Education secretary's view on tax hike draws jeers, cheers
BOSTON — While Education Secretary James Peyser's firm rejection of a proposal that would generate $1.9 billion for Massachusetts transportation and education evoked a strong response from proponents and opponents of the measure, Gov. Charlie Baker appears comfortable taking a wait-and-see approach on the issue.
After an education event at the Omni-Parker House on Thursday, Peyser outlined his opposition to the notion that higher taxes are necessary to improve education and said the proposed constitutional amendment could "weaken our economy" and "damage our ability as a Commonwealth to support the schools and the other services we desperately need."
Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, subsequently blasted Peyser for allegedly not understanding the needs of schools in the state.
In a statement released by Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition that is leading the amendment effort, Gosnell said, "It's not surprising that the former executive director of the Pioneer Institute opposes a tax on millionaires, but it's incredibly disappointing that the state's top education official doesn't acknowledge our Commonwealth's urgent need for a new revenue to invest in education."
"It's shocking that Secretary Peyser is more concerned about keeping taxes low for millionaires than he is about providing our schools with the resources they need to give all students an excellent education," said Madeloni.
The proposed constitutional amendment (H 3933) would establish a 4 percent surtax on income in excess of $1 million, raising the tax rate for those earnings to about 9 percent.
A conservative group that promotes tax-limiting fiscal practices embraced Peyser's comments and called them "refreshing."
"Finally an education secretary is giving us an education in economics," said Paul Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. "It's kind of refreshing to see people in the administration that understand the economy, that if you tax people in the state that those people are going to leave the state. He said it perfectly."
According to a report issued in October 2015 by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a group led by Democratic lawmakers and on which Madeloni served, the state education budget underestimated the cost of educating students by at least $1 billion per year.
The commission concluded that high costs for employee health insurance and special education have reduced the resources school districts can invest in other areas, including extended learning time, books, technology, arts, and counseling.
The Baker administration announced Friday it will increase Chapter 70 education aid by 1.6 percent, or $72.1 million, in the fiscal 2017 budget the governor plans to unveil on Wednesday. That boost falls short of Baker's pledge to increase local aid, including education and unrestricted aid, at the rate of revenue growth, which is 4.3 percent.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment are confident that they can secure the 50 votes needed this session and in the 2017-2018 session to place their proposal on the statewide ballot in 2018.
Asked Friday if he stood with his cabinet official's position on the measure, Baker said he wants to see how the issue plays out.
"First of all the ballot question stuff has a long way to go," the governor said. "We haven't even had the first constitutional convention, much less the second one, much less the trip to the ballot. We've talked a lot about living within our means as an administration and not raising taxes and fees on Massachusetts taxpayers and depending upon what happens with this, we may or may not be having a conversation about it in a couple years. But we'll wait until then."
The Legislature's Revenue Committee held a public hearing on the constitutional amendment and is reviewing it. The next Constitutional Convention is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 3. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who has supported a graduated income tax structure over the years, presides during the convention.
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