Auditor signs off on return of $3B to Mass. taxpayers

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

State House News Service
Published: 9/15/2022 8:23:50 PM
Modified: 9/15/2022 8:19:57 PM

Lawmakers moved closer to reviving a stalled economic development bill they shelved two and a half months ago now that Auditor Suzanne Bump on Thursday certified that Massachusetts must return nearly $3 billion to taxpayers.

The monthslong Beacon Hill kerfuffle over tax relief and economic development lurched into a new phase with publication of Bump’s report, which confirmed the Baker administration’s projection that surging state tax revenues blew about $2.94 billion past the amount allowed under a 1986 voter-approved law.

The spotlight now shifts back to the executive branch, which hasn’t said how and when it plans to distribute the mandatory relief, and to top House and Senate Democrats, who froze their tax relief and spending plans after learning that Massachusetts was on track to trigger the tax cap law for the first time in 35 years.

Legislative leaders signaled Thursday that they will work to pluck some form of the $4 billion economic development and tax relief bill from limbo and advance a $1.6 billion fiscal year 2022 closeout budget that sets aside money for the Chapter 62F relief. They offered few details on the scope or timeline for action, however, and both branches gaveled out for the weekend without taking any new steps.

“We will be moving forward on something now that we have the finite knowledge of how much money we have,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Co-chair Michael Rodrigues, who co-chairs a conference committee tasked with negotiating a final bill, told the News Service.

The roughly $1 billion in tax relief lawmakers wove into the original House and Senate bills, including $500 million in one-time rebates and $500 million in targeted tax law changes, “are all in conversation,” Rodrigues said, stressing that the final contours are “still to be determined.”

“I called it the kitchen sink bill before, and now it’s just a bigger kitchen sink because we also have the final closeout,” the Westport Democrat said.

House- and Senate-approved versions of an economic development bill (H 5034 / S 3030), both of which sought to combine American Rescue Plan Act funds, surplus tax revenues and bond authorizations to make a slew of investments, remain bottled up in a six-member conference committee tasked with producing a final accord.

Rodrigues is joined on that panel by Sens. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow and Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth; the House conferees are Reps. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston, Mark Cusack of Braintree and Michael Soter of Bellingham.

It was not immediately clear Thursday if the conference committee had scheduled a meeting to examine Bump’s report or continue its work, though Rodrigues said he spent the summer “in constant contact and conversation” with Michlewitz and the Baker administration.

The House and Senate failed to reach agreement on a final version of their economic development bills before formal lawmaking sessions ended the morning of Aug. 1. At the time, legislative leaders said they needed more time to parse the implications of Chapter 62F.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka diverged in the ensuing months, with Spilka publicly arguing that the Legislature could afford both its original tax relief proposal and the required returns and Mariano keeping his foot on the brakes.

Mariano on Thursday described the auditor’s report as evidence that Massachusetts is in a “financially strong position.”

He described the conference committee talks as facing “new circumstances,” though the final $2.941 billion figure Bump certified Thursday doesn’t differ markedly from the $2.965 billion estimate Baker’s budget office produced in late July.

“At a time of historic inflation that is causing many families to struggle to pay their bills, our residents should be provided relief,” Spilka added in her own statement.

Bump said the voter-approved law set a cap on allowable state tax revenues in fiscal 2022 of $38,871,154,627. State government hauled in $41,812,654,358 in FY22, leading to an overage of $2,941,499,731, she said.

Bump’s office said the blistering pace of state tax collections stemmed from a variety of factors, including “unprecedented capital gains tax revenue, the temporary impact of pass-through entity (PTE) excise payments, current labor market conditions, and strength in retail sales.”

“I would underscore for the Legislature and the public one key element in the FY22 revenue increase,” Bump said. “The change in the taxation of so-called pass through business entities which just took effect last year generated $2.25 billion in revenue, much of which has yet to be claimed in the form of personal income tax credits and deductions by the business owners.”

Her confirmation marks only the second time the law has been triggered since voters placed it on the books in 1986. The first time was in 1987, when collections exceeded the limit by $29.2 million and taxpayers claimed about $17 million in credits on their income tax returns.

The milestone prompted renewed calls from some lawmakers for top Democrats to unjam their negotiations and move quickly on the economic development bill.

“It’s beyond past time, I must say, that we work with the House leadership team to come back and to finish this economic relief package as soon as is possible,” Democrat Sen. Diana DiZoglio, who is running for auditor, said during a lightly attended Senate session on Thursday.

Under legislative rules, both branches are set to meet only in informal sessions where lawmakers cannot take roll call votes necessary for bond authorizations and a single objection can stall any bill.

Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman said he has heard “a tremendous amount of angst, economically, about the cost of living in Massachusetts” from Bay Staters.

Details about how the money will flow back to Bay Staters remain unclear. A Baker administration official said this week the statute calls for excess revenue to be distributed on a proportional basis, meaning taxpayers with a higher income tax liability last year will receive a larger boost.

It’s also murky whether the relief would take the form of credits applied to next year’s tax returns, direct rebates, or something else.

Baker said in mid-August that he expects “people will be receiving their refund sometime between the end of November and the beginning of December,” a timeline that would take place before he leaves office and does not line up with a personal income tax liability credit.

In Rodrigues’s view, the voter-approved law is “pretty clear that money is going to go out in the form of tax credits against next year’s liability.”

Bump said Thursday that a return to taxpayers of $2.94 billion “in the form of a credit must be effectuated by the commissioner of DOR.”

But Citizens for Limited Taxation Executive Director Chip Ford, who helped secure passage of the law via a 1986 ballot question, said last month that the measure’s authors did not intend for the word “credit” to mean only a credit against future tax liability.

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