such lame rejoinders to the Senate’s proposal, as Baker himself has already gone on record poo-pooing inconvenient referenda. Last year, he explicitly said he would support overturning a repeal of the gaming law. Drawing a distinction between one question that passed—15 years ago—and another that did not may be cute, but no less hypocritical.

More to the point, the Senate budget achieves some progressivity in our tax code, and delivers an empirical good too. Certainly we would like more local aide and some hefty infrastructure investments, but aiding hard-working lower and middle-class residents and doing so by abandoning a wrong-headed tax policy is a fit and wise decision.

The House and the governor should concur.