Baker Signs $626 Million Economic Development Bill

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks in November. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Gov. Charlie Baker speaks in November. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday signed legislation spreading $626 million around the economy over the next five years and making it easier to build new housing, an area where Massachusetts has lagged behind other states.

Baker said the bill was strategically tailored during its drafting to respond to some of the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, Baker cited $40 million in the bill designed to revitalize underutilized properties.

The housing changes in the bill "represent the first significant zoning reform in decades," Baker said in a letter alongside his signature, referring to authorization for zoning rule changes to be made by a majority vote of local boards rather than a two-thirds vote.

He vetoed a provision in the bill delaying the so-called "housing choice" measure for 90 days, saying it should take effect now.

"This legislation will drive economic growth and improve housing stability, neighborhood stabilization and transit oriented development," the governor said in a statement. "Combined with our $668 million small business relief grant program that is supporting local businesses impacted by COVID-19, this legislation will support future growth and expand opportunity for people across Massachusetts, and we appreciate the work of our legislative colleagues throughout this process.”

Baker also agreed to a major section in the bill encouraging multifamily zoning in MBTA communities, while citing the discretion afforded to his administration under the measure.

"I expect the relevant agencies will work diligently with cities and towns to develop compliance criteria that are fair and reasonable, with due regard for different needs in different communities, and for the time and effort it takes to create new zoning districts," he wrote.

Baker signed 100 of the bill's outside sections and vetoed 11, including three sections that would have required housing development projects benefiting from a housing development incentive program tax credit to have at least 10% affordable units. The proposal would have made projects more difficult to finance, Baker said, noting that the bill doubles the cap on the state low-income housing tax credit for the next five years to $40 million.

Baker also vetoed a rural jobs tax credit, saying the new proposal presented "numerous implementation challenges." He added, "Experience with similar programs in other states demonstrated that these tax credits are likely to provide much greater benefit to the corporate investors who receive the credits than to the rural communities it is supposed to help."

With the veto, the governor committed to more direct rural investments that he said would have a greater impact.

Baker also vetoed a section of the bill requiring the Registry of Motor Vehicles, before issuing a vehicle registration, to confirm the validity and status of the applicant's driver's license and to certify that the person complies with licensing rules and regulations. The governor called the section well-intentioned, but said it would "effectively prevent the issuance of registrations for vehicles owned by persons with an out of country or out of state driver's license."

Other vetoed sections pertain to local option tenant right to purchase bylaws and ordinances, creation of a process for sealing records in eviction cases, and the formation of a commission to study the participation of minority and women-owned enterprises in public construction projects. Baker said such a commission was unnecessary because studies have already been conducted and policy-making legislation just needs to be approved.

The governor's vetoes are final since the Legislature that passed the bill expired and a new Legislature has been sworn in.

Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee and one of the lead negotiators on the final package, praised Baker's signature, pointing specifically to a section of the bill that aims to educate student loan borrowers about their responsibilities and borrowing rights.

"In a time of crisis for our Commonwealth, the Legislature completed one of the most important economic recovery and investment packages in recent history," Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, said in a statement. "With the inclusion of urgently needed small business and restaurant relief, new protections for over 1 million student loan borrowers, and the most progressive and far-reaching housing reform in decades, this legislation will bring needed relief to families, small businesses, and communities hit hardest by COVID-19."

Rep. Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat, tweeted that the bill "promises more housing supply & more equitable production across the state."



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