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Here's A Question, Massachusetts: Do You Voluntarily Pay Higher Taxes?

The 2016 Massachusetts income tax form.
Mass. Department of Revenue
optional tax rate massachusetts

Tax season wraps up Wednesday, with a flurry of e-filing and dashes to the post office. Massachusetts residents who read closely may notice something odd in their paperwork: it's called the optional income tax rate and it's exactly what it sounds like. Instead of 5.2 percent, you can opt to pay the state 5.85 percent.

When you ask Massachusetts residents if they'd like to pay extra on their taxes, you shouldn't expect overwhelming support.

"I probably wouldn't opt for it unless I knew where the money was going." "Absolutely not. No, I would not." "I'm not checking that box."

And few Massachusetts residents have checked that box since the optional tax rate was first offered in 2002. Numbers from the state's Department of Revenue show that in 2013, only 1,083 people chose to pay. That meant about a quarter million dollars for Massachusetts, only a drop in the state's fiscal bucket.

And maybe that's because taxpayers aren't sure why the option is there.

“They don't understand why they're being given that choice,” says Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government. “But they obviously take the lower.”

Anderson's organization helped create the option in 2002. She adds that she wasn't very serious about her proposal.

"We were just being sarcastic," she says. "The next thing we knew, the legislature seemed to find our sarcasm relevant and so they passed the idea we had."

“We were just being sarcastic,” she says. “The next thing we knew, the legislature seemed to find our sarcasm relevant and so they passed the idea we had.”

In 2002, tax politics were serious in Massachusetts. Voters had passed a sharp decrease in the income tax rate, and lawmakers decided to slow that down. In that same year, they also passed the optional tax rate -- a way to contribute just a little more to the state's general fund.

Now, if residents -- either because of nostalgia, confusion or ideology -- want to pick the higher rate, they can.

"I guess it depends on my time and place at the moment," says Nicholas Denson, a student in Springfield. "Right now, I don't have any taxes to pay on, so I wouldn't pay anything for taxes."

But he would if he could, Denson says, and he believes the money would go to helping people who need the help.

“I think it's a good idea,” he says. “We need options sometimes.”

And maybe that's the glory of the optional tax rate. It's an option.

Corrected at 5:59PM: An earlier version of this story misstated Massachusetts income tax rate for 2014 as 5.25 percent.

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