Lawmakers Pass Slew Of Last-Minute Bills

Massachusetts lawmakers ended their formal session for the year by passing measures to overhaul the state's criminal records system and create a sales tax holiday.

Lawmakers also gave final approval to a measure to reduce health care costs for small businesses, but failed to take a final vote on another measure to streamline the site selection process for wind energy turbines.

Supporters of the wind energy bill hope the Senate can give it a final vote during an informal session, delivering it to Gov. Deval Patrick's desk.

The session ended at midnight Saturday. Sessions for the remainder of the year will be informal where a single lawmaker can halt debate.

Patrick will now decide whether to sign the bills, veto them or send them back to the Legislature with amendments.

Under an agreement reached to overhaul the state's Criminal Offender Record Information system, felony convictions would be sealed after 10 years, instead of the current 15-year stipulation. Misdemeanor convictions would be sealed after five years, instead of the current 10. Employers would not have access to the sealed records.

In addition, employers could not ask job applicants about their criminal background on written applications but could pose the question during job interviews.

"This bill is about jobs and getting people back into society in a meaningful way," said Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton.

The economic development bill would create a sales tax holiday Aug. 14 and 15 when shoppers would not have to pay the state's 6.25 percent tax. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the tax-free weekend would help consumers and businesses that have suffered during the economic recession.

The bill also streamlines state economic development agencies and sets a 3 percent tax rate on capital investments for startup companies, down from the current 5.3 percent rate.

"It sends all the right signals that we are serious about investment and growth here in the commonwealth," said Senate President Therese Murray.

Legislators approved a compromise designed to help small businesses combat rising health care costs. A tax on hospitals, which was included in the Senate's original legislation, was stripped out of the compromise bill.

The legislation allows small businesses to form cooperatives to strengthen their purchasing power and requires insurers to promote low-cost health care providers in their networks. Supporters estimate the bill would help small businesses save 10 percent on health care premium costs.

"It is going to be an immediate help to many small businesses who say they can't stay in business because of health care costs," said Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge.

Moore said the bill will set the stage for lawmakers to address other health care measures in the legislative session that begins in January. "This indicates to payers and providers that we are serious about payment reform," he said.

Supporters say the wind energy bill would help the state meet renewable energy goals. It calls on communities with wind power potential to create local boards to approve such projects. The projects also would need approval from the state Energy Facilities Siting Board.

Opponents argue the bill would take local control away from cities and towns.

But Patrick has said the bill is designed to reduce red tape, not local control.

Bills forcing the state's investment board to divest from any company with connections to Iran and an overhaul of the state's prescription monitoring system were also sent to Patrick's desk.

This program aired on August 1, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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