Massachusetts lawmakers are entering the final days of their session with a tall stack of closely-watched bills that would affect employees and companies still unresolved.
The potential policy changes at question could change how you look for work, get around town, open up the electricity market, or loosen longstanding liquor laws. But first, the proposed laws must survive a round of horse-trading, as legislators from the state House and Senate meet behind closed doors in so-called “conference committees” to reconcile the differences between their versions.
Technically, the committees face an 8 p.m. deadline on Saturday to present their finished work to the full Legislature, which is scheduled to adjourn its formal sessions at the close of July. However, lawmakers could also suspend those rules to give themselves more time.
Here’s a look at the pressing commercial concerns on the docket as Beacon Hill gears up for a long stretch run:
These employment contracts dictate when workers can jump to a competitor or start a business rival.
Large employers such as EMC Corp. and Boston Scientific have argued that noncompete agreements protect them from rivals’ schemes to siphon away trade secrets and skilled employees. But venture capital investors and fast-growing tech startups say noncompetes put a brake on hiring and company creation.
Both sides agree there should be a limit on noncompetes for lower-paid workers. They disagree, however, over the length of agreements covering higher-paid workers and over how long those workers should be paid by their former employers to sit out of the job market. The Senate says no more than three months, at full pay, while the House wants noncompetes to be allowed for up to a year, with half pay during that time.
There’s broad agreement that transportation app companies Uber and Lyft should be subject to some form of oversight by the state. But lawmakers still have some major differences. One of the biggest is the House’s call for a five-year moratorium on Uber and Lyft pickups at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and extension of a similar ban at Logan Airport. (Registered livery vehicles that use Uber to book customers are allowed at Logan.)
Both chambers also have pushed for additional background checks of ride-hailing drivers. The companies prefer the Senate’s method, which they say is more streamlined and won’t slow recruiting too drastically.
Hotel patrons pay a bundle of extra taxes to stay in Massachusetts — close to 15 percent in Boston, for example. But travelers who pay homeowners to rent their residences, like a vacation house on the Cape, do not.
That discrepancy wasn’t terribly controversial until the rise of Airbnb, the website that allows just about anyone rent spare rooms, apartments, or entire homes to visitors. Airbnb now has more than 2 million properties listed worldwide.
The hotel industry and Airbnb actually agree that private rentals should have to fork over their share of lodging taxes. But Governor Charlie Baker poured cold water on that plan last week, saying he’s not ready to raise taxes.
Numerous booze-related amendments are in play this weekend, the culmination of an eventful six months in the state’s alcohol industry.
Perhaps the most important would allow municipalities — except Boston — to decide for themselves how many liquor licenses to make available to businesses within their borders. Currently communities have to ask the Legislature to raise the number available. Some restaurants and bars are fighting the measure, saying increasing or removing state caps on licenses would destroy the value of the licenses they already hold.
Another proposed measure addresses a controversial law that makes it difficult and expensive for brewers to switch to a new distributor. Brewers want more flexibility, but an alliance of distributors has repeatedly blocked changes to the law in the past. Now, Senate lawmakers are pushing a bill that would require the two sides to work out a compromise before 2017.
Two bills with broad support in the House, meanwhile, would allow certain businesses to simultaneously hold two types of liquor licenses. The first, introduced in response to the Nashoba Valley Winery licensing debacle, would permit so-called farmer-wineries to serve their drinks at an on-site restaurant. The second, intended to clear the way for Mario Batali’s Eataly food emporium to open at the Prudential Center, would allow certain retailers to sell take-home bottled alcohol in a market while also serving wine and other drinks at a restaurant.
The most complex bill still in play on Beacon Hill focuses on electricity. Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation would require utilities to buy hydropower from Canadian dams, plus electricity from proposed offshore wind farms, boosting the new clean energy industry sector. The Senate wants to compel larger electricity purchases than the House, whose leaders are concerned about the potential costs of those contracts.
The Senate also wants to tackle other issues, ranging from electricity storage to home energy efficiency. Among the biggest differences between the two: whether the Legislature should block the Baker administration from making electricity consumers pay for new natural gas pipelines. The Senate supports a ban on this so-called “pipeline tax,” but the House would allow the pipeline charge.
The Senate this weekend is expected to pass a bill that would require employers to provide up to 16 weeks of paid family and sick leave. The union-backed proposal seems dormant in the House for now, but a victory in the Senate this summer could provide important momentum for its supporters in the Legislature when the issue comes up again next year.
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