BOSTON — A conservative group is taking aim at Democratic lawmakers with a series of blistering ads that criticize their support for a "millionaires' tax" on the state's top earners.
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a tax-exempt watchdog group founded by Republican businessman Rick Green of Pepperell, is targeting Democrats up for re-election to the state House of Representatives and Senate next year, including Reps. Ted Speliotis of Danvers, Tram Nguyen of Andover, and Linda Campbell of Methuen.
At issue is support among Democrats for a constitutional amendment that would add a surtax of 4% on an individual’s annual taxable income above $1 million. The measure was approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in June, the first of two procedural votes required to put the question to voters on the 2022 ballot.
MassFiscal, which opposes the tax, has sponsored a barrage of negative mailers and Facebook ads over the past week going after Democrats who voted to advance the question.
"While they claim they only target high-income earners, once our protections are gone they are gone forever," the glossy, two-sided Halloween-themed mailer reads. "The floodgates open for tax increases for all income brackets."
Speliotis, who is seeking re-election next year from a district that includes Danvers and part of West Peabody, accused the group of distorting the issue.
"It's deceptive," he said. "They're basically claiming that we're going to raise everyone's income taxes by 80%, which is not correct."
Speliotis said he stands behind his vote to put the question on the ballot, and he personally supports the proposed surtax.
"If we had a fairer tax structure I would not have voted in favor of it," he said. "I would prefer everyone be on the same playing field, but we know that people who make a lot of money always find a way not to pay their fair share of taxes."
Backers of the so-called millionaire tax say it would generate up to $2 billion in much-needed revenue to invest in education and transportation.
Opponents, including Republicans and several business trade groups, argue that it could put a drag on the state’s booming economy. They say it would amount to lifting a prohibition in the state Constitution on a graduated income tax, even though voters have rejected five similar proposals.
The millionaires tax was set to appear on the November 2018 ballot until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional.
The latest version of the tax would take a different path to the ballot, which supporters say passes legal muster.
MassFiscal is registered as a nonprofit, operating under a classification that allows it to raise and spend money on "voter education" but prohibits it from advocating for any candidate. Under federal law, the group doesn't have to disclose the sources of its funding.
For several years, the group has hammered away at Democrats for supporting increased spending and taxes, and approving pay raises for themselves.
MassFiscal maintains a "scorecard" that rates how certain lawmakers vote on budgetary items. Democrats usually get the worst rankings.
In turn, Democrats accuse the fiscal group of flouting its tax-exempt status and state campaign finance laws by operating like a political action committee.
A 2016 campaign finance law requires nonprofits to list their top five donors and make other disclosures in any political advertising that goes out within 90 days of an election.
But MassFiscal, which is challenging those rules in court, appears to have found a loophole in the new disclosure rules by sending the attack ads outside the 90 day period.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.