Beacon Hill Roll Call, Feb. 5-9

By Bob Katzen

Published: 02-17-2024 2:21 PM

Modified: 02-17-2024 2:24 PM


THE HOUSE AND SENATE: 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 February 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 2024 STATE BUDGET (H 4040): House 156-2, Senate 39-0, approved a $56.2 billion fiscal 2024 state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2023. The price tag represents a $3.8 billion increase over last year’s fiscal 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 a GED.

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“Massachusetts continues to move in a positive direction by making significant investments in this budget,” said Rep. Todd Smola (R-Warren), the ranking House member of the Committee on Ways and Means. “We prioritize local funding by increasing general government aid to municipalities and double the minimum aid contribution per pupil for education.”

“While there were many good provisions in the budget, the final version contained policies, unrelated to the budget itself, that we could not support,” said Reps. Nick Boldyga (R-Southwick) and Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) in a joint statement.

The statement continued, “Seniors, renters, small businesses and hard-working families can barely afford to make ends meet. As a result, Massachusetts continues to see one of the highest out-migrations in the country. At the same time, this budget provides a massive expansion in financial benefits for illegal immigrants. It’s easier for Hollywood movie studios and multi-national corporations to get massive tax cuts than for the working-class to catch a break. The people of Massachusetts deserve better.”

(A “Yes” vote is for the budget. A “No” vote is against it.)

Rep. Natalie Blais, Yes; Rep. Daniel Carey, Yes; Rep. Mindy Domb, Yes; Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Yes; Rep. Aaron Saunders, Yes; Sen. Joanne Comerford, Yes; Sen. Paul Mark, Yes; Sen. Jacob Oliveira, Yes; Sen. John Velis Yes

$388.6 MILLION FISCAL 2023 SUPPLEMENTAL BUDGET (H 3548): House 153-0, Senate 39-0, approved a $388.6 million fiscal 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 take-out; 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.

“This supplemental budget ensures that our commonwealth continues to support the most vulnerable among us while also building on the lessons we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). “I’m proud to say that the Legislature has proven once again that it has the courage to chart a course that leaves no place or person in the commonwealth behind.”

(A “Yes” vote is for the $388.6 million supplemental budget.)

Rep. Natalie Blais, Yes; Rep. Daniel Carey, Yes; Rep. Mindy Domb, Yes; Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Yes; Rep. Aaron Saunders, Yes; Sen. Joanne Comerford, Yes; Sen. Paul Mark, Yes; Sen. Jacob Oliveira, Yes; Sen. John Velis Yes

$375 MILLION FOR ROADS AND BRIDGES (S 2375): House 157-0, Senate 38-0, approved a bill that includes authorizing $200 million in one-time funding for the maintenance and repair of local roads and bridges in cities and towns across the state. 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.

The programs funded by the $175 million include the municipal small bridge program; the complete streets program; a bus transit infrastructure program; and grants for municipalities to purchase electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them.

“Providing funding for critical infrastructure projects through investments in the commonwealth’s public transportation, roads and bridges is one of the most important responsibilities that we have as members of the Legislature,” said House Speaker Ron Mariano (D-Quincy). “I’m proud of the support for regional infrastructure that this legislation provides, and of the funding that it allocates for the purchasing of electric vehicles by transit authorities.”

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

Rep. Natalie Blais, Yes; Rep. Daniel Carey, Yes; Rep. Mindy Domb, Yes; Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Yes; Rep. Aaron Saunders, Yes; Sen. Joanne Comerford, Yes; Sen. Paul Mark, Yes; Sen. Jacob Oliveira, Yes; Sen. John Velis Yes

TAX RELIEF PACKAGE (H 4104): House 155-1, 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 percent to 40 percent of the federal credit; and reducing the short-term capital gains tax rate from 12 percent 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 Mass 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.

“This is the most significant tax relief package in a generation,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). “This legislation is going to put real dollars into the pockets of the people who need it most, including parents, seniors, young people and middle class families who are struggling to keep up with rising costs. This bill includes a historic expansion of housing programs that will ignite affordable housing development and ease the housing crunch, as well as significant relief for families with young children. It will also make Massachusetts a more competitive place to live and work and encourages businesses to continue investing in our region.”

“Back in April, I stood at the rostrum for about 13 minutes and expressed a mix of support for the many elements of this bill that will help working families and people experiencing poverty — while at the same time criticizing the elements of this bill that will benefit large corporations and the super-rich,” said Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge), the only House member to vote against the package.

