Beacon Hill Roll Call: May 18 to May 22, 2020

Published: 5/29/2020 12:57:49 PM

The House and Senate continue to hold remote sessions with just a few members in the chambers. Most members listen to the debates from their homes or business offices through their computers, and vote by phone.

Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ votes on two roll calls for the week of May 18 to May 22. There were no roll calls in the Senate last week.

$1 billion-plus information technology bond (H 4708)

House, 149 to 7, approved and sent to the Senate a $1 billion-plus information technology bond titled “An Act Financing the General Governmental Infrastructure of the Commonwealth.” The state would borrow the funds to finance the projects in the bill.

The original version of the package was filed by Gov. Charlie Baker more than a year ago on April 11, 2019. The current version is the handiwork of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Members filed 189 amendments to the bill and two of those were withdrawn. The remaining 187 were rolled into a single consolidated amendment that was approved.

“This legislation provides authorizations for critical public safety and information technology projects at the state and municipal level,” Baker said in the message he sent along with the original bill. “The projects in the bill will improve the quality, consistency, efficiency and delivery of state services to the residents of Massachusetts, including digital services for health care, housing, education, employment assistance, public safety and emergency management, transportation, and energy and the environment.”

Hundreds of provisions in the bill involve massive state projects, including $165 million for state telecommunications and data-security-related equipment; $140 million for the purchase and implementation of information technology, telecommunications and data-security-related items for various state agencies; $1.25 million for information technology upgrades for the House of Representatives; and $100 million for “infrastructure related to governmental performance and efficiency.”

And then there are hundreds of local projects successfully sought by individual legislators for their districts, including $500,000 for New Bedford’s Buttonwood Park Zoological Society’s infrastructure improvements for the animal ambassador and nature connection education center projects; $61,200 to update the town hall conference room’s streaming technology for the local cable services in Stoughton; $15,000 for Medfield for the implementation of an electronic payroll program; and $1 million for Everett for electronic learning devices for all students and virtual professional development, training and remote learning support for their teachers.

“Over the last several months, thousands of public employees have been working from home,” said House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz. “While this has certainly helped us flatten the curve, it has also put tremendous pressure on our information technology infrastructure like the commonwealth has never seen before. We can all share stories from the past couple of months of the difficulties of conducting business in this new environment. These funds will help ensure that employees can continue to work remotely as needed while still providing vital services to our constituents.”

“The House’s redraft of Gov. Baker’s … bond bill (proposed over a year ago) increased state borrowing by almost half a billion more than his initial request, to fund lots of add-ons,” said Chip Ford, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “In this period of crisis — both societal and financial, both personal and governmental, with record high unemployment and historic low revenue collections both anticipated and experienced — this is the wrong time to borrow any more than unavoidable for absolutely essential spending. For once, fiscal austerity needs and ought to be considered in the Legislature.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

$101 million consolidated amendment (H 4708)

House, 138 to 18, approved a consolidated amendment adding $101 million to the cost of the $1 billion-plus information technology bond.

Amendment supporters said the projects and provisions in the amendment were important items. They noted there is nothing wrong with these local earmarks where members propose including worthwhile projects in their districts.

Amendment opponents said many of the earmarks are not urgently needed. They pointed to the state’s projected revenue loss of up to $8 billion in next year’s budget as a result of diminishing income tax revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Massachusetts moved the tax return filing deadline from April 15 to July 15 in addition to the loss of sales tax and other revenue as a result of business shutdowns. They noted that state tax collections dropped in April by more than $2.3 billion compared to April 2019.

A “Yes” vote is for the $101 million.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Also up on Beacon Hill Improve unemployment benefits (S 2618)

The House and Senate approved and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a bill that supporters say will provide additional unemployment insurance relief to low-income families, non-profit institutions and employers.

Provisions include ensuring 30 weeks instead of 26 weeks of unemployment compensation during any week in which there are more than 100,000 claims; extending the grace period for contributions for many nonprofits that self-insure for unemployment claims; protecting employers from increased unemployment insurance costs due to COVID-19; and removing a cap that results in many low-wage workers not receiving additional amounts of unemployment insurance.

Supporters said these provisions make important changes to the unemployment insurance system and will provide emergency relief to both affected workers and business owners who are trying to keep their businesses afloat. They said it is important that the state continue to support workers who, through no fault of their own, have had their incomes interrupted by the executive orders and regulations necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We are pleased that the Legislature came to an agreement on this important bill,” said AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman. “As contributory employers are relieved of charges, it is even more incumbent on them to take safe workplaces seriously, and not to force workers into unsafe work environments or threaten workers with blocking their continued unemployment benefits. We are also pleased to see that the inequitable cap on dependency allowances, which unfairly disadvantaged low-wage workers, will be lifted.”

