Massachusetts punishes NBA champs by taking extra half million in taxes

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Congratulations to the Boston Celtics, the 2024 NBA champions! Sixteen years to the date of their last championship, the Celtics became the winningest basketball franchise in history. Now the players can spend the offseason celebrating—and paying their taxes.

Aside from the players and Celtics staff, probably no one is celebrating the title more than the Massachusetts state government, which is taking a large cut of the players’ bonuses.

Having won the franchise’s record-breaking 18th championship, each Celtics player will earn a reported $804,000 in bonuses. Fourteen Celtics players already earned more than $1 million in salary this year. With the bonus, at least two others will break the $1 million threshold and therefore be subject to Massachusetts’ new millionaires tax.

Massachusetts’ income tax is a flat 5%. But for annual incomes of $1 million or more, the state takes an additional 4%. The $804,000 championship bonus, like the salary of any player earning at least $1 million, will be subject to this 9% income tax rate rather than the 5% rate that applies to everyone with incomes of less than $1 million.

At a total tax hit of 9%, the 16 Celtics players earning at least $1 million this past season will have to forfeit $72,360 each to the Commonwealth in taxes on their bonus alone.

Without the 4% millionaires tax, each Celtics player would pay the regular state income tax rate of 5% on his championship bonus, or $40,200.

The millionaires tax thus confiscates an additional $32,160 from each qualifying player’s bonus. At 16 qualifying players, that comes to a $514,560 bonus for the state.

The difference is that the players earned their bonuses.

You might think that millionaire NBA players aren’t sympathetic figures, so who cares? But their case illustrates how the millionaires tax works to confiscate earned wealth while offering no additional services to those whose wealth was taken.

Some Celtics players earn tens of millions of dollars a year, but most don’t. The lowest-paid players might enjoy an income of more than $1 million for just this year, or for a few years. They’ll have to continue making a living outside the NBA for many decades. Being able to invest an additional $32,160 this year could make a big difference in their lives.

The same considerations apply to regular Massachusetts residents who might experience one or two exceptionally good years financially. The state confiscates an additional 4% of their income too.

New Hampshire doesn’t have an NBA team, of course, so we can’t lure Celtics players away. They’ll pay Massachusetts taxes for the work they do in Boston, even if they live here. But most other Bay Staters, particularly entrepreneurs and investors, can relocate for work more easily than professional athletes can. And many already have, including Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, who warned after he relocated to Florida (not because of the tax), that the high rate posed a threat to the state’s long-term economic health.

“If we become ‘Taxachusetts’ again…the main effect will be not about a basketball player, it will be about business formation,” Pagliuca told Boston Business Journal last year. “It’s going to make it tougher to attract businesses in Massachusetts.”

The Celtics players’ tax hit illustrates the tangible difference between living and working in a low-tax, low-spending state versus one with high taxes, a billion-dollar budget deficit and not much to show for it.

WBUR on Monday labeled the millionaires tax a success because its $1.8 million in new revenue was dedicated in part to education, transportation and “free public school meals for every child in the state.”

But simply generating more revenue for government to spend doesn’t equal success. The MBTA is a money pit, and providing school meals at no charge for middle- and upper-class families who can feed their own kids is a curious use of public tax dollars for a state with a poverty rate more than three percentage points higher than New Hampshire’s.

Massachusetts taxpayers don’t get a better return for all the state’s spending. They just get more spending and higher tax rates.

In terms of taxpayer return on investment (ROI), New Hampshire taxpayers are the champions. Granite Staters receive the biggest bang for their buck, finishing first in WalletHub’s 2024 ROI rankings. And the dichotomy with our neighbor to the south couldn’t be clearer. Massachusetts came in at a distant 41st in taxpayer ROI.

Too often, people assume that high taxes equal high state revenues and therefore better public services. But higher spending doesn’t equal better services. As New Hampshire’s example shows, constraints on spending force policymakers to spend more frugally, which keeps the tax burden low and government more efficient.

Though the millionaires tax has brought in additional revenue for Massachusetts, it has not caused wiser or more careful spending. Just the opposite is true. And the long-term economic impact remains unseen. Given the well-reported exodus of wealthy taxpayers, Pagliuca’s warning still holds.

Unlike NBA players, higher-income Americans can live and work just about anywhere thanks in part to remote work options. Yet even NBA players can be motivated by lower state tax rates. Former Celtics star Grant Williams said last year that he accepted a trade to Dallas partly because of the Massachusetts millionaires tax.

If the tax can drive NBA players out of state, imagine its effect on people who aspire to become millionaires and who have the ability to live and work anywhere they want, not just in a city with an NBA team.

As Celtics fans celebrate the team’s 18th championship, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is celebrating an additional half-million dollars in revenue. But that revenue comes from punishing most of the players by confiscating an additional 4% of their winnings. A state that treats its own sports heroes that way signals that it’s not a welcoming place for anyone who aspires to create wealth.

Bay Staters have already gotten that message. Massachusetts is among 24 states that experienced a net loss of income tax filers from 2020–2021. It ranked 45th in net migration, while New Hampshire ranked 11th.

The millionaires tax might be generating a lot of revenue now. But Celtics fans should hope that more players don’t get wise to the tax implications that come from working in Boston versus Dallas or Miami.