Boston Statehouse: Five issues to watch in session’s last hours

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – The next day and a half will determine whether lawmakers get to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk major transportation, economic development and climate change bills, but it’s also crunch time for several critical issues both within those bills and in freestanding legislation.

Here’s a look at five issues to watch as lawmakers wrap up their current two-year session before Wednesday:

— Housing Production: Perhaps more than any other issue, Baker has been beating the drum for years on one major change he’d like to see to state housing production laws. He wants zoning bylaw changes to be able to clear local boards on a majority vote, rather than a two-thirds vote. It sounds simple, but getting this so-called “housing choice” reform through the Legislature has been anything but. The home rule lobby is strong in a state with 351 cities and towns all run by those who feel they know best what their residents want. Plus, the goal of the change is to produce more housing construction throughout the state, an objective not necessarily shared in each legislative district. Supporters of the change say Massachusetts won’t be able to tackle its housing inventory problems unless more communities are committed and until good projects stop getting stopped at the local level due to the supermajority requirement. The idea is on the proverbial two-yard line, included by both the House and Senate in economic development bills approved in July, which remain locked in conference committee. The Senate bill, according to Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association, also included provisions that would require multifamily zoning in communities served by the MBTA, abutter appeals reforms, and statewide affordable housing production goals.

— Unemployment Taxes: Now that the calendar has flipped to 2021, businesses across Massachusetts that have already been bruised during the pandemic are in line for a nearly 60 percent increase in the taxes they pay to fund unemployment benefits. Baker wants to freeze the rate schedule and limit the hikes to a more manageable 17 percent, but he needs action from the Legislature before the bills are due at the end of the first quarter. While the state’s unemployment rate has dropped from a June peak of 17.7 percent, soaring joblessness over a span of months depleted the unemployment insurance trust fund, triggering an automatic increase in business costs to keep it running. The Labor and Workforce Development Committee received testimony last week from business groups calling for immediate adoption of Baker’s bill (H 5206), many of whom argued that they need certainty now — not in two months — so they can plan accordingly. The more than $2.2 billion Massachusetts borrowed from the federal government to float the unemployment fund is now accruing interest at a 2.4 percent rate, and Baker worries that will create higher long-term costs if the Legislature does not act on another section of his bill to pay down that balance with lower-interest bonds. Labor groups have been more mum about their views on the proposal than businesses who would have to pay the costs, pointing to concerns about structural issues such as employee misclassification rather than offering an up or down take on rate freezes. It’s a vote lawmakers could take Monday or Tuesday, but the issue may get punted to the next Legislature and become one of its first agenda items.

— Campus Sexual Assault: New federal guidelines released last spring renewed the push for Massachusetts to impose its own standards on how colleges and universities should address and try to prevent sexual misconduct on their campuses, an area where the House and Senate failed to find accord last session. Agreement seemed within reach on Dec. 14, when Ways and Means Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues put out a joint statement voicing a commitment “to working together to get a strong campus climate survey and sexual assault prevention bill to the Governor’s desk this session.” The Senate passed its version of the bill (S 2979) two days later, as word began to circulate that House Speaker Robert DeLeo planned to leave Beacon Hill. Advocates have questioned what DeLeo’s departure means for the fate of the legislation, which he’d been eyeing for passage by the end of the year. The House version of the bill (H 4418) has been before the Ways and Means Committee since February 2020. Both the House and Senate bills would require colleges and universities to conduct sexual misconduct climate surveys of their students every four years. Colleges and universities would also need to adopt sexual misconduct policies that include information on reporting assaults, supportive and protective measures available for survivors, and procedures for resolving and investigating misconduct claims. Sen. Michael Moore said when the Senate passed its bill that it aims to “lift the veil of secrecy” around sexual violence at colleges, strengthen due process protections for the accused, and help change the culture on campuses. There’s precedent for last-minute action on the issue — in 2018, when both branches approved versions of campus assault bills but did not reconcile them, the House-passed bill hit the Senate floor around 11 p.m. on July 31, the last day of formal sessions for that term.

— Beer Distribution Agreement: After a decade-long disagreement more bitter than your favorite IPA, craft beer brewers and the wholesalers that distribute the suds came together in July to announce that they had struck a deal that would allow smaller breweries to more easily end their relationship with a distributor if they felt their brand wasn’t being properly marketed. All Beacon Hill had to do was approve the changes both sides had agreed to and an issue that has languished at the State House for years would be resolved. The Senate passed the bill 40-0 in July, but the House has not taken it up and turned down an amendment to tack it onto the jobs bill at the end of July. Under current law, a brewer is locked into its relationship with a distributor indefinitely after six months of doing business together, unless they can prove to state regulators that the distribution company violated one in a set of very specific conditions. Small brewers have said that this can inhibit their ability to grow sales, especially if a distributor serves larger, more established clients and doesn’t prioritize their craft brand. “Both sides agreed, we adopted that agreement and the Senate passed it, and it’s pending in the House now,” Senate President Karen Spilka, whose district includes a number of craft brewers, said in September. “I am hearing that some of the industry, some of the craft brewers, are concerned that they may need to close if this situation isn’t ameliorated.” Since the bill stalled in the House, there has been speculation that it may have become a bargaining chip for negotiations between the branches.

— Sports Betting: At the end of 2020, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu celebrated what he called the “MASSIVE success” that legal sports betting has been for the Granite State. In one year since launching mobile betting, people have wagered more than $300 million in New Hampshire on sports contests and that betting activity generated more than $10 million for the state’s public education system. In Massachusetts, lawmakers have been thinking loosely about legalizing sports betting for almost two and a half years as bettors make frequent drives to New Hampshire or Rhode Island to place their bets instead. The House approved sports betting in its economic development bill, but the Senate has shown a consistent indifference to the idea this session, even though some senators claimed the issue would remain under serious consideration. A bipartisan cadre of senators — Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Sens. Marc Pacheco, Michael Brady and Patrick O’Connor, among them — has attempted to keep the issue on the front burner by talking about the importance of capturing revenue from an activity that nearby states have already authorized. O’Connor recently called it “basically free money” and Pacheco said Massachusetts is “losing all of this revenue that we are going to need” as residents find other states that will take their bets. Estimates for annual revenue from sports betting in Massachusetts have ranged from about $20 million to $35 million and opponents have questioned whether that relatively small annual revenue amount is worth the public health and social costs of bringing sports betting out of the shadows. By comparison, the state has collected an average of $21.3 million in tax revenue from the casinos and slots parlor each month of operation since Encore Boston Harbor opened in 2019. Sportsbooks operate with small profit margins, unlike casinos. New Hampshire’s revenue haul of $10 million on more than $300 million wagered works out to a take of 3.33 percent for the state, far lower than the 25 percent tax rate Massachusetts imposes on gross gaming revenues at its two casinos. The House laid out a betting proposal that would approve physical and mobile wagering under the oversight of the Mass. Gaming Commission. The Senate, meanwhile, seems to still be thinking about whether it even wants to legalize betting, let alone how it would be structured.

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