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Massachusetts' Potholes, And The Pitfalls Of A Proposed Tax On Millionaires

A proposed tax on incomes over $1 million will fund Massachusetts schools and infrastructure. Unless, of course, it won't. 
 Pictured: Boston Public Works workers Victor Duret, feet only at left, and Tyrone Odom, behind, both of Boston, fill a pothole with asphalt in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood. (Steven Senne/AP)
A proposed tax on incomes over $1 million will fund Massachusetts schools and infrastructure. Unless, of course, it won't. Pictured: Boston Public Works workers Victor Duret, feet only at left, and Tyrone Odom, behind, both of Boston, fill a pothole with asphalt in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood. (Steven Senne/AP)
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As you wait in long airport security lines this summer, think of the poor legislators you’re leaving behind, hard at work on Beacon Hill. One hopes that, as they consider the Millionaire Tax, they’re thinking of you in that interminable line, too.

Supporters seek to soften the blow of House Bill 3993 (known as the Millionaire Tax) by assuring that the funds raised by the additional tax on incomes over $1 million will be used for noble purposes: education and infrastructure.

...there is no way to guarantee that the money raised by the Millionaire Tax will go to education or roads, no matter how noble the intentions.

We’ve heard similar assurances before, and yet, here we are, in line. Which reminds me: Soon after 9/11, Congress established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and levied a fee on all airline tickets to pay for it. Proceeds from the Aviation Passenger Security Fee (then only $2.50 each way) were “to pay for the costs of providing civil aviation security services.”

After 12 years of relatively safe air travel, fears of debt ceilings and shutdowns supplanted those of hijackings and bombings. In the 2013 budget compromise, Congress more than doubled the fee from $2.50 to $5.60 per leg, but allowed money collected by these fees to be redirected to the general fund to pay other bills.

This fee currently brings in $3.5 billion annually. Yet, passengers still contend with long lines to be screened. One airline reported that 70,000 passengers this year were still in line when their flights took off without them.

The TSA isn't blameless. After all, their spending has been questioned in the past. In 2014, they spent $1.4 million for an iPad app that did nothing but direct passengers to the left or right lane. It amounted to all the technical wizardry one might glean from the first lesson of a computer programming class. But there is no question that the steady decrease in funding, from $7.8 billion in 2012 to $7.3 billion in 2015, has meant problems for hiring, training and retaining employees.

This is the example to keep in mind when considering the proposed Millionaire Tax.

Like Congress then, the supporters of this tax have noble goals. The need for new investments in school and infrastructure is as urgent now as the call for heightened security was after 9/11. But just like the Aviation Passenger Security Fee, there is no way to guarantee that the money raised by the Millionaire Tax will go to education or roads, no matter how noble the intentions.

Just as Congress saw fit to reallocate TSA funds to other priorities, the Massachusetts Legislature could do the same thing.

And then there's this key phrase, included in the bill: “subject to appropriation.” It’s what makes this bill constitutional. In Massachusetts, the power to appropriate or spend money rests with the legislature. It cannot be subject to referenda, like the one proposed.

This caveat is also what makes the future of the plan unknowable. You can suggest, beg, or pinky-swear that the money will go where you want, but in the end, it’s nothing more than an unenforceable promise. Just as Congress saw fit to reallocate TSA funds to other priorities, the Massachusetts Legislature could do the same thing. It’s their prerogative, and it's what we elect our representatives to do.

I believe the supporters of H.3993 mean well. But, this summer, as you stand in line for a pat down while your flight to paradise leaves you behindremember that the best laid schemes of mice and men — including legislators — go oft awry.

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Tim Snyder Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tim Snyder is a freelance writer, commentator and essayist based in Boston. His work focuses on current issues in public policy and culture.

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