Beacon Hill Roll Call: Feb. 5 to Feb. 9, 2024

JO COMERFORD

JO COMERFORD

By BOB KATZEN

Published: 02-16-2024 2:30 PM

Modified: 02-16-2024 7:07 PM


There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.

This week Beacon Hill Roll Call reports on some of the bills that were approved by the 2023-2024 Legislature through Feb. 9, 2024, and signed into law by Gov. Maura Healey.

Of the more than 6,400 bills that have been filed for consideration, only 108 have been approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor. Of those 108, 16 were bills that affect the entire state while the other 92 were either sick leave banks or other local-related measures applying to just one city or town. Sick leave banks allow public employees to voluntarily donate sick, personal or vacation days to a sick leave bank for use by a fellow worker so he or she can get paid while on medical leave.

Here are six of the important statewide-related bills signed into law, including comments from legislators at the time the bill was approved.

$56.2 billion fiscal year 2024 state budget (H 4040)

The House, 156-2, and the Senate 39-0, approved a $56.2 billion fiscal year 2024 state budget. The price tag represents a $3.8 billion increase over the fiscal year 2023 budget.

Provisions include $171.5 million to require public schools to provide universal free school meals to all students; $50 million to support free community colleges; $50 million to create Green School Works, a program to fund projects to install and maintain clean energy infrastructure at public schools; $6.59 billion in Chapter 70 education funding for cities and towns, an increase of $604 million over last year; $504.5 million for the special education circuit breaker; $181 million for MBTA capital projects; $19.81 billion for MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program that provides health care for low-income and disabled persons; and a new law that prisons must provide free unlimited incoming and outgoing phone calls for prisoners.

Another provision would allow undocumented/illegal immigrants to qualify for the lower in-state college tuition rate if they attended high school here for at least three years and graduated or completed their high school equivalency test (HiSET).

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A “Yes” vote is for the budget.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

$388.6 million fiscal year 2023 supplemental budget (H 3548)

The House, 153-0, and the Senate, 39-0, approved a $388.6 million fiscal year 2023 supplemental budget.

Provisions include $65 million for free school meals; $130 million to keep expanded nutrition assistance in place for a few more months; $2 million for the reimbursement of SNAP benefits for victims of benefit theft; $250,000 for a free abortion-related legal hotline; $45 million for emergency shelter assistance; $40 million to support affordable housing for immigrants and refugees; and $2 million for the Boston branch of the NAACP for costs of some programs to be included in its 114th National NAACP Conference in 2023 in Boston.

Other provisions keep some pandemic-era programs, set to expire, in place including allowing restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails for takeout; expanding outdoor dining; and extending the authority, set to expire in a few weeks, for public bodies, agencies and commissions to hold their meetings remotely.

A “Yes” vote is for supplemental budget.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

$375 million for roads and bridges (S 2375)

The House, 157-0, and the Senate, 38-0, approved a bill that includes authorizing $200 million in one-time funding for the maintenance and repair of local roads and bridge. The $375 million package, a bond bill under which the funding would be borrowed by the state through the sale of bonds, also includes $175 million for several transportation-related grant programs.

A “Yes” vote is for the $375 million package.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Tax relief package (H 4104)

The House, 155-1, and the Senate, 38-1, approved a tax relief package that supporters say will provide $561.3 million in tax relief in fiscal year 2024 and $1.02 billion per year in subsequent years.

Provisions include increasing the rental deduction cap from $3,000 to $4,000; reducing the estate tax for all taxpayers and eliminating the tax for all estates under $2 million by allowing a uniform credit of $99,600; increasing the refundable tax credit for a dependent child, disabled adult or senior from $180 to $310 per dependent in taxable year 2023, and then to $440 in subsequent years while eliminating the child/dependent cap; doubling the refundable senior circuit breaker tax credit from $1,200 to $2,400; increasing the refundable earned income tax credit from 30% to 40% of the federal credit; and reducing the short-term capital gains tax rate from 12% to 8.5%.

Other provisions double the lead paint tax credit to $3,000 for full abatement and $1,000 for partial abatement; ensure that employer student loan payments are not treated as taxable compensation; make public transit fares, as well as ferry and regional transit passes and bike commuter expenses, eligible for the commuter expense tax deduction; increase from $1,500 to $2,000 the maximum that municipalities may pay seniors to do volunteer work to reduce their property taxes; raise the annual authorization for the low income housing tax credit from $40 million to $60 million; and allow cities and towns to adopt a local property tax exemption for affordable real estate that is rented by a person whose income is less than a certain level set by the municipality.

