Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday proposed some minor changes to the bill regulating Airbnb and other short-term rentals that lawmakers passed this week. But those small changes could throw a big wrench into complex legislation that was years in the making.
Baker proposed exempting homeowners who rent their properties 14 nights per year or less from the new taxes and insurance requirements. It’s an effort, he said, to protect homeowners who only occasionally rent out their properties from “burdensome government bureaucracy” and would affect just 1 percent of expected revenue from short-term rentals in the state.
But Baker acted a day after the Legislature ended its formal session, meaning lawmakers would either have to vote, unanimously, on the governor’s proposal as-is or call a special session to rewrite the bill. And that could get complicated.
The measure, which would require short-term rental operators to register with the state, carry $1 million in liability insurance, and pay taxes equivalent to those paid by hotels, passed both the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities in the waning hours of the formal legislative session on Monday. That short clock left Baker the ability to propose changes after the session ended — meaning that any vote to accept or reject his changes would have to be unanimous.
Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat who was one of the chief architects of the legislation, wouldn’t speculate Wednesday night on the bill’s fate. But he acknowledged the governor’s move was another hurdle for the long-debated legislation to clear.
“We’re certainly disappointed that [Baker] decided to send back amendments after we’re out of full formal session,” he said. “But he has the right to do so. We’re going to take a look and see what our options are.”
According to an administration source, the governor on Monday offered to return the bill with similar amendments before the formal session ended if the legislation’s sponsors agreed to the changes. They did not.
With the legislation back in their laps, it’s unclear how lawmakers will proceed.
Working in an informal session — when a single vote of opposition can kill a piece of legislation — legislators could vote to accept the governor’s changes, or reject them, thus returning the bill to Baker’s desk. At that point, he would have 10 days to sign it, veto it, or do nothing, which would effectively kill the legislation.
If Baker were to veto whatever lawmakers return to him, that also could spell an end to the bill. A veto override requires a two-thirds vote by each chamber, and that can be done only if lawmakers call a formal session.
Aides to both House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Karen E. Spilka said they would review the bill when asked if they’d consider reopening the chambers.
The industry giant Airbnb hailed Baker’s decision, saying it would allow more time to hammer out the intricate regulations. “Over 15,000 Massachusetts families use Airbnb to make ends meet, and attempts to deter home sharing hurt them and their communities,” the company said in a statement. “Gov. Baker’s action allows for a more robust conversation on their access to supplemental income, their privacy and the Commonwealth’s economic future.”
Some advocates for stricter short-term rental rules say that by sending the bill back now, Baker has sealed its fate.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” said Ford Cavallari, chair of Boston’s Association of Downtown Civic Organizations. “Chances are, unless Michlewitz can pull a rabbit out of a hat, this move kills the bill, and the years of work behind it.”
The bill dying could have broad ramifications for Boston and Cambridge, which have both recently passed strict ordinances requiring short-term hosts to register with local officials, among other requirements. In Cambridge, where the rules took effect in April, about 175 hosts have registered, far fewer than the 1,500 or more short-term rentals that are estimated to exist in the city. Officials had hoped a statewide registry would bolster the local effort and put more teeth in their new rules.
“It’s very hard for cities and towns individually to do these registries,” Bob Reardon, Cambridge’s director of assessing, said in a recent interview.
Baker’s proposal also addresses concerns about making the registries public. Airbnb and other big platforms had said a public database would threaten the privacy of their hosts. Baker’s amendment calls for a public registry, but with only street names and towns , not specific addresses.
The original bill was designed, through years of negotiations, to carefully balance the needs of many parties, said Paul Sacco, president of the Massachusetts Lodging Association. They include housing advocates in Boston, second-home owners on Cape Cod, and the state, which would collect an estimated $25 million in taxes under the new plan. Now, everyone could be back to the drawing board.
“What we were trying to do was present something to the governor that would be a slam-dunk. Palatable and equitable and fair,” Sacco said. “This should have been a celebration.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the scope of Baker’s proposed changes to the AirBnB bill as a percentage of all short term rentals. Baker’s changes, he said, would affect 1 percent of the expected revenue from short-term rentals in the state.