Pick up the pace, Beacon Hill
AS 2017 COMES to a close, Massachusetts lawmakers find themselves in a familiar situation: entering the second, shorter year of a legislative session with many important matters unresolved. With broad philosophical differences between the House and Senate, a leadership vacuum in the Senate — where Stan Rosenberg has stepped aside, at least temporarily, in favor of an acting president — and a new Ways and Means chairman trying to find his footing in the House, the potential is large for business to bog down.
Lawmakers must take special pains to see that inertia doesn’t set in. Citizens have a right to expect better, particularly since solons began this year by granting themselves a handsome pay raise. So here’s a handful of matters that should be (easily) resolved before the legislature leaves formal session on July 31 — and in measured fashion, not a chaotic end-of-session rush.
Back in June, Governor Charlie Baker proposed recharging predecessor Deval Patrick’s life-sciences initiative with another $295 million for capital spending, plus $150 million for tax incentives. There would still be state dollars for research-and-development infrastructure as well as for school STEM equipment, but also more focus on workforce development and job creation. There would also be state money for co-working space for startups.
This program has helped establish Massachusetts as one of the leaders in life sciences. Re-upping it is simple common sense.
Another entry in the common-sense category: taxing regular short-term home or apartment rentals of the sort facilitated by Airbnb and HomeAway. Massachusetts is now the only New England state that doesn’t require those home or apartment owners to collect a hotel-like tax from their guests. Such a levy would have raised at least $18 million for the Commonwealth in 2017. The sticking points have been whether to tax every such rental or only frequent ones. Still, it’s time to put disagreements and pride of authorship aside. The best way forward is to establish a state framework like the one Baker proposed — applying the state’s antidiscrimination laws and its 5.7 percent hotel tax to those who rent their houses or apartments more than 150 days a year — and then letting cities and towns do more if they choose.
Next up: addressing both (underage) sexting and revenge porn. The former is the consensual sharing of explicit images, the later the posting of sexually explicit photos to humiliate a former girlfriend (or, possibly, boyfriend).
Under current law, the only legal option for dealing with minors who send explicit photos to each other is to prosecute them for distribution of child pornography, a felony. Legislation backed by the governor, law enforcement, and educators would let teen offenders be enrolled in so-called educational diversion programs aimed at remedying the behavior rather than subjecting them to prosecution. And should prosecution be the appropriate remedy in a particular case, this legislation would establish a misdemeanor route as an alternative to felony prosecution for nonconsensual distribution of those images.
The adult revenge-porn aspect of the law would close a legal loophole by making it a crime for adults to distribute a sexually explicit image of a subject without the subject’s consent, even if the photo itself was taken with consent.
Finally, it’s time for the legislature to update the state’s wiretapping law, as a succession of governors and attorneys general have urged. The state’s current law is so narrowly tailored that it’s useful only as a tool against organized crime, and not, say, street gangs and the mayhem they cause. Indeed, several Supreme Judicial Court justices have noted that the restrictive language of the current law renders it useless even against alleged murderers unless those crimes are committed as part of an organized criminal enterprise. The proposal that Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and the state’s district attorneys are backing would make the law more versatile while still maintaining numerous safeguards, including judicial sign-off.
This is not a full legislative agenda, of course. Rather, it should be a minimum to-do list for lawmakers to claim that they’ve earned their pay by attending diligently to the public business. So on your mark, legislators. You’ve got only seven months.