College kids don’t have anything on our Legislature when it comes to procrastination. A two-year law-making cycle came down to the wire this weekend with five major bills that needed to get hammered out.
The Legislature gets an F for time management, though it gets a higher mark — a generous B+ — for getting some major business legislation done, including energy, ride-hailing, and pay equity.
Here’s a score card of this session’s winners and losers as bills land on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk:
UBER, LYFT — No fingerprinting for drivers, no mandated restrictions at Logan or at the convention centers, as Massachusetts stands poised to join 34 other states with regulations on ride-hailing services. Sure, the industry must stomach a new 20-cent-a-ride surcharge, but these companies were never worried about new fees or taxes, just onerous background checks. One potential roadblock: Governor Charlie Baker. Will the Republican, who is allergic to new taxes, balk at signing a bill that proposes one? Let’s hope he recognizes this as a level-the-playing-field tactic, not raising an existing tax.
HYDROPOWER & OFFSHORE WIND — The Baker administration pushed for a comprehensive approach to contain the state’s high energy costs, often cited by companies as one of the top impediments to doing business in Massachusetts. Most notably the state will usher in a new era of hydropower, most likely from Canada, and offshore wind that is not produced by Cape Wind. Utilities can also claim a victory with the survival of the so-called pipeline tax, which will allow them to bill customers for the costs of bringing more natural gas to the region.
EQUALITY — Say what you will about Senate President Stan Rosenberg and how much he got out of this session, but this is undisputable: He and the Senate leaders pushed through two high-profile pieces of legislation that will help the transgender community and women.
Baker, after much controversy, signed a bill in July that strengthens the state’s transgender rights law to allow individuals to use public bathrooms based on gender identity rather than their sex at birth. On Monday afternoon, he approved pay equity legislation that promotes salary transparency and encourages companies to conduct reviews to detect pay disparities.
In the waning days of the session, the Senate also passed a family leave measure that would require employers to offer paid time off to care for a newborn or a sick relative. The bill didn’t have a chance in the House, but the Senate’s effort is more than a gesture. The family leave act now goes into next session with momentum.
THE ARTS — A searing Boston Foundation report indicated that per-capita corporate and government sponsorship of the arts in Boston is paltry compared to peer cities. Baker hasn’t done much to change that perception. The governor once again tried to veto the Legislature’s arts funding by cutting more than half of the $14.1 million budget proposed for the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The group is a critical way for the state to support nonprofit arts organizations and cultural education. The House and Senate restored the governor’s cuts, after advocacy group MASSCreative organized a campaign that inundated legislators with 12,000 messages and phone calls.
STATE HOUSE LAWN — Taken for granted no more. Baker slipped into the supplementary budget a proposal to grant a developer a permanent easement to occupy a sliver of the State House lawn. Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the Massachusetts Historical Commission, cried foul, and Baker backed off. Now what that section of the lawn really needs is attention from state groundskeepers armed with weed whackers.
INNOVATION ECONOMY — At first glance, the House and Senate may have seemed far apart on restricting corporate noncompete clauses, but in reality they have never been closer. The Patrick administration supported a bill in 2014 that only made it through the Senate. This time both chambers passed versions but disagreed on terms of the so-called garden leave, which would require companies to pay former workers to stay out of the job market.
Noncompete agreements give companies the right to sue a former employee who starts a new company or joins a competing business. New economy types will tell you it’s a big reason why Massachusetts can’t compete with California for tech talent; old economy will tell you there’s no evidence that banning noncompetes would help us.
In the end, it seemed like the Legislature ran out of time, but it was more like they ran out the clock on a contentious topic that five business organizations — including Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce — raised concerns about.
TRANSPARENCY — Maybe it was the distraction of the Republican and Democratic national conventions that made the Legislature go into overtime to finish the session. Whatever the reason, we shouldn’t accept any excuses for waiting until the last minute to resolve differences on major bills. Under its own rules, the Legislature was supposed to release final compromise bills to the public by 8 p.m. Saturday. Lawmakers suspended those rules, and the public didn’t get to see the final language on some of the bills until shortly before they were sent to the governor. The result: a lot of bleary-eyed speed reading Sunday night, with little opportunity for objections from the public, or legislators who only had enough time to rubber-stamp the bills. No A for effort.
WORKING FAMILIES — Legislators had a chance to do something that Airbnb begged them to do: slap a tax on the short-term home rental industry. In its version of the economic development bill, the Senate proposed extending the state’s 5.7 percent hotel tax to companies that rent vacation homes and rooms through online sites like Airbnb. The measure would raise an estimated $16.7 million — money the Senate proposed to help expand the earned income tax credit, which aids families with an annual household income of under $53,000. It was a proposal that the House didn’t have much time to digest, and it didn’t help that Baker flip-flopped on the issue, signaling initially he would sign such a measure but then changing his mind. Ultimately, Beacon Hill couldn’t come up with a compromise.
CHARTER SCHOOLS — Beacon Hill had a chance to come up with a bill that would have lifted the cap on charter schools in the state, but it failed miserably. Baker got the ball rolling with his own legislation, but the momentum stopped after the Senate came out with a version that managed to satisfy practically no one. Under that proposal, the number of charter schools would have increased modestly but with new restrictions placed on the category. Baker had to go to Plan B, which is to back a ballot initiative that mirrors his own legislation. But we elect officials to lead, and education is too important of an issue to pass the buck — and details — to the voters.