The measure also includes two provisions, which the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance says will result in tax hikes. One would require Massachusetts married couples who file income tax returns jointly at the federal level to do the same at the state level. The other changes the system under Chapter 62F that requires that annual tax revenue above a certain amount collected by the state go back to the taxpayers. Under current law, the money is returned to taxpayers based on what he or she earned and paid in taxes. The new tax package changed that and provided that each taxpayer will receive a flat rate refund, unrelated to what they earned or paid in taxes.

A “Yes” vote is for the tax relief package.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Free phone calls for prisoners (H 4051)

The House, 132-26, (Senate on a voice vote without a roll call vote), approved a proposal that, beginning on Dec. 1, 2023, would provide free phone calls and video calls for all prisoners in Massachusetts.

The vote was mostly along party lines with all Republicans and one Democrat voting against the bill and all other Democrats voting for it.

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

New position: secretary of housing and livable communities (H 43)

The Senate, 39-0 (No House roll call), approved Gov. Maura Healey’s reorganization plan that would split the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development into two separate cabinet-level departments: the new secretary of housing and livable communities and the renamed secretary of economic development.

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Also up on Beacon HillCharitable donations (H 2280)

The House has given initial approval to a bill that would require that any group or individual soliciting contributions for a charitable organization by mail or telephone inform potential donors what percentage of contributions go directly to the charity.

Supporters said that oftentimes people who make donations assume that 100% of their donation goes directly to the charity when in fact a private fundraising company is getting a percentage of the money raised.

“People should feel secure that their charitable donations are being used in an appropriate manner and going to the organization they chose to support” said sponsor Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham. “This added disclosure by solicitors protects both the commonwealth’s donors and charitable organizations.”

Prohibit ‘legacy’ college admissions (no bill number assigned yet)

The Committee on Higher Education has given a favorable report to and recommended passage of a bill that would prohibit public and private colleges from using “legacy admissions” — a tradition that gives to a boost in a prospective student’s odds of admission to a college just because the applicant is related to a current student or alum.

“The practice of legacy admissions has perpetuated inequalities in higher education for too long,” said Mary Tamer, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. “It serves as a barrier to equity and opportunity, granting an unearned advantage to children of alumni — often from wealthy or well-connected families — at the expense of deserving students from diverse backgrounds.”

Nomination papers available for 2024 candidates

Nomination papers are now available for candidates who are planning to run for office in the September 2024 primary election and November 2024 general election. Under state law, candidates are required to gather a certain number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. Papers are available in the Office of the Secretary of the State’s Elections Division, located at 1 Ashburton Place in Boston and Galvin’s other offices in Springfield and Fall River.

Offices include president and vice president, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, governor’s councilor, state senator, state representative, register of deeds, clerk of courts and county commissioner.

Candidates for district and county offices have until April 30 to gather signatures and submit their papers to local registrars of voters for certification. Those certified signatures must then be filed with the secretary of state by May 28.

Party-affiliated candidates running in the state primary for federal office have until May 7 to gather their signatures and submit them to local registrars, and until June 4 to file with the secretary of state.

Non-party candidates for federal office have until July 30 to return their nomination papers in to local registrars, and until Aug. 27 to file them with Galvin’s office.

More information is at sec.state.ma.us/elections.

Create emergency disaster relief program (S 2506)

The Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management held a hearing on a measure that would create an emergency disaster relief program managed by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and funded with $250 million from excess capital gains revenue that would otherwise be transferred to the Rainy Day Fund.

Supporters explained that federal disaster declarations can only be triggered when certain and specific criteria occur. They noted the total amount of the storm damage must meet a certain dollar amount threshold, or the disaster must exceed the response capability of the state and local governments.

“Massachusetts is one of a few states that does not have a framework in place to respond to disasters, climate-related or otherwise, in our municipalities,” said sponsor Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “We saw first-hand this past summer the devastating toll weather events have on our communities’ infrastructure across the commonwealth.”