“From my vantage point, this bill was significantly improved through the conference committee process, and there are several elements of the bill I enthusiastically support,” continued Connolly. “And yet, as I stand here today, I still cannot bring myself to support the total price tag of $1.1 billion once fully implemented. Not after we just spent a decade working to pass the Fair Share Amendment to gain desperately needed new revenue … A lot more needs to be done, including bigger public investments in programs, services and infrastructure — investments that could be significantly constrained by the overall cost of today’s tax cut bill.”

Rep. Natalie Blais, Yes; Rep. Daniel Carey, Yes; Rep. Mindy Domb, Yes; Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Yes; Rep. Aaron Saunders, Yes; Sen. Joanne Comerford, Yes; Sen. Paul Mark, Yes; Sen. Jacob Oliveira, Yes; Sen. John Velis Yes

FREE PHONE CALLS FOR PRISONERS (H 4051): House 132-26, (Senate on a voice vote without a roll call vote), approved a proposal that beginning on December 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.

Currently there is no legal requirement for free phone calls in prisons. Each facility contracts separately for telephone service.

“The telephone is a lifeline for people locked in prisons and their families, but phone company profiteering and kickbacks to prisons, have made calls unaffordable,” said Aaron Steinberg, Communications Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “This landmark law will allow for precious human contact between incarcerated people and their children and other loved ones. This will help families thrive and help incarcerated people succeed when they return to our communities.”

Steinberg continued, that under current law, “each facility contracts separately for telephone service and with current contracting provisions, facilities are given kickbacks called ‘site commissions,’ with little incentive to negotiate for the lowest rate.”

“Every law abiding citizen that has a job and works 40 plus hours a week has to pay for phone calls,” said Boldyga. “Why are criminals entitled to free phone calls? It’s completely ridiculous and absurd that Democrats are giving free anything to criminals. Criminals and their families should be paying for their phone calls, not taxpayers. ”

(A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against it.)

Rep. Natalie Blais, Yes; Rep. Daniel Carey, Yes; Rep. Mindy Domb, Yes; Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Yes; Rep. Aaron Saunders, Yes; Sen. Joanne Comerford, Yes; Sen. Paul Mark, Yes; Sen. Jacob Oliveira, Yes; Sen. John Velis Yes

NEW CABINET POSITION: SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND LIVABLE COMMUNITIES (H 43): Senate 39-0 (No House roll call), approved Gov. Maura Healey’s reorganization plan that would split the current 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.

“The creation of a new Secretariat will bring a cabinet-level focus to the commonwealth’s housing crisis,” said Sen. Nick Collins (D-Boston), Chair of the Senate Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. He noted that Gov. Healey will now be able put her vision for housing and livable communities into action.”

(A “Yes” vote is for the bill.)

Sen. Joanne Comerford, Yes; Sen. Paul Mark, Yes; Sen. Jacob Oliveira, Yes; Sen. John Velis, Yes

ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL

CHARITABLE 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, to inform potential donors what percentage of contributions go directly to the charity.

Supporters said that oftentimes people who make donations assume that 100 percent 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 yet assigned) — The Committee on Higher Education has given a favorable report to and recommended passage of a bill that would prohibit public and private colleges in the Bay State 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 alumnus.

“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 NOW 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 in order 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 to be filled at this year’s election include President and Vice-president, U.S. Senator, U.S. representative, Governor’s Councilor, State Senator, State Representative, Register of Deeds, Clerk of Courts, County Commissioner.

Candidates for district and county offices have until April 30, 2024 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, 2024.

Party-affiliated candidates running in the State Primary for federal office have until May 7, 2024 to gather their signatures and submit them to local registrars, and until June 4, 2024 to file with the Secretary of State.

Non-party candidates for federal office have until July 30, 2024 to return their nomination papers into local registrars, and until August 27, 2024 to file them with Galvin’s office.

Additional information is at www.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.”

Khan continued, “Prioritizing mental health education by requiring mandatory mental health awareness programming and primary prevention education in public higher education institutions will train students to recognize these issues in their peers and prepare staff for conversations around mental health, resulting in healthier and more successful outcomes for students in Massachusetts.”

VETERANS BREAKTHROUGH TREATMENT PROGRAM (H 4218) — The Public Health Committee’s hearing included legislation that would create the Veteran Breakthrough Treatments 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 FDA 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 healthcare 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 and Barry fell under 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.

Cyr continued, “In the aftermath of COVID-19 and advent of remote work, happy hour is a tool that can help revitalize main streets and downtowns struggling for foot traffic. This legislation empowers municipalities to determine if they want to allow local restaurants to offer happy hour specials and decide if it is the right choice for their community.”

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.”

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com