Transportation, economic development bills gain approval
WITH SOME LEGISLATIVE sleight of hand, the House and Senate extended their sessions from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and succeeded in passing most of the major pieces of legislation still pending on Beacon Hill.
A trimmed down transportation bond bill, an economic development bill without sports betting, legislation dealing with college campus sexual violence, and a handful of other measures all made it to the finish line by moving the finish line from Tuesday at midnight, when the legislative session was scheduled to end, to the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
The maneuvering allowed the Legislature to pass all of its major deliverables, completing an unusual extended session in which major pieces of legislation dealing with police reform, health care, and climate change all made it to the governor’s desk. The governor has already signed police reform and has indicated he will sign health care. The other bills passed Wednesday morning will now go to the governor, whose actions cannot be overridden by the Legislature because it went out of existence Wednesday morning. A new Legislature will be sworn in on Wednesday.
The transportation bond bill was pared back from its original size of $18 billion to $16.5 billion, largely because of the House’s insistence that the state lacked the revenues needed to support the larger amount. “Just because they’re borrowing money doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it back,” said Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the lead House negotiator on the conference committee, in a phone interview.
The House passed a revenue package to support transportation pre-COVID in early March, and by the time the Senate got around to the issue in July there was no appetite for raising taxes. Still, a lone revenue measure did make it into the compromise bond bill — the establishment of new, higher fees on rideshares. The current fee is 20 cents a ride. The bill would hike the fee to 40 cents for shared rides, $1.20 for non-shared rides, and an extra $1 on top of that for using luxury vehicles.
The conference committee also tacked on an extra 20 cents per ride for trips that begin and end within 14 communities making up the core of the MBTA system. Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the lead Senate negotiator on the conference committee, said the goal of the “public transit access fee” is to incentivize people who can take the subway to do so but not discourage trips linked to transit, where people use the T to get near their destination and use Uber or Lyft for “the last mile.”
Boncore said the bill authorizes the development of low-income, or means-tested, fares, and directs that proceeds from the 20-cent fee be used to offset the cost of offering the low-income fares. He said the measure also decriminalizes fare evasion.
The bill also includes language pushed by Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland protecting her west-of-Boston constituents from paying higher tolls to finance the I-90 Allston project, an estimated $1 billion initiative that would rebuild and straighten the Turnpike as it runs through Allston, making way for a new neighborhood being developed by Harvard University. Boncore said the bill includes $50 million in mitigation to offset traffic impacts caused by the project.
The transportation bond bill also would require all revenue gained from the Baker administration’s transportation climate initiative to flow into the Commonwealth’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is reserved for transportation spending. A Senate initiative allowing municipalities to band together to pass regional ballot initiatives supporting transportation projects did not make it into the final bill.
Boncore said in a brief speech on the Senate floor at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday that the bill creates a special commission on congestion pricing to explore future tolling options. In a phone interview after the speech, he said the bill was not a silver bullet addressing all of the state’s transportation problems and lawmakers would need to address transportation again in the future, including the need for additional revenues.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, House-Senate negotiators reached a deal on a $627 million economic development bill, which had been in a conference committee since July 30.
The bill is particularly important now given the struggles many businesses and communities are facing due to COVID-19. But House-Senate negotiators – led by Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat – struggled to reach a final deal, only releasing the bill from a conference committee after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, after the House and Senate suspended their rules to let them meet past midnight.
In an interview, Lesser called it a “huge and historic bill” that offers money focused on COVID-19 relief and recovery. He said the bill includes programs to assist restaurants and cultural facilities and money to fund housing, community development, and small businesses, with a focus on racial, economic, and geographic equity.
The economic development bill included a version of a bill originally proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker to lower the voting threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority for certain zoning changes, including changes allowing “in-law” apartments or allowing multi-family homes near public transit.
Baker has been lobbying for the passage of the bill for three years, arguing that the state desperately needs more housing stock in order for people to continue to live and work here. It had support from business, municipal ,and real estate development interests, but drew concerns from some suburban communities as well as from low-income individuals who said the bill did not do enough to help renters or encourage the development of affordable housing.
The bill includes a “bill of rights” for student loan borrowers, which would let the state for the first time regulate student loan servicers. The bill also includes a proposal made by the House to cap the fees and commissions that third-party delivery companies charge restaurants for delivering food during the COVID-19 pandemic. It creates a new tourism marketing program, seals no-fault eviction records, and expands a low-income housing tax credit.
Notably, the bill does not include legalization of sports betting, though it had been included in the House version. Sports betting companies DraftKings and FanDuel, along with powerful interests such as casino company MGM and the Boston Red Sox, had urged lawmakers to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts to raise revenue for the state while replacing the current illegal betting market. But the Senate never took its own vote on sports betting, and Senate leaders appeared reluctant to include it in the economic development bill.
“We’d like to do sports betting, there will be opportunities to do sports betting soon,” Lesser said. “But the focus right now is on COVID support and recovery and getting aid to industries and organizations and families most impacted by the COVID recession.”
In a speech on the Senate floor, Lesser said the bill also establishes a commission to explore ways to address the crisis in local journalism and waives the requirement that hair braiders obtain a cosmetology license to braid hair. Lesser said the license is expensive and prevents people of color from practicing their profession.
Just before 1 a.m. on Wednesday, the Legislature sent the governor a bill aimed at giving students on college campuses more rights and resources in dealing with sexual assault. The Senate, which had passed versions of the bill in prior sessions, passed the bill mid-December. The House first passed it Tuesday.
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; to develop memorandums of understanding with local police departments; to conduct regular surveys on campus sexual misconduct; train students and staff on sexual assault prevention; and provide a way for anonymous incident reporting.
John Gabrieli, founder and co-chair of the Every Voice Coalition, a group of students and advocates fighting sexual violence on campus who pushed for the bill, said, “While no one bill can hope to end the campus sexual violence epidemic, these new protections represent a major step forward for our state and a model for others across the country.” Gabrieli said the bill was written with the help of students and survivors “and now, it will change the lives of students and survivors on campus for generations to come.”
Several bills that were first discussed and voted on months earlier were suddenly brought back in the session’s final hours to be sent back and forth between the branches – a bill establishing a commission to examine racial disparities in maternal mental health, and “Laura’s Law,” a bill to ensure proper signage and lighting so patients can safely find the emergency room.
The Legislature also passed legislation creating a commission to come up with a new state seal and motto.