“In these tumultuous and uncertain times, it is imperative that we support workers and families affected by the economic fallout from COVID-19,” said Sen. Nick Collins, D-Boston. “By expanding unemployment benefits, and breaking down barriers to accessing resources, the Massachusetts Senate is emphasizing its commitment to protecting vulnerable residents and workers across the state.”

Virtual hearings and non-hearings

Public hearings at the State House have changed because of the dangers of COVID-19. They used to be held in person at the State House, and interested parties could come to the hearing and testify. These days, some hearings are held remotely via Teams or Zoom, while others are not held at all and the committee simply accepts written testimony. The Revenue Committee and the Housing Committee accepted only written testimony on several bills last week including:

Economic relief (H 4727) — Provides $1,000 to Massachusetts residents with a one- or two-person household earning up to $84,000 annually; three-person household earning up to $105,000 annually; and four or more-person households earning up to $131,000 annually. Each household with a dependent would receive an additional $500 per dependent.

Supporters said the measure is aimed at helping poor, low-income and middle-class households.

“The goal of this bill is to provide immediate economic relief to our residents and families hardest hit by the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton. “This legislation is especially important for workers in the gig economy, independent contractors, part-time workers and others who had to wait weeks and sometimes months to collect unemployment benefits, potentially falling behind on rent, mortgage or credit card payments. Direct cash assistance cannot be our sole solution to the widespread and ongoing economic consequences of this pandemic, but it will be a critical lifeline for our residents who may not have access to savings or family resources to support them in this difficult time.”

Stimulus checks to immigrant taxpayers (S 2659) — Provides a stimulus check to taxpayers who use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and who are not eligible to obtain a Social Security number. The state-funded stimulus check would be $1,200 for individual filers, $2,400 for joint filers and $500 per child — the same amounts that are currently provided by the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It will also provide $10 million to immigrant aid organizations.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, taxpayers who file their tax return with an ITIN include undocumented immigrants and their dependents as well as some people who are lawfully present in the U.S., such as certain survivors of domestic violence, Cuban and Haitian entrants, student visa holders, and certain spouses and children of individuals with employment visas.

“Immigrants play a crucial role in Massachusetts’ economy, and we need to ensure that undocumented immigrants and their families receive the same financial support as other taxpayers have through the federal CARES Act,” said the chief Senate sponsor Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “At a time of a pandemic, more than ever, we need to take serious action and provide financial help to all vulnerable populations.”

Exempt active out-of-state military personnel from state income tax (S 2586) — Exempts active duty military personnel from state income tax while based out of state.

“A military professional who spends a significant portion of their time serving our nation out of state should not be required to pay income tax for the time spent away from home on active duty,” said sponsor Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth. “This weighs disproportionately on military homeowners and their families, who already sacrifice so much to defend our country. If passed, Massachusetts would not be the first state to enact such legislation. There are approximately 18 states across the country that have implemented income tax relief for active duty personnel serving out of state. I think this is one small way that we can make Massachusetts a better state for military members and their families.”

Freeze rent (H 4718) — Prevents all increases in rent until 30 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted. Local cities and towns would also have the power to freeze rent in their communities.

Co-sponsors Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said in written testimony that they filed the measure because housing is an area where sudden economic decline would have a significant impact on families, the state and its cities and towns.

“Large rental companies are continuing to renew leases with rent increases, causing some to have to leave their homes and search for new housing during a pandemic,” they said. “Graduate students have been particularly hard-hit as they have suddenly found themselves unemployed, out of school and unable to afford attempts to increase their rent.”

“Housing security is not something we should jeopardize anytime, but especially during a public health crisis,” Sabadosa added. “If we care about protecting public health and want to stimulate the economy, ensuring that people can stay housed is essential.”

Democrats pick up two Senate seats — Democrats won both special elections for two Senate seats that were previously held by Republicans. Current Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, beat John Cain, a Republican newcomer from Southwick to win the seat that former Sen. Don Humason gave up after he was elected mayor of Westfield. Falmouth’s Susan Moran beat Republican candidate Jay McMahon of Bourne to win the district formerly represented by former Sen. Vinny deMacedo, who left the Senate to become the director of regional partnerships for Bridgewater State University.

The wins whittle down the number of Republicans in the 40-member Senate from six to a mere four. The GOP holds only 31 seats in the 160-seat House.

Report workplace safety concerns — Attorney General Maura Healey announced enhanced resources to allow workers to easily report workplace safety concerns related to COVID-19 to her office. Workers can fill out a complaint form at bit.ly/2XbKUfM, or they can call the dedicated Fair Labor hotline at 617-727-3465. They have the option to file a complaint anonymously.

“As more people across the state head back to the workplace, the health and safety of our workers is paramount,” Healey said. “With continued anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, our office has established easier ways for employees to report unsafe working conditions that need to be addressed. We want workers to know that we’re here as a resource and are dedicated to protecting them during this time.”




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