By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE: Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ and senators’ votes on roll calls from the week of July 6-10.
$38.1 BILLION FISCAL 2016 STATE BUDGET (H 3650)
House 153-1, Senate 31-5 and then 36-0, approved and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a conference committee’s compromise version of a $38.1 billion fiscal 2016 state budget. Baker has 10 days to sign the budget and to veto sections of it. It would then take a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override the veto. The conference committee version was hammered out after the House and Senate each approved different versions of the budget.
In the end, the changes in tax policy included in the Senate version of the budget but not in the House one did not make it into this compromise version. In addition to freezing the income tax at 5.15 percent instead of letting it drop to as low as 5 percent over the next few years, the Senate version also would have raised personal income tax exemptions.
The budget includes a provision that permanently eliminates a 2008 tax break for multinational corporations that has never been implemented. It also increases the earned income tax credit for low-income working families with children living at home from 15 percent of the federal credit to 23 percent of the federal credit. The credit is applied toward the taxpayer’s liability, and if it exceeds the liability, the taxpayer receives the excess credit as a refund.
Another interesting provision that flew beneath the radar is a $10,000 two-part pay raise for the eight elected members of the Governor’s Council. A $5,000 hike would bring their current salary of $26,025 to $31,025 almost immediately, and then another $5,000 hike to $36,025 would take place in January. The Governor’s Council screens and votes on the confirmation of the governor’s judicial appointments and votes on requests for pardons and commutations of sentences.
The budget includes many reforms at the MBTA and gives Gov. Baker the increased authority over the operation that he has long been seeking. The most controversial provision in the compromise version turned out to be the temporary three-year suspension of the 1993 “Pacheco Law” as it relates to the MBTA. The law regulates the privatization of state services that cost more than $200,000. It includes several requirements including mandating that a state agency compare the cost of using a private company to the cost of the services if the current state employees were to work in the most cost-efficient manner rather than to the actual current cost. The state auditor also has the final say and can reject a contract that he or she determines has not met all of the requirements or is “not in the public interest.”
Supporters of suspending the “Pacheco Law” said it is so restrictive that it has virtually stopped the privatization of state services and cost the state millions of dollars. They argued that private companies can often provide services at a lower cost than the state. They noted that suspension of the law for the MBTA would allow more privatization of MBTA services and save millions of dollars that could be used to fund local aid and other important programs.
Opponents of suspending it said that prior to passage of the law, former Gov. William Weld’s administration implemented extensive privatization of state services without any oversight or regulation of the process. They argued the suspension is clearly anti-union and noted that the law has worked well and is designed to ensure that the quality of privately delivered services is equal to services that would be delivered by the state. They noted that since the law was passed in 1993, a majority of privatization requests by the MBTA have been approved.
Supporters of the budget said it is a balanced one that makes vital investments in the state while continuing fiscal responsibility.
Opponents of the budget mainly objected to the suspension of the “Pacheco Law.”
There were two votes on the budget in the Senate and one in the House. The Senate approved the compromise version on a 31-5 vote and then on a unanimous 36-0 vote gave it final approval. The House voted 153-1 in favor of the compromise version and then gave it final approval on a voice vote without a roll call.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), one of the five senators who voted for and then against the budget, said that the vote against it was a vote against the suspension of the “Pacheco Law,” which he said will further privatize the MBTA and potentially cut the wages and benefits of workers. He said he voted in favor of final approval of the budget because he supported the entire budget as a whole.
(A “Yes” vote is for the budget. A “No” vote is against it.)
Rep. Jennifer Benson, Yes; Rep. Sheila Harrington, Didn’t Vote; Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes/Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, No/Yes; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes/Yes.
ALSO ON BEACON HILL
2,478 STATE WORKERS RETIRE EARLY — The final figures are in, and the State Retirement Board has processed 2,478 applications from state workers for early retirement, 45 percent fewer than the 4,500 that supporters had predicted. Gov. Charlie Baker in early May signed into law a bill creating the Employee Retirement Incentive Program that offers early retirement to thousands of state workers in the executive branch. In order to qualify, a worker must have minimum of 20 years of service or be at least 55 years of age.
PROPERTY TAX EXEMPTION (H 2583) — The House gave initial approval to a bill providing up to a $2,500 property tax exemption for taxpayers who serve as volunteer call or auxiliary firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The exemption would be available only in cities and towns that adopt this local option law.
PUBLIC HOUSING AND VETERANS — The Housing Committee will hold a public hearing on July 28 at 10 a.m. in room A-2 at the Statehouse on legislation to give veterans preference in renting all state-subsidized housing (H 1095).
Another bill on the agenda would require all current tenants and new applicants for subsidized housing to provide their social security number and for the housing agency to verify the number (H 1092).
Supporters say it is outrageous that currently people can get subsidized housing without producing a social security number. They noted this must stop so that people who are verified and struggling can get this valuable housing.
Opponents said this would take housing away from immigrants including people who were granted temporary status from Haiti, Sudan and Syria, and those who suffered from domestic violence, torture and crime in their country.
OTHER HOUSING MEASURES — Other bills that will be heard by the Housing Committee on July 28 include establishing a program that would provide up to $2,500 to cover closing costs for income-eligible first-time homebuyers (S 721); creating a home loan program for first responders who are required to live within a minimum distance from the municipality they serve (S 713); and establishing a bill of rights for homeless persons. This bill of rights prohibits denial of any person’s rights, privileges or access to public services solely because he or she is homeless. Specifics include guaranteeing a homeless person’s right to use and move freely in public spaces, including sidewalks, parks and public transportation buildings; equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies; emergency medical care; the right to vote; and a reasonable expectation of privacy of his or her personal property to the same extent as if he or she were in a permanent residence.
2015 SALES TAX HOLIDAY (H 2634) — The Revenue Committee will hold a public hearing on July 21 at 10 a.m. in room A-1 at the Statehouse on legislation allowing consumers to buy most products that cost under $2,500 on Saturday, August 15, and Sunday, August 16, without paying the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.
Supporters of the bill say that the holiday would boost retail sales and argued that the state’s sales tax revenue loss would be offset by increased revenue from the meals and gas tax revenue generated by shoppers on those two days.
Some opponents of the bill say the state cannot afford the up to $40 million revenue loss and argued the holiday actually generates little additional revenue for stores because consumers would buy the products even without the tax-free days. They argue that the Legislature should be looking at broader, deeper tax relief for individuals and businesses.
TAX “JUNK FOOD” (H 2575) — Also on the Revenue Committee’s July 21 agenda is a bill titled “An Act to Reduce Childhood Obesity.” It imposes the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax on the sale of candy, and soft drinks, both currently exempt.
MAKE MORE “STUFF” TAX-FREE — Several proposals before the Revenue Committee on July 21 offer exemptions for certain items from the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. These exemptions include used books and other items sold by libraries for the purpose of raising money to be used for the libraries (H 2536); any retail sale made within 10 miles of the New Hampshire border (H 2619); gun safes and trigger locks (H 2626); original and creative work, written, composed created and sold by a writer, composer or artist (H 2697); medical alert services like Lifeline’s “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” (H 2624); artisan products sold in a cultural district, a geographical area of a city or town with a concentration of cultural facilities located within it (H 3292); and boats built or rebuilt and delivered in Massachusetts (S 1486).-
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK’S SESSION? During the week of July 6-10, the House met for a total of five hours and 51 minutes and the Senate met for a total of 12 hours and 15 minutes.