Legislature Agrees To $626 Million Economic Development Bill

The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With many businesses on the brink after months of scraping by through the pandemic, the Legislature struck a late-night deal Wednesday to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy in an effort to spur job growth and keep businesses afloat.

The $626.5 million economic development bill came together in the closing hours of the two-year legislative session after more than five months of private negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

While the compromise bill scrapped a House-backed plan to have Massachusetts join other New England states in legalizing sports betting, it did include a version of Gov. Charlie Baker's long-stalled housing production proposal to lower the threshold for local boards to approve zoning bylaw changes to a simple majority.

Baker has pushed for years for the change as one that is essential to meet his goal of creating 135,000 new units of housing by 2025 to ease the housing crunch, especially around Greater Boston.

The bill also included $50 million in funding for transit-oriented housing, $30 million for a loan program similar to the federal Paycheck Protection Program for businesses hurt by COVID-19, and funding for job training, tourism, technology and advance manufacturing.

"I think it's a great bill. It covers a lot of ground, will help the commonwealth with job creation over the next few months and years," Senate President Karen Spilka said, adding that it also prioritizes racial, geographic and economic equity where possible.

The bill passed the House 143-4 at 4 a.m and cleared the Senate 40-0 at 4:15 a.m.

The bottom-line on the bill grew from the roughly $450 million legislators were eyeing back in July.

Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, said the bill would help Massachusetts "chart a path out of the recession were are in" and address the "explosion" of social and economic injustice that has been exposed in some communities by the pandemic by prioritizing funds for those communities business owners.

The bill includes $35 million in loan funding for community development lending institutions to extend capital to small businesses, with a focus on minority- and women-owned businesses that have historically had trouble accessing financing and have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

It would also seal no-fault eviction records, Lesser said.

There is $52 million set aside for science and technology research, $20 million for economic development in small, rural communities, $14 million for tourism, and $6 million to support artists and local museums.


And if signed by Baker, the low-income housing tax credit program would double to $40 million.

Massachusetts had the highest unemployment rate in the country at 16.1% in July when the House and Senate debated and passed competing versions of the bill that was finalized Tuesday night.

But while the job market has rebounded and the state's 6.7% unemployment rate now matches the national average, economists remain uncertain about the strength of that recovery and whether the ongoing surge in COVID-19 infections could spark public officials to revert to tight restrictions on businesses.

To prepare for what's to come after the pandemic, the bill would create a "Future of Work" commission to study how to promote sustainable jobs with fair benefits and workplace safety standards across industries.

There are also commissions that would be created to study the negative impact of changes in media on local journalism and how to help the arts community recover from the pandemic.

And lawmakers also agreed on a "student loan bill of rights," which is an issue Lesser has been pushing for multiple sessions. The bill would make sure borrowers are educated about their responsibilities and borrowing rights and student loan servicers that take advantage of students could be fined and forced to repay student borrowers.

The infusion of money for economic development and job creation comes on top of a new round of federal stimulus and a $668 million small business recovery fund Gov. Baker launched last month to help small employers hurt by COVID-19 restrictions cover rent, payroll, debt and other expenses.

Late Tuesday afternoon, new Speaker Ron Mariano called it "a shame" the two branches couldn't reach a deal to legalize betting on sports.

Baker filed a proposal to legalize betting on professional sports back in January 2019, and had hoped to sign a law before the start of the NFL season late that summer. The House included college sports in its bill that would have allowed for betting through mobile apps.

Mariano pointed the finger at the Senate for not wanting to negotiate the issue, but said he hopes to return to the topic early in the new session to make sure a home-grown company like DraftKings doesn't uproot and take jobs somewhere else, like New Hampshire, where sports betting is legal.

"If I could, we'd have a deal," Mariano told Bloomberg radio.

The House had proposed to use nearly a third of the $50 million in revenue it projected from legalized sport betting to create a new fund for distressed restaurants, with qualifying restaurants eligible to receive up to $15,000 in relief.

Restaurants have been some of the hardest hit small employers in the state by the pandemic, and have been lobbying to limit the delivery charges as more customers are choosing to stay home.

The final compromise bill capped the fees third-party delivery services can charge restaurants for their services at 15 percent of the price of the online order for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. The cap also only applies to restaurants with fewer than 25 locations.



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