Changes Sought By Baker Could Cloud Future Of Proposed Laws

In their scramble to approve numerous major bills before formal sessions ended for the year on July 31, Massachusetts lawmakers failed to leave themselves time to properly consider objections that Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has raised with some of the proposed new laws.

As a result, several measures that passed in the last-minute rush, including ones that call for taxing short-term rentals and better protecting consumers against data breaches, remain in a sort of legislative limbo — with no clear indication what might happen next.

The House and Senate can continue to meet informally through the remainder of the year, but the rules for informal sessions are very different than for formal ones.

Only a handful of lawmakers typically attend informal sessions. There is no debate and no roll calls. The sessions aren't televised so no one outside the State House can observe them. And, most importantly, legislation cannot advance during informal sessions if even a single member of either party objects.

In Massachusetts, Democrats hold a supermajority in both legislative chambers, so they normally have little trouble garnering the two-thirds vote required to override gubernatorial vetoes. But with no mechanism for a roll call during an informal session, any vetoes made after formal sessions conclude are almost certain to stick.

Likewise, a single negative vote stops any further amendments to a bill.

Legislative leaders could call lawmakers back into formal session, but that appears highly unlikely.

Here's a look at the status of some key bills returned by Baker:

Short-Term Rentals 

A compromise bill that would apply state and local lodging taxes to short-term rentals such as those offered by Airbnb, and create a statewide registry for short-term rentals, was approved by the Legislature on July 30 after months of negotiations between the House and Senate.

Days later, after the formal session ended, Baker returned the bill to lawmakers with an amendment to exempt from the tax homeowners who rent out rooms fewer than 14 days in a year. He also called for changes in the registry to protect personal information.

The proposed amendments were referred to a House committee.

The Massachusetts Lodging Association, which strongly supports the overall bill, has called on the governor and legislative leaders to resolve their differences. But if the amendments aren't unanimously approved by lawmakers, Baker must then either sign or veto the original bill.

Data Breaches

Baker also sought amendments to a bill that seeks to provide consumers more protection against having their personal information exposed by data breaches. Spurred by the massive 2017 Equifax breach, the measure would among things require companies that report data breaches to provide consumers with up to 18 months of free credit monitoring.

In an Aug. 3 letter to lawmakers, Baker said he largely supported the bill while adding that some provisions could result in unintended consequences; for example, preventing state agencies from enforcing payment of child support obligations.

Consumer advocates are urging lawmakers to accept amendments proposed by Baker, which were also shipped to a House panel for review.

Civics Education

A proposed law to encourage civics education was sent to Baker on July 25. Its goal is to foster a better-informed citizenry by requiring schools to provide instruction in U.S. history, government and social studies.

In an Aug. 6 letter to the Senate, the governor said he supported the "general objective" of the bill, but wanted assurances built into the law that civics programs in schools would be taught in a nonpartisan fashion, and that "differing points of view are afforded impartial consideration."

Baker's proposed amendments are being considered by a Senate committee.

Off-Peak Tolls

Lawmakers last month approved of conducting a limited test of discounted highway tolls during off-peak travel hours. The idea behind such a plan is to relieve choking rush-hour traffic by giving motorists an incentive to travel during less congested times, if they can.

Baker said it was premature to institute the pilot program before state transportation officials had a chance to study the concept. He vetoed the legislation after formal sessions ended.

'Cap On Kids'

The $41.7 billion state budget approved by lawmakers last month called for abolishing a policy that denies additional welfare benefits to children when they are born to parents already on welfare. Advocates for the poor had long decried the policy as punitive and harmful to vulnerable children.

The governor sought to amend the provision by tightening other welfare eligibility rules. To do otherwise, he argued, would reduce incentives for welfare recipients to find work.

Lawmakers declined to go along with the amendment, and Baker's subsequent veto keeps the so-called "cap on kids" in place.


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