State lawmakers give late OK to Uber, energy bills
The Legislature early Monday sent to Governor Charlie Baker three key bills — regulating ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, requiring utilities to contract with more hydro- and wind-power, and working to boost the economy through programs such as job training.
But as the House and Senate lurched past a midnight deadline, lawmakers left a fourth closely watched bill dead: one that would have restricted noncompete agreements, used by companies to prevent employees from leaving to work for a competitor or to start a rival firm.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the final frantic hours of lawmaking was what is known as the Uber legislation — and the outcome was seen as largely good news for the ride-hailing industry.
The bill mandates driver background checks, to be conducted by the transportation network companies and the state, but does not require fingerprinting of drivers. It would impose a 20-cent-per-ride fee on the companies, with the proceeds split among cities, towns, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and a fund to help the taxi and livery businesses.
And it would allow drivers to pick up passengers from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and, for drivers with the right permits, Logan International Airport.
“We are pleased that the Legislature came to an agreement on common-sense legislation that sets high safety standards while keeping modern transportation options like Lyft available across the Bay State,” said Adrian Durbin, a Lyft spokesman.
An Uber spokesperson said the company applauds the process and is reviewing the bill.
House and Senate negotiators also agreed to a renewable energy bill that would require utilities to contract for up to 2,800 megawatts of hydropower and wind power in the years ahead.
That’s equal to about a third of the power Massachusetts uses every year, and legislators see it as a big step toward reducing the state’s carbon footprint.
And legislators were also cheering an economic development bill that included items ranging from incentives for new housing to grants for community development to job training.
Notably, it did not include a controversial proposal to tax short-term rentals on Airbnb and online vacation sites like hotel stays.
But lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on loosening the state’s rules for noncompetition contracts, which can bar workers from competing against a former employer.
The contracts, once an obscure bit of hiring paperwork, have become controversial among powerful factions in the state’s business community. Technology startups and their investors say noncompetes stop entrepreneurs from launching companies and hiring the best people. But some large employers, including EMC Corp. and Boston Scientific, have argued that the contracts protect Massachusetts companies from being raided by ruthless competitors.
Although lawmakers have had since January 2015 to do the hard work of legislating — holding hearings, voting in each chamber, and hashing out compromises — many other items were poised to die a silent death at midnight.
The tension was palpable. Lobbyists with furrowed brows poked at their iPhones and sipped vending-machine Coca-Cola, legislative aides speed-walked through the marble halls, and journalists pestered insiders with increasing intensity.
Under the rules of the Legislature, final compromise bills were supposed to be released to the public by 8 p.m. Saturday. But in a State House not known for its transparency, lawmakers suspended the rules and sent the bills to the governor shortly after the final language became public.
Asked about the opacity of the proceedings, Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Sunday afternoon: “It is always my hope that we can get these pieces of legislation out earlier than we do.”
Yet, DeLeo indicated, waiting until the last possible minute is human nature. He cited similar instances of tardiness in the business, sports, and the legal worlds.
The graveyard of bills that won’t become law this year is vast.
A bill that would have raised the minimum legal sales age for tobacco products from 18 to 21 passed the Senate, and the general idea of such an age hike has the support of DeLeo and Baker. But that legislation is effectively dead because the House did not take it up for a vote.
The Senate also passed a bill creating a paid family and medical leave program for workers that will not see the light of day in the House.
And, because the state is grappling with budget troubles — a gap between authorized spending and anticipated revenue — the Massachusetts tradition of a summer weekend sales tax holiday will be suspended.
Retailers have long asserted that the holiday is a boon to the state’s economy and that vastly outweighs the revenue the state would forgo.
But opponents fret that the weekend pause on the sales tax diverts money — $26 million in revenue was forgone in 2015 — from key state programs, and alters when consumers spend their cash, rather than boosting the economy more broadly.
Earlier Sunday, there was a slow dribble of legislative action.
The House and Senate overrode a series of budget vetoes from Baker. And a bill closely watched by cities and towns to “modernize” laws that affect municipalities — from finance to speed limits — was enacted by the Legislature and sent to Baker.
Notably, the final version did not include a provision that would have granted cities and towns more control over liquor licenses. That means the century-old practice of Beacon Hill’s setting local caps on liquor licenses will continue, and municipalities will still need lawmakers to sign off to grant more establishments the right to sell liquor.
Geoff Beckwith, the state’s top lobbyist for cities and towns, said the bill includes “an impressive array” of updates to the law and gets rid of “outdated and obsolete statutes” that make it harder for municipalities to serve their citizens.
For example, it allows a town to use certain insurance proceeds — say, for a police cruiser that was damaged — without having to wait for a full vote of the town meeting, which currently means months of delay, he said. Beckwith said it doesn’t make any sense for a town to have cash from an insurance company, but have to wait a long time to spend it.
The legislation also allows cities and towns to set lower speed limits on local streets than those set by Massachusetts law.
For his part, Baker, a Republican, was keeping close tabs on the legislative back-and-forth, aides said.
Early Monday, he said he was thankful lawmakers took action on “several important pieces of legislation.” Baker, who has veto power, said he would review the bills.
Now that the formal session for the year has concluded, lawmakers will still meet and advance legislation in informal sessions. In those sessions, a single legislator can derail proceedings.