United States: 2015-2016 Massachusetts Legislative Session Ends

After a mad scramble to take action before their midnight deadline, Massachusetts lawmakers closed the 2015-2016 legislative session by passing five of the "Big Six" bills on their agenda. Beacon Hill saw a flurry of activity in the final weekend of July as lawmakers rushed to make up for months of little action. Now, Governor Charlie Baker has 10 days to review the legislation he received.

Governor Baker, Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stan Rosenberg had determined a group of the "Big Six" bills they wanted to pass before the end of the session. Five of these six passed late Sunday night, as lawmakers approved bills related to economic development, energy, municipal modernization, and ride-sharing. Pay equity legislation had passed on July 21, which Governor Baker signed into law last week. The legislature fell just short of its goal by failing to take action on noncompete legislation, which died without an agreement.

This advisory covers recent highlights from the 2015-2016 legislative session and analyzes issues that may resurface in the 2017-2018 legislative session.

Economic Development

Economic Development Bill Seeks to Promote Job Creation and Infrastructure Improvements

The compromised economic development package (H.4569) aims to promote job creation, workforce development, and infrastructure improvements through approximately $1 billion in capital spending for targeted investments. While a number of provisions from the House and the Senate were included, some highly contentious language failed to survive the conference. The bill does not include an expansion of a tax incentive aimed at helping low-income workers, nor does it authorize the state lottery to expand into online gaming. Most notably for nonprofit organizations, an advocacy effort from MHA and allied groups successfully defeated language that would have imposed property taxes on nonprofit charitable corporations and public charities for four years after a property purchase. The final version also dropped a tax on short-term private room rentals, including those booked through the online site Airbnb.

MassWorks Infrastructure Program

The economic development bill authorizes $500 million for MassWorks Infrastructure Program. This program provides infrastructure grants for municipalities and eligible public entities seeking funding to support economic development. This work includes, but is not limited to, sewers, parking facilities, water treatment systems, and community revitalization.

National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Funding

This bill also authorizes $71 million to match grants so that Massachusetts colleges and universities can participate in the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) initiative. This federal initiative seeks to bring together manufacturers, university engineering schools, federal agencies, non-profits, community colleges, and regional and state organizations to invest in industrial and unique manufacturing technologies.

Transformative Development Initiative

The Transformative Development Fund, administered by MassDevelopment, received $45 million to make equity investments in major development projects in Gateway Cities. The authorized funding will also help provide necessary technical assistance for these municipalities.

Workforce Skills Capital Grants

As the House and Senate aim to promote job creation, this bill authorized $45 million to purchase and install equipment and building improvements for career technical education and training programs. The Workforce Skills Cabinet recently started the Workforce Skills Capital Grant Program to align state education, workforce, and economic development strategies.

eHealth Cluster Growth

Of particular note for the health care industry, the economic development bill adds a new section to chapter 40J that authorizes the Massachusetts e-Health Institute of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, along with the Secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and other advisors, to assist the growth of the e-health cluster through a set of initiatives. As telemedicine continues to grow, this institute is the designated state agency for promoting Health IT innovation to improve the safety, quality, and efficiency of health care.

Fantasy Sports Legalization

In a victory for the daily fantasy sports industry and Boston-based DraftKings, the economic development bill formally legalizes the DFS industry. While the bill does not regulate daily fantasy sports, language legally allows any fantasy sports operator to offer contests with cash prizes through July 31, 2018, so long as the contests are in accordance with the Attorney General's regulations. Fantasy sports are excluded from the state definition of gambling under the new legislation.

Modernization of Municipal Government

The 250 section compromise bill (H.4565) aims at modernizing municipal government functions across the state. Some of the provisions update obsolete laws, such as allowing electronic police ticketing, while others give cities and towns greater flexibility and authority. The central purpose of the bill is to make it easier for local officials to run their municipalities. Compromise language does not include changes favored by Governor Baker to give local officials control over how many liquor licenses to approve.

Streamlining Municipal Government Procurement and Operations

The bill reforms the process for procuring construction contracts, making it easier to select companies for small projects in municipalities. Cities and towns also gain the ability to set their own speed limits at 20 or 25 miles per hour in certain areas. The bill streamlines the process for accurately accounting for state-owned land, and modifies taxes and assessments. For example, former prisoners of war are exempt from paying the vehicle excise tax.

Municipal Funds and Commissions

Under the new legislation, municipalities have the authority to create various funds and commissions. For example, cities and towns could establish a trust fund to cover unanticipated special education costs or set aside money to pay for future retiree health insurance. Municipalities can also borrow money for certain purposes through established time frames, such as five-year bonds to cover energy audits.

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