Baker signs $626 million economic development bill
New law includes long-sought zoning reform
Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday signed a $626 million economic development bond bill, which will provide money for a variety of COVID-19 relief funds as well as other state projects.
“This legislation will drive economic growth and improve housing stability, neighborhood stabilization and transit–oriented development,” Baker said in a statement. Baker said the bill “will go far to support the Commonwealth’s small businesses, workers, and communities as we recover from the impacts of COVID-19.”
The core of the bill is its spending authorizations, which fund both normal capital projects and COVID-19-related spending. There are large sums dedicated to broadband internet, site development for construction projects, manufacturing-related partnerships, and scientific research and development. The bill also includes COVID-19-related grants to restaurants, small businesses, and cultural facilities.
Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who was the Senate’s lead negotiator on the bill, said in a recent interview that much of the spending requires state agencies to consider equity –– social, racial, and geographic –– in awarding grants. “The totality of the package is really about rebuilding and recovering from the COVID-19 recession in a more sustainable and equitable way,” Lesser said.
Baker, in a letter to lawmakers that accompanied his actions on the bill, stressed the funding for neighborhood stabilization, transit-oriented development, and revitalization of blighted properties, as well as money for microbusinesses and grants to help women– and minority-owned businesses.
Baker did note, however, that the spending bill is the first step in authorizing money, and the bill is larger than what the state had budgeted for economic development. The final decision about how much money to actually appropriate will be up to the Baker administration – so it is possible that not all the projects laid out in the bill will ultimately be funded.
In addition to the spending provisions, the bill included several policy proposals, the most significant of which was Baker’s Housing Choice initiative. The bill would lower the voting threshold for municipal government from two-thirds to a simple majority for certain zoning changes that the state wants to incentivize. The goal is to lessen the state’s housing crunch by making it easier to build more housing, and particularly more dense developments in appropriate places. Baker has frequently warned that the high price of housing will drive more people out of state if it is not addressed, since workers will not be able to afford to live here.
The bill would have pushed the implementation date off by 90 days, but Baker vetoed that section. “Housing Choice is the first significant zoning reform in decades,” Baker said. “Cities and towns should be able to take advantage of the revised voting thresholds immediately.”
While the Massachusetts Municipal Association expressed concern that this would override local control, Lesser said it is only fair that communities that benefit from the MBTA give back by providing much-needed housing. “Communities benefit greatly from the connectivity the T offers,” Lesser said. “It anchors and increases their property values significantly. In return for that, they need to do their part in allowing some denser development where appropriate.”
However, Baker vetoed several other housing-related provisions that were meant to benefit renters or low-income individuals. The bill would have modified a tax credit program for housing developers in Gateway Cities to add a requirement that they construct affordable housing. Baker vetoed the change saying it “will make these projects more difficult to finance and add a layer of complexity that is not consistent with the program’s goals.”
The bill would have created a local option in which municipalities would give tenants the first option to buy a multi-family building that is sold. Baker said in his letter that this would significantly delay the sale of multi-family homes in Massachusetts “and potentially chill the production of new housing when we desperately need to produce more.”
Baker also vetoed a provision to seal records in eviction cases. Baker said he recognizes that keeping eviction files public makes it harder for tenants to find new housing. But he said the provision would have allowed for the sealing of not only no-fault eviction cases, but also cases where a tenant endangers others or engages in criminal activity. “Keeping this kind of information sealed is unfair to landlords and creates unnecessary risks for other tenants,” Baker wrote.
Baker vetoed a new tax credit for job creation in rural areas. He said the program, as written, was more likely to benefit corporate investors than rural communities and did not tailor the tax credits narrowly enough to the rural communities that most need them.
He vetoed a commission to look at public contracting opportunities for minority– and women-owned businesses, arguing that it is unnecessary in light of a separate bill Baker is filing on the topic.
Baker did sign a provision that would let hoteliers and municipalities create Tourism Destination Marketing Districts, where hotels in the district would charge guests a fee and use the money to market the region.
Baker signed into law a 15 percent cap on the fees that food delivery apps like GrubHub and Uber Eats can charge restaurants during the COVID-19 emergency.
He signed a provision that will create the state’s first licensing system for student loan servicers, along with a state ombudsman to address complaints involving student loans.He also approved the creation of a commission of experts to study the sustainability of local journalism.