Salem News: Baker's Tax Plan Opposed

Baker's tax plan opposed
Group's survey targets climate change initiatives
By Christian M. Wade Statehouse Reporter Feb 6, 2019 Updated Feb 6, 2019

BOSTON – A majority of Massachusetts voters oppose Gov. Charlie Baker's proposal to hike real estate taxes, a linchpin of his plan to drum up more money for climate change-related initiatives, according to a new poll from a conservative group that is seeking to kill the proposal.

The survey by the Fiscal Alliance Foundation, an offshoot of the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, found more than 70 percent want Baker to "hold the line on new taxes" when asked if they think the "Republican governor should be proposing new and higher taxes" without referencing his plans to spend the money on climate change.

The poll specifically surveyed voters in key legislative districts including those of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop; Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland; Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester; and House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading. The results showed strong opposition to the plan on legislative leaders' home turf.

The poll asked respondents if they "would have a more or less favorable opinion" of their legislators "if they supported a 50 percent increase to the real estate excise tax, which would drive up the cost of housing by $1 billion over the next 10 years."

"The hard working residents of the commonwealth have always been very generous with their tax dollars, but on an issue as fundamental as putting a roof over the heads of their family, they clearly have no patience for this modern-day gabelle," Paul Craney, a spokesman for the group, referencing the unpopular tax on salt in Medieval France.

Baker’s proposal would increase the deeds excise rate, which is paid when a property is sold, from $2 per $500 of value to $3.

That's expected to raise an estimated $137 million a year, which Baker wants to deposit into a fund called the Global Warming Solutions Trust Fund.

Baker has said the money from the proposed excise tax increase, which requires legislative approval, would help cities and towns cover the cost of upgrades to "storm water systems, dams and flood controls, drainage and culvert improvements, drought mitigation strategies and nature-based solutions and adaptation strategies."

The money would also help state and local agencies protect assets including infrastructure, critical care facilities, water resources, and other key infrastructure, Baker said.

"This is an excise tax that’s basically about property and the proposal we’re making here is to protect property," he told reporters recently. "We think, in the long run, the cost benefit on this one is a good deal for Massachusetts residents."

To be sure, the pollsters didn't mention what the funds would be used for. They only asked if respondents supported increasing the state's real estate transfer tax by "50 percent."

And the pollsters surveyed about 1,000 registered voters spread out across four legislative districts -- only getting a few hundred responses from each district.

But poll represents an early shot across the bow from opponents in what promises to be a bruising fight on Beacon Hill over the governor's climate change plan.

Relators and home builders oppose the plan, saying the proposed tax increase would drive up housing costs, which are already among the highest in the nation.

"We live in a high-cost state with record-low housing inventory with prices near record highs," said Eric Berman, spokesman for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. "All this is going to do is make homes more expensive. Sellers are either going to have to raise the price of their home to cover the tax or lose equity on their property."

Environmental groups have praised the proposal, meanwhile, and want Baker to brush aside such criticism and push it through the Legislature this year.

"We were expecting Realtors and home builders, who are doing pretty good in this economy, to push back against his plan," said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. "But we think the state is financially stable enough to absorb this, and the need for climate change adaptation at the local level is critical."

Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, called the poll "misleading" and said it detracts from real public concerns about climate change.

"We have 1,500 miles of coastline facing rising seas. Most of our 351 cities and towns have old stormwater infrastructure ill-equipped to handle increasing rainfall intensity," she said. "In poll after poll, the large majority of residents across the state report that climate and environment are priorities."

On Wednesday, Baker was in Washington D.C. testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee on the state's response to climate change.

He touted bipartisan efforts to address the threats of rising sea levels, devastating storms, coastal erosion and other negative impacts of a warming planet.

"The magnitude of the impacts from climate change requires all of us – at the federal, state and local levels - to put politics aside and work together," Baker told congressional panel, according to a transcript provided by his press office. "That is the path we have taken in Massachusetts."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected].

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