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Robert Bliss, Director of Communication, Department of Revenue

Chances are you thought Jacoby Ellsbury was a pretty good center fielder, based if nothing else on the highlight reel footage of his acrobatic catches in Fenway Park. But then the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)came along and, all of a sudden, young Mr. Ellsbury was shown to be a defensive liability, and not long after that, the Red Sox signed on a new center fielder and moved Ellsbury to left field.

Ah, statistics. They are powerful in their ability to daze, confuse and upend. Two recent news stories on the competitiveness of the Massachusetts business climate written within a day of each and heavily reliant on statistics will definitely prompt a dazed which-end-is-up feeling.

Today's Boston Herald has a story that leads with a Boston Chamber of Commerce survey proclaiming that the corporate tax burden in Massachusetts is high. But in Worcester, the Telegram & Gazette has a story that says the level of business taxation in Massachusetts is significantly lower than in most states.

The chamber survey takes data from the Council on State Taxation (COST) that measures states by corporate income tax collection as a percentage of gross state product, and finds Massachusetts has the eighth highest corporate tax burden of the 50 states. (The chamber also notes that Massachusetts ranked 4th worst on the Tax Foundation's corporate tax index, but doesn't note that this survey takes points off for states that make their tax code more complicated with credits, deductions and exemptions, some of the very things that benefit some businesses in Massachusetts. And this is the very same Tax Foundation that rates Massachusetts overall tax burden as right in the middle of the pack  of the pack.)

The Telegram, meanwhile cites a study by Ernst & Young that ranks Massachusetts 43rd for its overall business tax level in FY09. The Ernst & Young study was done by, get ready, the Council on State Taxation (COST), described as a Washington D.C.-based business trade association that represents more than 600 multi-state and multinational corporations. So data from COST is showing up in both arguments. Hhmm.

In a briefing paper analyzing the dueling studies, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center notes that "Though overall business taxes in Massachusetts are significantly lower than the national average, Massachusetts receives an unusually large share of the tax revenue it does collect from businesses from the taxation of corporate income. Offsetting the relatively high corporate income tax levels, businesses in Massachusetts pay substantially less in sales taxes and excise and gross receipts taxes than do businesses in many other states."

In fact, the COST study ranking Massachusetts 43rd in business tax burden (with No. 1, Alaska, being the highest) also noted that the business tax burden in Massachusetts is 85 percent of the national average.

In other words, you can pluck out individual data sets to fit an argument but in so doing you may distort the larger picture.

Let's throw one more study into the mix, this from the Beacon Hill Institute ranking Massachusetts as first in the nation in economic competitiveness. Okay, who's on first now?

Finally, let's not forget that the corporate tax rate in Massachusetts went down on January 1 from 9.5 percent to 8.75 percent, on its way down to 8 percent by Jan. 1, 2012. That is just a fact, which as John Adams once said, is a stubborn thing.

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