Governor Deval Patrick's Budget Recommendation - House 1 Fiscal Year 2014

Personal Income Tax Description


Although income from professions, trades or employment was taxed throughout the nineteenth century under the local property tax, it was not until 1916, under the authority of Article 44 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, that the Massachusetts personal income tax was enacted as a separate tax.  Because Article 44 requires that all income of the same class be taxed at the same rate, Massachusetts applies a flat tax rate regardless of total income; the federal tax structure (and that used in most states) uses graduated rates. 

Generally, the Massachusetts personal income tax ties into the federal Internal Revenue Code as it was on January 1, 2005.  To the extent that the Massachusetts tax takes federal law as its starting point, it adopts many federal tax expenditures (see Appendix A for more details). 

The personal income tax is the state's largest revenue source, accounting for 56.7% of Department of Revenue tax collections in Fiscal Year 2012.

Personal Income Tax:  Basic Structure

Tax Base: The personal income tax base is gross income minus the costs of producing the gross income (trade or business expenses).  Massachusetts gross income is defined as federal gross income with certain modifications.  Effective January 1, 1996 it was divided into three classes: interest, dividends, and short-term capital gains ("Part A" income); long-term term capital gains (“Part C” income); and all other income ("Part B" income).  Massachusetts taxpayers are entitled to a basic personal exemption, which varies according to taxpayer status.  The exempted amounts are considered to be outside the generally accepted tax base.  They reflect the notion that income needed for bare subsistence should be free from tax.  Thus, for the purposes of this document, these exemptions are not listed as tax expenditures.  In addition, taxpayers whose income is below a specified level are entitled to "no tax status." For the same reason, this status is not listed as a tax expenditure.  On the other hand, because policy makers are often interested in the effects of adjusting the dollar amounts for the personal exemptions and the no tax status, estimates are provided for them in endnote 3 to item 1.405 in the list of personal income tax expenditures.

Taxable Unit: Individuals are taxed separately, with the exception of married couples, who may file a joint return.  The income of children is not aggregated with that of their parents.  The income of trusts, estates and unincorporated associations, is also subject to the personal income tax.

Rate Structure: The rate structure has been evolving to a system where most income is taxed at the Part B rate.  As of tax year 2012, the Part B rate is 5.25%.  Currently, only short-term capital gains and long-term capital gains on collectibles are taxed at a different rate.  The vast majority of income is linked to the Part B rate. 

Prior to tax year 1999, the tax rate on interest and dividend income (one component of Part A income) was 12% compared with the Part B "earned" taxable income rate of 5.95%.  Effective January 1, 2000, the rate on both Part B and the linked Part A income (Interest and Dividends) dropped to 5.85%, then to 5.60% on January 1, 2001, and to 5.30% on January 1, 2002.  The rate was scheduled to decline to 5.00% on January 1, 2003; however, Chapter 186 of the Acts of 2002 (“An Act Enhancing State Revenues”) delayed the final phase of the rate reduction.  The estimates contained in this document assume that the tax rates on interest and dividend income and Part B income, which declined to 5.25% for tax year 2012, will remain at 5.25% for 2013.  All other things being equal, a reduction in tax rates -- (which are part of the basic tax structure -- has the effect of reducing the value of tax expenditures, because when tax rates decline, so does the value of any exceptions to that basic structure.

Between January 1, 1996 and January 1, 2003, Part C income, long-term capital gains, was subject to the following tax rates based on how long the assets were held:

Holding Period Tax Rate
more than one, but less than two years. 5%
more than two, but less than three years 4%
more than three, but less than four years 3%
more than four, but less than five years 2%
more than five, but less than six years 1%
more than six years 0%

Assets acquired prior to January 1, 1996 were deemed to have been acquired on the later of January 1, 1995 or the actual date of acquisition.  Note that capital assets held less than one year are considered Part A income, and are taxed at 12%. 

