BOSTON -- As a proposed tax on top earners inches toward the 2022 ballot, some lawmakers want to build a dam to hold back future increases.

A bipartisan plan before the Legislature's Revenue Committee would ask voters to amend the state Constitution by capping the personal income tax rate at 6.25% to prevent the levy from rising above that level. The flat tax rate went down to 5% in January 2019.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, the bill's primary sponsor, said a separate proposal to amend the Constitution to place a 4% surcharge on individuals making more than $1 million per year creates the need for safeguards to prevent the personal income tax rate from rising.

"If we are going to go to that point, and put a tax rate into the Constitution, then we should also have a limit on how high it can be increased," he said.

To put the question before voters, Tarr's plan must be approved by at least 50% of the House and Senate, meeting together in two consecutive constitutional conventions. The earliest it could appear on the ballot would be 2022.

While there are currently no plans on Beacon Hill to increase the income tax rate, legislative leaders have been under pressure from progressive groups to come up with new sources of revenue to offset the financial blow from the pandemic.

Last year, a group of 90 economists wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker and other top elected officials to make the case for raising the state's income tax rate by one percentage point, which they said will drum up more than $2.5 billion a year.

"These tax rates could be phased back as the economy returns to its pre-recession level," the left-learning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center wrote.

Tarr has filed a bill every legislative session to lower the income tax rate, but his proposals have been stymied in a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

This is the first time he has proposed putting the question to voters. And he has picked up bipartisan support, with Sen. Joanne Commerford, D-Northampton, signing onto the bill.

Lawmakers who oppose dropping the rate argue that the state would take a major hit with less money for schools, transportation and other needs.

Income tax collections represent more than 58% of the revenue used to keep state government running.

Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question in 2000 to cut the personal income tax rate to 5%. At the time the rate was 5.85%.

Two years after its passage, however, the Legislature outraged supporters of the rollback by freezing the personal income tax at 5.3% to plug budget shortfalls.

Lawmakers approved a process to reduce the tax rate if growth in the state’s annual revenue met certain benchmarks. But it took nearly two decades for the rate to come down to 5%, which happened in January 2019.

Tarr's proposal faces long odds on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers are on the hunt for tax revenue to offset revenue losses caused by the pandemic.

Chip Ford, of the group Citizens for Limited Taxation, which advocated for the 2000 tax cut, said he's doubtful the Democratic-controlled Legislature will act on it.

"He's one of only three Republicans in the Senate," Ford said. "It's a great idea, but I don't see this thing going anywhere."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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