Mental health awareness (H 4142)

A bill heard by the Higher Education Committee would require public state colleges to provide students and employees with mental health awareness and prevention programming. This would cover vital topics including signs of mental health issues and substance abuse, where to access mental health resources and crisis intervention strategies.

“I’m sponsoring this bill because as a psychiatric nurse, I recognize that many mental health disorders present themselves in early adulthood and believe in the evidence-based research, which recommends that higher education institutions can help improve positive mental health in vulnerable emerging adult populations by implementing training and education initiatives,” said sponsor Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton. “Studies have shown that more students are presenting with increasingly severe mental health problems in recent decades, a problem exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic.”

Veterans Breakthrough Treatment Program (H 4218)

The Public Health Committee’s hearing included legislation that would create a Veteran Breakthrough Treatment Program to support the development and deployment of treatments that have been designated as “breakthrough therapies” for veterans and first responders. Breakthrough Therapy designation is given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treatments that clinical evidence has shown to be extremely promising.

“This legislation is about equipping veterans with innovative and effective therapies to treat PTSD and hidden wounds of war,” said sponsor Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth. “Allowing veterans access to breakthrough therapies designated by the FDA as promising treatments gives them an additional tool to treat their health care needs and empower those struggling on their path to recovery.”

Consumer bills

The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure held a hearing on several bills, including:

Allow businesses to opt into ‘Do Not Call’ list (S 202): Would restrict telemarketing companies doing business in the state by allowing businesses to sign up for a “Do Not Call” list and fining companies up to $5,000 if they call a business on the list. Current law only allows individual consumers to sign up for the list.

Under the bill, all current laws that now apply to individuals would also apply to businesses, including allowing an individual on the list to sue a company for up to $5,000 if the company violates the law and calls the individual more than once a year; preventing companies from blocking their number from appearing on any business’ Caller ID; prohibiting companies from using recorded message devices to make these calls; and restricting these calls to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“We’re continuing to see a steady rise in spam calls, and this is one of the preferred methods of scammers to obtain personal information,” said Rep. Bruce Ayers, D-Quincy. “Small businesses have struggled the last few years, and Massachusetts needs to do whatever we can to protect our economic drivers. Allowing businesses to sign up for the do-not-call list is an easy and efficient way of screening out any nefarious attempts to defraud a small business and take away valuable economic resources for our small business owners.”

Digital coupons for seniors (H 4154): Would require grocery stores to apply all available digital coupons to the orders of senior citizens over 65, even if the person does not have the digital coupons on their phone.

“This proposal was filed by request of a constituent,” said sponsor Rep. Jeff Turco, D-Winthrop. “Many senior citizens do not use a smart phone and therefore do not have access to digital coupons and, as a result, they pay higher prices at the register. This legislation would apply all applicable digital coupons automatically to our seniors.”

Revive ‘happy hours’ (S 157): Would allow cities and towns to permit restaurants that are licensed to serve alcohol to offer discounted prices on alcoholic beverages during dates and time periods specified by the city or town. The measure prohibits any alcohol from being discounted after 10 p.m.

Under current law, passed in 1984, restaurants have been prohibited from holding “happy hours” during which some alcoholic drinks are free or the price is reduced. The 1984 law was sparked by the September 1983 death of Kathleen Barry, a 20-year-old from Weymouth, when Barry and her friend won free pitchers of beer at a Braintree Ground Round. After leaving the bar, Barry and a friend climbed on top of a drunk friend’s car for a ride around a Braintree parking lot. Barry fell underneath the car and was dragged 50 feet to her death.

“Much has changed in Massachusetts since a happy hour ban was enacted in 1984,” said sponsor Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. “The drinking age has long been settled at 21, stiff penalties have been established to deter drunk driving and ride-hailing apps have become a popular way to safely get around on a night out. While alcohol-related offenses decline across the country and little compelling evidence exists linking happy hour with higher rates of alcohol-related DUIs, Massachusetts remains the last state in the country to have an absolute ban on happy hour.”

Re-signing leases (H 264): Would prohibit landlords from requiring their tenants to re-sign a lease more than three months in advance of the termination of their current lease.

“I filed this legislation in response to complaints I heard from tenants who are being unfairly required to re-sign their lease only a few months into their current lease,” said sponsor Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy. “Tenants are being forced to make decisions about their housing situation more than six months in advance and are financially penalized when they cannot commit.”