Lots of bills land on Baker’s desk
What the Legislature did – and didn’t - do in late-night session
IN THE EARLY HOURS of Wednesday morning, the Massachusetts Legislature wrapped up its two-year session with a flurry of last-minute lawmaking that didn’t end until 4:41 a.m.
Major compromise bills on transportation and economic development emerged from conference committees after midnight and were swiftly passed. The transportation bill included new state fees on rides provided by ride-hailing apps. Some bills that had been stalled for months were also passed, while others were left on the drawing room floor.
Here’s a look at what got passed last night – and a few things that didn’t. Gov. Charlie Baker has 10 days to act on the bills that are on his desk. He can sign or veto them, but cannot return them to the Legislature with an amendment because the Legislature that sent him the bills is no longer in session. If he does not act within 10 days, it will be considered a pocket veto, and the bill will not become law. On appropriation or bond bills – like the transportation bond bill or the economic development bill – Baker has authority to make line-item vetoes.
Student loan bill of rights
After three years of advocacy by Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, the Legislature passed a “student loan bill of rights” as part of a larger economic development bill.
The bill will require the state banking commissioner to license and oversee student loan servicers, which are companies that collect student loans from borrowers. Student loan servicers would have to pay a fee to get a license, and the license could be revoked for improper behavior, such as fraud or deceptive conduct.
A new state ombudsman position would be created to resolve borrower complaints and help borrowers access repayment plans and apply for loan forgiveness programs.
Lawmakers in several states have considered similar legislation since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded some Obama-era protections for student loan borrowers. But industry groups representing loan servicers have argued that any regulations should be imposed at a federal, not a state, level since the federal government oversees the student loan system.
The economic development bill also included a version of a bill originally proposed by Baker to lower the voting threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority for certain housing-related zoning changes.
The bill also establishes a local option, in which municipalities can decide to give tenants in a residential building the first right to purchase the property before its sale or foreclosure.
MBTA service interruptions
After Baker returned to the Legislature a budget provision that would have required the use of federal funds to restore MBTA service cuts, lawmakers passed a compromise version of Baker’s amendment. Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said on the Senate floor that the latest version requires the deployment of any additional funding to restore services, reopen stations, and restart delayed capital projects, as long as it is justified by increased ridership and revenue. The amendment also requires virtual public hearings and 30 days’ notice to the Legislature before any suspensions or closures.
Reexamining the state seal
The Legislature agreed to create a commission to make recommendations regarding revisions to the state seal and state motto, which Native American communities have criticized as racist. The seal shows a hand holding a sword over the head of a Native American with the motto, “By the sword we seek peace.”
Racial inequities in maternal health
The Legislature also agreed to establish a commission to examine racial disparities in maternal health. Women of color die at a higher rate due to pregnancy-related illness, and the commission will make recommendations on how to improve access to pregnancy and childbirth-related health care for women of color.
Lead sponsor Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, said black people giving birth in Massachusetts are twice as likely as white people to die due to complications during and after childbirth. “We cannot allow that to stand, nor can we tackle a problem without understanding the full extent of its impact,” Rausch said in a statement.
Modernizing credit union rules
The Legislature passed a bill modernizing the laws governing banks and credit unions. When the bill passed the Senate in July, Rodrigues said the rules governing state-chartered credit unions have not been modernized in 30 years, and the bill updates those laws to conform with the modern financial landscape.
Leaders of banks and credit unions had been sparring over versions of the new rules. The bill includes myriad technical changes, including ensuring fees are consistent, making it easier for financial institutions to conduct transactions like acquisitions, giving more flexibility to boards of directors and imposing new criteria on who can be a board member, allowing more transactions to occur electronically, and repealing some geographic restrictions on mortgage loans.
Lawmakers passed a bill requiring hospitals to ensure proper signage and lighting so patients can safely find the emergency room. The bill was nicknamed “Laura’s Law” after a woman who died of a severe asthma attack trying to get inside a hospital emergency room.
Campus sexual assault
The Legislature sent the governor a bill aimed at giving students on college campuses more rights and resources in dealing with sexual assault. The bill would require campuses to provide free access to sexual assault crisis services and to have to have a confidential “resource provider.” It requires colleges to publicly post sexual misconduct policies; develop memorandums of understanding with local police departments; conduct regular surveys on campus sexual misconduct; train students and staff on sexual assault prevention; and create a mechanism for anonymous incident reporting.
The Legislature sent Baker a bill that would require an entity that discharges pollutants into a public body of water to notify the public. The Eagle-Tribune reported that this was a priority of Merrimack Valley lawmakers who worried about the amount of sewage that sewer systems discharge into the Merrimack River during prolonged periods of rain.
The economic development bill would exempt natural hair braiding from broader licensing rules governing hairdressing and other cosmetology professions. Lesser said on the Senate floor that the cosmetology license is expensive and unnecessary for hair braiders, and often shuts out poor immigrant and African American women from working in the field.
Restaurant delivery fees
The economic development bill would cap the fees that delivery apps like GrubHub or Uber Eats can charge restaurants to 15 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. This responds to complaints from restaurant owners who said they are losing money on delivery orders due to the 25 to 30 percent commissions delivery services take.
The bill also provides $20 million in grants to help restaurants impacted by COVID-19.
Studying local journalism
The economic development bill would create a commission of journalists, academics, and elected officials to research and propose policy solutions related to the decline of local journalism in Massachusetts and the industry’s future sustainability.
Payroll protection program
The economic development bill authorizes $30 million for a small business loan program to assist companies hurt by COVID-19. The money could be used to pay rent, payroll or other business expenses.
Unemployment insurance rates
Despite the urging of businesses, lawmakers failed to pass a bill introduced by Baker that would lower the expected 60 percent increase in unemployment insurance costs that businesses will have to pay this year. The unemployment insurance trust fund was drained last year due to pandemic-related layoffs and furloughs. Baker wants to borrow money to keep the fund solvent so employers do not have to repay the fund fully over the next couple of years.
The taxes, however, are not due until the end of March so the Legislature could still take action in the new legislative session.
Sports bettingDespite support by Baker and the House, legalization of sports betting did not make it into law.
Although the House included sports betting in its version of an economic development bill, senators did not, and Senate negotiators would not include it in the final bill.