Current Estate Tax Proposals Would Give Largest Benefits to Wealthiest Estates; Alternative Method Would Fix This Problem
The tax on inherited estates is Massachusetts’ only tax that directly reduces wealth inequality. Although the pandemic has highlighted disparities between rich and poor families, the Governor and some in the Legislature have proposed changes to the estate tax that would largely benefit the state’s wealthiest households.
Sometimes a “surplus” is not really a surplus at all, and the term “tax surplus” can be particularly misleading. A tax surplus occurs when tax collections come in higher than the amount expected when the state created its budget at the beginning of the fiscal year. When that initial estimate turns out to be too low, there is a “surplus.” It does not mean that the state budget has already met the needs of the moment or that there is extra unneeded revenue.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center was asked to outline options for changes to the estate tax that would preserve revenue, maintain progressivity, and also cut taxes on or exempt estates with a taxable value up to around $1.2 million. Since households subject to the estate tax are among the state’s wealthiest taxpayers, any reductions to revenue from the estate tax represent a transfer of wealth from the Commonwealth to its wealthiest families. Even so, some options are better than others.
The federal government has enacted very large tax cuts targeted mostly at higher-income taxpayers. The resulting loss of an almost $1.5 trillion in federal revenue is likely to lead to cuts in federal support for programs that are important to people in Massachusetts and to the state budget. Amid these deep tax cuts, a new federal limit on the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT) has received a lot of attention. Households that itemize deductions and pay over $10,000 in combined state and local taxes will no longer be able to deduct more than this amount when calculating their taxable income for federal taxes.
The Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 budget year could be the most eventful in decades, with major changes in federal policy looming and ballot questions that could reshape state tax policy likely to appear on the November ballot. This year’s budget will be written in a climate of uncertainty, and against a backdrop of ongoing fiscal challenges.
Almost 20 years ago, a penny of the sales tax was dedicated to the MBTA to be a steadily growing source of revenue for the transit system. But despite some help from the Legislature, the sales tax transfer has grown slower than the economy, creating a persistent gap between the projected funds and actual sales tax transfers. Sales taxes have underperformed for the MBTA as a result of a shift to services, some transactions moving online, and exclusion of fast-growing meals tax revenues from the MBTA. An appendix explains the formula for determining the MBTA sales tax transfer and how other sales taxes are allocated.