In the end, there’s something for almost everyone in the Legislature’s nearly $630 million economic development package, enacted after midnight on Wednesday morning while most of us were sleeping.
The sprawling economic development bill, assembled in the final moments of the two-year legislative session, could go a long way toward stimulating the state’s pandemic-stricken economy. Finally, lawmakers reached an agreement on Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice legislation, to make it easier for housing-related zoning changes to be passed on the local level. Restaurants will get to cap commissions on delivery services for the length of the pandemic emergency. And then there are all the bond authorizations, $627 million worth, to allow Baker and any successor to borrow money over five years for a variety of economic programs, many of them brand new.
Not everyone got what they wanted, of course. The House’s proposal to legalize sports betting did not survive the House-Senate negotiations. Its fate was not surprising, but the resolution is still bound to disappoint the casino operators and the pro sports teams that lobbied for it — as well as fantasy sports giant DraftKings, which remains shut out of the sports-wagering game in its home state. The Senate, meanwhile, had to give up, at least for now, on legislation to deter patent trolls.
Here’s a rundown of prominent items that did make it into the final legislation, now headed to Baker for his signature.
Housing: The Legislature handed Baker one of his biggest priorities. Dubbed Housing Choice, it will reduce the voting threshold, from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority, needed to pass a range of different land-use issues in cities and towns. Baker’s goal: to spur more housing construction. This version also includes language from the Senate requiring all municipalities served by the MBTA to have at least one district where multifamily housing suitable for families with children is permitted. The bill also includes some tenant protections, such as a local option giving tenants the right of first refusal to buy their home, but inevitably not all the changes some advocates wanted. And there is money, too, such as $50 million in bond authorizations for transit-oriented housing and $10 million for climate-resilient construction.
Restaurants: Relief is on the way for a sector devastated by COVID-19. Third-party delivery fees from the likes of Grubhub and DoorDash, which can range up to 30 percent or more, will now be capped at 15 percent during the state of emergency — except for restaurant chains with 25 or more locations in the state. The language also bans these delivery companies from reducing rates for drivers or garnishing tips as a result of these caps. And a $20 million restaurant relief fund will be established to help those hurt the most by the pandemic.
Small businesses: Including the restaurant fund, there’s more than $100 million in bonding authority to help small businesses. Other buckets include $30 million in small-business loans and $25 million in grants, both to be administered by the quasi-public Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation. It’s the same agency that has been charged with doling out more than $700 million in small-business grants since October by the Baker administration; grant applications are still being accepted for the latest round, with a focus on some of the hardest-hit industries in the pandemic. The MGCC is also authorized to distribute up to $35 million in matching grants to certain local organizations that help small businesses.
Tourism: Hotels will now be able to band together on a regional basis to impose an additional assessment in addition to their regular lodging taxes for the purpose of promoting tourism — a big priority for many of the regional tourism councils, including the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. Also included: up to $14 million to pay for marketing efforts as well as physical improvements and expansions at tourist destinations.
Arts/culture: Another sector hammered by the pandemic gets some help, including up to $20 million for grants to help cultural facilities safely reopen and take public-health steps during the pandemic, $6 million for grants to promote artists and help museums showcase exhibits remotely, and $5 million to go to schools to help them access cultural experiences remotely. A commission would also be established to address ways to help the cultural and creative sector recover from the pandemic.
Zoos: Nonprofit operator Zoo New England gets a $12.5 million boost for its two zoos, Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and Stone Zoo in Stoneham. At least $2.5 million would go to construction and would require matching funds to be raised by the zoos.
Rural areas: The bill sets up a complex new tax credit fund, capped at $60 million, to promote the retention of existing jobs and to stimulate the creation of new jobs in rural parts of the state by giving millions in credits to employers who do so. Small towns could also benefit from a $20 million grant program to support economic development, housing, and infrastructure projects. Cranberry farmers also get a new tax credit, of up to $100,000 each, to pay for bog renovations.
College loans: A new law will regulate student loan servicers, putting them under additional scrutiny. And a new position within the attorney general’s office will be created to help student borrowers, including with resolving complaints and pursuing repayment options.
Social enterprises: Defined as nonprofits that run operations to help low-income individuals overcome barriers to employment, the new law authorizes $27.7 million to help eligible social enterprises with property renovations and acquisitions. UTEC, which runs programs for older teens and young adults in Lowell, can get $2.7 million of this total.
Local projects: There are earmarks galore, scores of them, to send money back to the district. (As with these other expenditures, the governor has the ultimate authority on what to borrow and how to spend that money.) Potential beneficiaries are across the state, and include the likes of the New England Aquarium ($5 million), Northeastern University’s Burlington tech research center ($250,000), the Lawrence Rail Trail ($500,000), the Ashland Community Theatre ($20,000), the Pilgrim Hall museum in Plymouth ($75,000), and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst ($15,000).