The winners, losers in Mass. economic development bill
Summertime on Beacon Hill can also seem like Christmastime, at least when it comes to hashing out legislation to stoke economic activity.
Last week, legislative leaders released their first big economic development bill under Governor Charlie Baker. And though it was carefully crafted to avoid causing a big hit to the state’s already precarious operating budget, lawmakers still packed it with plenty of goodies.
The bill needs to go through some legislative pinball before formal sessions end on July 31, bouncing among committees and floor votes, starting with a State House hearing on Tuesday. But there probably won’t be many dramatic changes. Here’s a quick look at the winners and losers so far.
■ The Baker administration: Lawmakers pared back what Baker and Jay Ash, his economic chief, sought in terms of capital spending for various business-focused funds controlled by the administration, to about $600 million from more than $900 million. This still represents a victory for Baker. Legislators by and large agreed to pay for all of his priorities. He’ll just get three years of authorizations instead of five. This money would come from bond funds, not the operating budget, staying within the state’s borrowing limits.
The biggest beneficiary would be the MassWorks program, which would get $300 million over three years to fund infrastructure grants primarily for areas where multifamily housing projects or employer expansions are proposed.
There’s $71 million to establish research institutes on emerging manufacturing technologies, such as one at MIT that will focus on high-tech fabrics, and the state’s brownfields fund for cleaning up contaminated properties receives a welcome infusion of $45 million.
And there’s $30 million for a new program to help pay for workforce training equipment.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders agreed to raise the cap on one particular incentive program that could be used to land the “Big One” — the next General Electric, the kind of employer that would add hundreds of jobs. (The bill refers to this as an “extraordinary economic development opportunity.”) That cap would be raised to as high as $50 million, from as much as $30 million, in total state tax credits allowed for a single employer in one year.
■ Higher education: Lawmakers created a $1,000 income tax deduction for individuals who contribute to college savings plans, also known as 529 plans, or $2,000 for married filers. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts teamed up with some major business groups to push for this tax credit, one that’s already common in other states. In an effort to cover the cost, legislators would eliminate a tuition deduction for out-of-state residents.
■ Newly formed startups: To spur growth in young tech firms, the bill would offer tax credits to angel investors — early backers who help founders get off the ground. The tax credit would equal 20 percent of the investment, with each taxpayer limited to getting $50,000 per year. The expense would be covered through an existing life sciences incentive program.
■ Mid-size cities: Lawmakers sprinkled the bill with measures aimed at spurring more economic activity within so-called gateway cities — places like Lawrence, Springfield, and Fall River where the median income is below the state average. Angel investors would get a 30 percent credit for plowing money into startups in these cities, for example, and projects would have a lower bar to qualify for the $50 million “Big One” incentive package. Also notable: A relatively new program that helps MassDevelopment invest in key properties in these communities could get as much as $30 million in bond funds over three years.
■ Real estate developers: The bill contains several measures aimed at prompting construction, including on underused sites in gateway cities or through more housing in the suburbs. One new way to do this: a system that rewards towns financially for creating dense “starter home districts” where middle-class housing can go up on lots smaller than what’s allowed by zoning.
■ Amazon: Sorry, Jeff Bezos. You’ll probably have to deal with our blue laws, after all. The Baker administration wanted to stop requiring retailers to pay time-and-a-half on Sundays for warehouse workers. Legislative leaders opted against this request, which was viewed as a benefit for Amazon, the online retailer that plans to open a massive new distribution center on the Freetown-Fall River border.
Eataly: The food emporium could face a little indigestion as it prepares to expand to Boston by sometime next winter with a complex at the Prudential Center. The hitch: Baker administration officials worry that Eataly’s approach of selling wine for take-home while also providing it by the glass, in a sit-down setting, could run afoul of state laws. They had proposed a fix, but legislators opted not to pick it up —
■ Smaller retailers: The Retailers Association of Massachusetts again lobbied for some help for Main Street shops. Better luck next time. The group has been arguing for years about the unfairness that retailers — but not other kinds of businesses — need to pay extra for employees to work on Sundays, and saw the Amazon provision as an opening.
Instead, lawmakers opted not to give relief to any retailer, online or brick-and-mortar. The association also unsuccessfully sought some help for the small retailers struggling with double-digit health insurance premiums.
And the sales tax holiday’s fate for 2016 remains uncertain, with no mention in the Legislature’s bill.
At least one arcane Blue Law got fixed. Apparently, merchants haven’t been allowed to sell alcohol on the Monday after Christmas if the holiday lands on a Sunday. This bill would change that, permitting the packies to stay open.