Chapter 186 of the Acts of 2002 eliminated the “sliding scale” treatment of capital gains on assets held for more than one year.  This was originally effective May 1, 2002; subsequent legislation changed the effective date of the tax change to apply to assets sold on or after January 1, 2003.  Gains on such transactions are now taxed at the Part B rate; as noted above, the Part B rate is assumed to be 5.25% for tax years forecasted by this tax expenditure budget.

Taxable Period: The taxable period is one year (or less), usually the calendar year.  Income may be reported according to the cash or accrual method.  Where property is sold on a deferred payment basis, gains may be reported in the years the payments are received.  There is no Massachusetts provision for income averaging.  Net capital losses may be carried forward to future years. Ordinary losses may not be carried forward.

Interstate and International Aspects: Residents are taxed upon their entire income, whether derived from Massachusetts sources or elsewhere, without allocation or apportionment.  Nonresidents are taxed only on income from sources within Massachusetts.  A resident may take a limited credit against the Massachusetts income tax for income taxes due to other states, the District of Columbia, any territory or possession of the United States, or Canada or its provinces on any item of Massachusetts gross income.


Computation of the Personal Income Tax

Computation of the Personal Income Tax.  A flow chart with 38 steps.  A track for computing federal tax, and three tracks for computing Massachusetts Part A income tax, Part B, and Part C, resulting in Net Massachusetts Tax.

Types of Tax Expenditures under the Personal Income Tax

The basic structure of the personal income tax can be modified in a number of different ways to produce tax expenditures.  Brief explanations of the various types of tax expenditures follow:

Exclusions from Gross Income: Gross income is the starting point in the calculation of income tax liability and, in the absence of tax expenditures, would include all income received from all sources.  Typically, the taxpayer does not report items of income that are excluded from gross income on his or her tax return. Thus, they escape taxation permanently.

Deferrals of Gross Income: Where an item of income is not included in gross income in the year when it is actually received, but is instead included in a later year, the result is a tax expenditure in the form of an interest-free loan from the state to the taxpayer in the amount of the tax payment that is postponed.

Deductions from Gross Income: Certain amounts are subtracted from gross income to arrive at adjusted gross income (AGI).  Many of these deducted amounts reflect the costs of producing income (business expenses), and are not properly part of the income tax base.  Such deductions are not tax expenditures.  Other deductions that do not reflect business expenses constitute tax expenditures, which permit corresponding amounts of income to escape taxation permanently.

Accelerated Deductions from Gross Income: In a number of cases, taxpayers are allowed to deduct business expenses from gross income at a time earlier than such expenses would ordinarily be recognized under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.  The total amount of the permissible deduction is not increased, but it can be utilized more quickly to reduce taxable income.  The result is to defer taxes, thus in effect occasioning an interest-free loan from the state to the taxpayer.

Deductions from Adjusted Gross Income (AGI): Taxable income results from the subtraction of certain deductions and exemptions from AGI.  Certain of these subtracted items represent amounts of income necessary for subsistence; their exclusion is part of the basic structure of the income tax.  Other subtracted items represent tax expenditures, which permit corresponding amounts of income to escape taxation permanently.

Credits against Tax: After a taxpayer's basic tax liability has been calculated by applying the tax rates to taxable income, the taxpayer may subtract certain credit amounts from this initial liability in determining the actual amount of taxes that must be paid.  It is important to note that, whereas a one-dollar exclusion or deduction results in a tax savings of only a few cents (one dollar times the applicable tax rate), a one-dollar credit results in a one-dollar tax savings.

Note on Personal Exemptions, Dependent Exemptions, No Tax Status, and Limited Income Credit: These exempted amounts are considered to be outside the generally accepted tax base, and thus, for the purposes of this document, these exemptions are not listed as tax expenditures.  However, because policy makers are often interested in the impact of adjusting their dollar amounts, estimates are provided for them in a footnote following the “Credits against Tax” section.

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