Beacon Hill Roll Call: Sept. 7 to Sept. 11, 20

Published: 9/18/2020 1:32:13 PM
Modified: 9/18/2020 1:32:02 PM

There were no roll calls in the House and Senate last week. This week, Beacon Hill Roll Call looks at many of the pandemic-related bills that have been filed in 2020 and updates readers on their status.

Waive waiting period for unemployment benefits (S 2599)

The House and Senate passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that waives the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits to be paid to workers impacted by COVID-19.

“The Department of Unemployment Assistance would be authorized to pay benefits without delay to persons who become unemployed because of lay-offs or business shutdowns taken in response to the virus, because of quarantine orders or directives or illness that prevents them from leaving their homes, or because they must care for a sick or quarantined family member or attend to children who are at home due to school closures,” Gov. Baker said upon signing the bill.

Help city and town governments, businesses and individuals (H 4617)

Provisions of this bill permit a moderator of a Town Meeting to declare a 30-day postponement due to a public health emergency after consulting with the Selectboard; permit a Selectboard to vote to extend the date of an Annual Town Meeting beyond the existing statutory cut-off of June 30; allow towns that are unable to finalize a budget before the start of the new fiscal year to continue month-to-month spending on essential operations at the same levels as the current fiscal year; and modify local permitting processes, extend municipal tax deadlines, and allow municipalities to extend property tax exemptions and deferrals.

The measure postpones the April 15 deadline for filing state income tax returns and set a new deadline of July 15. Another key section is designed to help restaurants cope with the ban on eating inside restaurants by allowing those establishments with liquor licenses to sell beer, wine and liquor to customers ages 21 and older who order takeout or delivery food in the same transaction.

“This legislation is the product of a strong bipartisan and collaborative process to address the needs of our residents,” said Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth. “Municipalities now have the tools they need to overcome current challenges, restaurants have access to a crucial source of revenue, and our tax filing deadline has been extended to provide additional flexibility to those that need it.”

Changes to high school standardized testing requirements (S 2629)

This measure allows Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to authorize changes to the state’s high school standardized testing requirements, including suspending the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test. It ensures that if a senior is required to pass the MCAS to graduate, he or she will be given a time other than this spring to take the exam.

The measure allows school districts who cannot adopt a budget by June 30, 2020 because of the pandemic to approve monthly budgets. It also prohibits a city or town from terminating any resident’s essential services including water, trash collection or electricity; or for nonpayment of taxes or fees if the nonpayment resulted from a demonstrated inability to pay due to circumstances related to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Moratorium on evictions, foreclosures (H 4615)

A moratorium was originally placed on most residential, commercial and nonprofit evictions and foreclosures until Aug. 18. At the end of July, Gov. Baker extended the moratorium until Oct. 17.

The measure allows for emergency for-cause evictions that involve allegations of criminal activity or lease violations that are “detrimental to the health or safety of other residents, health-care workers, emergency personnel or the general public.” Another provision prohibits landlords from charging late fees or sending reports to credit rating agencies as long as a tenant provides notice within 30 days of a late payment that his or her failure to pay was tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Overall, this is a very strong bill for tenants and for homeowners,” said the Massachusetts Communities Action Network in a press release. “Key changes we have been pushing for are in the bill. A ban on notices to vacate is included, among other important protections. Of course, there will be much more to do in the next phase of the struggle, but finalizing this strong moratorium would be a huge first step and an important accomplishment.”

“The act’s limitations on evictions and foreclosures have allowed many tenants and homeowners impacted by COVID-19 to remain in their homes during the state of emergency,” Gov. Baker said about the extension of the moratorium. “I am confident that this action, coupled with federal assistance, helped to slow the spread of COVID-19 while minimizing the impact to date on vulnerable families and on our housing market. The extension I am declaring today will provide residents of the commonwealth with continued housing security as businesses cautiously re-open, more people return to work and we collectively move toward a ‘new normal.’”

Baker also noted that he is aware the extension will impact many small landlords who rely on rental income to pay their own expenses. He strongly encouraged “tenants to continue to pay rent, and homeowners to make their mortgage payments, to the extent they are able while the moratoria remain in place.”

“(We have) made available $20 million in emergency rental and mortgage assistance to help lower-income tenants and homeowners make their housing payments,” Baker added. “We also will be working closely with our colleagues in the judicial branch to ensure that when eviction proceedings resume there are programs in place to help tenants pay their rent and avoid eviction.”

Virtual notary public (S 2645)

A notary public is now allowed to notarize documents via electronic video conferencing in real time as long as both the notary and each principal involved in the transaction are physically located within Massachusetts. Documents include mortgages, wills, trusts, durable power of attorney, health-care proxies and caregiver authorizations.

Supporters said the COVID-19 virus has held up the notarization and validity of thousands of important documents across the state because all the parties are practicing social distancing, are sheltering in place and hesitate to meet in an office with other people.

Also up on Beacon Hill

The following are some of the pandemic-related bills that have been filed, but haven’t been acted upon by the Legislature.

Quarantine Assistance Fund (HD 4926)

On March 19, Reps. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and John Barrett, D-North Adams, filed a bill that would create the COVID-19 Quarantine Assistance Fund to provide grants to workers who have lost money from not being able to work because of viral infection, quarantines or isolation.

“In this time of public health emergency, it is vital that we do all we can to assist those in Massachusetts who are negatively impacted by COVID-19,” Pignatelli said. “Rep. Barrett and I are thankful that the support of this legislation from our colleagues in both the House and Senate sparked productive conversations with the Baker-Polito Administration and that they have taken steps to ensure that those who are financially vulnerable are not left behind. Through measured and appropriate responses, Massachusetts will be able to navigate and see the other side of this public health challenge.”

Acting mayors (HD 4964)

On April 9, Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik, D-Gardner, filed legislation that would allow acting mayors to act with full mayoral authority for the duration of the governor’s declared state of emergency concerning COVID-19. The city of Gardner and some other cities’ charters limit the power of their acting mayor. There can be issues that arise during this crisis that need to be handled quickly, and Zlotnik’s legislation would simplify that process and ensure the city government could act as required during this crisis.

“City officials brought this issue to my attention and I think it’s something the Legislature should be aware of and considering,” Zlotnik said. “In an effort to be prepared, I have filed this bill for review and to start the process. I think it’s important as we navigate through this unprecedented situation that the government at all levels be prepared to continue operations and do their best to anticipate complications that may arise.”

$1,500 per month for some seniors (H 4697)

A bill proposed on April 2 would provide monthly cash assistance of $1,500 per month for persons over age 65 who are not eligible for Unemployment Insurance (UI) but stopped working as a result of a pre-existing condition placing them in a high-risk category for COVID-19’s most serious symptoms or death.

“Elder Affairs Chair Ruth Balser and I filed (the bill) to provide relief for self-employed and gig economy elders who had the foresight to stop working, possibly weeks before the Massachusetts stay-at-home advisory, because of an underlying condition such as chronic kidney disease or a compromised immune system,” said the bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Nika Elugardo, D-Jamaica Plain. “We filed (the bill) before the passage of the federal CARES Act, which expanded unemployment insurance eligibility to include many self-employed workers. We are watching for federal guidance to understand whether gaps in UI coverage remain within this vulnerable demographic. If so, this bill would fill in those gaps for yet uncovered elders.”

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