Beacon Hill Roll Call: May 20 to May 24, 2024

By BOB KATZEN

Published: 06-16-2024 12:16 PM

Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ and representatives’ votes on roll calls from the week of May 20 to May 24. All Senate roll calls were related to the Senate version of a $55.9 billion fiscal year 2025 state budget.

Of the 1,100 amendments filed by senators, only 41 came to a roll call vote. Many others were simply approved or rejected one at a time on voice votes, some with debate and some without debate.

To move things along even faster, the Senate also did its usual “bundling” of many amendments. Instead of acting on each amendment one at a time, hundreds of the proposed amendments are bundled and put into two piles — one pile that will be approved and the other that will be rejected, without a roll call, on voice votes where it is impossible to tell which way a senator votes.

Senate President Karen Spilka, or the senator who is filling in for her at the podium, orchestrates the approval and rejection of the bundled amendments with a simple: “All those in favor say ‘Aye,’ those opposed say ‘No.’ The Ayes have it and the amendments are approved.” Or: “All those in favor say ‘Aye,’ those opposed say ‘No.’ The No’s have it and the amendments are rejected.”

Senators don’t actually vote Yes or No, and, in fact, they don’t say a word. The outcome was predetermined earlier behind closed doors.

Veterans benefits (H 4661)

The House, 156-0, approved and sent to the Senate a package designed to benefit veterans by broadening the definition of a veteran, increasing tax credits and state benefits for which they are eligible and modernizing the services on which they rely.

Provisions include providing a medical assistance benefit, behavioral health assistance benefit and dental benefit beyond other benefits available to veterans; increasing from $2,000 to $2,250 and then to $2,500 the annuity for blind, paraplegic or veterans with disabilities; allowing municipalities to annually increase local property tax abatements for veterans in an amount equal to the increase in cost of living determined by the Consumer Price Index for the year; increasing from $2,000 to $2,500 the amount of a tax credit for each qualified veteran hired by an employer and for subsequent years of continued employment of each veteran; creating a working group to study and make recommendations on the use of psychedelics as an alternative therapy for mental health treatments for veterans; and allowing certain veteran’s organizations to be approved by the Gaming Commission and their local licensing authority for up to five slot machines on their premises.

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“[The bill] is a transformative package of reforms that will make sure our veterans and their families have access to the benefits, resources and support they deserve,” said Gov. Maura Healey.

Rep. Gerard Cassidy, D-Brockton, House chair of the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, called the measure a historic piece of legislation that addresses critical quality-of-life issues faced every day by veterans.

“It is important that we continue to honor those who served our country, and this bill highlights our commitment to their well-being,” said Cassidy.

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Senate approves $55.9 billion budget (S 3)

The Senate, 40-0, approved a $55.9 billion fiscal year 2025 state budget after adding an estimated $89.6 million in spending during three days of debate. The House has already approved a different version and a House-Senate conference committee will eventually craft a plan that will be presented to the House and Senate for consideration and sent to the governor.

“[The budget includes] universally free community college and record public higher education investments,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, Senate chair of the Committee on Higher Education. “Significant funding for rural roads and bridges, local public health, K-12 schools, Unrestricted Government Aid, Regional Transit Authorities, food security and more.”

“Today our chamber took a vote of confidence in every Massachusetts resident going to school, raising a family and working to make ends meet,” said Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland. “Today we took a vote for an affordable, competitive and equitable commonwealth. This budget is an investment in our people, and it is an investment in our collective future.”

“The fiscal year 2025 budget overwhelmingly passed by the Senate makes transformative investments in education, regional equity and builds upon the commonwealth’s workforce economy,” said Sen. Mike Rodrigues, D-Westport, chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “These historic measures enable residents to remain in the state, solidifying our economic future for generations to come. The budget is also a balanced and responsible plan, centered on sustainability and regional equity by maximizing revenues and building upon the progress we’ve already made in key sectors of the state economy. With a transparent and inclusive amendment process, we were able to improve our original budget and make even further strides in our education, economic development, environmental and health and human services priorities.”

Although no one voted against the budget, it wasn’t without its critics.

“The State Senate seems to have only one thing on their mind: spend more, reform less,” said Paul Craney, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “The Senate President kicked off that theme when she proposed new ‘free’ community college, which would add an unstoppable ballooning mandate for future generations of taxpayers. The Senate’s questionable priorities were also reflected in the late hours of last night, as they adopted an amendment to spend $250,000 on a new state seal and motto, when previous attempts proved unfruitful. What a colossal waste of taxpayer money. There’s no other way to view this.”

Craney continued, “Senate leadership had a great opportunity to do something beneficial for the state’s economic competitiveness, but they failed to act. The income surtax was advertised to the public as a tax just for high income earners making over $1 million dollars. Then last year, the Legislature added a ‘marriage penalty’ to impose the $1 million dollar income surtax for all ‘combined’ incomes for married couples. This change in the tax policy penalizes married couples just for being married and significantly lowers the threshold from what tax proponents campaigned on. At a time when Massachusetts is desperate to keep high income earners and productive taxpayers from moving out of state, the State Senate missed probably their most important opportunity to be helpful. They had a great opportunity to strike out the marriage penalty, but instead, they chose to keep taxes high by penalizing families.”

A “Yes” vote is for the budget.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Sales tax holiday (S 4)

The Senate, 5-34, rejected an amendment that would establish a two-week sales tax holiday, from Aug. 6, 2024 to Aug. 19, 2024, allowing consumers to buy most products that cost under $2,500 without paying the state’s 6.25% sales tax. State law currently calls for a two-day sales tax holiday every year.

“There is no doubt that Massachusetts residents and small businesses are feeling the weight of inflation,” said Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton. “By giving a two-week tax reprieve through an extended sales tax holiday, we provided families and individuals an opportunity to make purchases without the added burden of taxes, which also helps small businesses.”

Amendment opponents said the Legislature has provided extensive tax relief in recent years and argued the two-week holiday would cost $210 million, which the state cannot afford. They noted that current state law already provides a two-day sales tax holiday annually. They noted that extending the holiday is more of a feel-good policy that does little to help families. They noted the extension would actually generate little additional revenue for stores because consumers typically buy the products even without the tax-free days.

A “No” vote is against the two-week sales tax holiday.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — No

Sen. Paul Mark — No

Abolish requirement that couples must file taxes jointly (S 4)

The Senate, 10-29, rejected an amendment that would abolish the current requirement that Massachusetts married couples who file income tax returns jointly at the federal level do the same at the state level.

Amendment supporters said that since these married couples are currently required to file jointly at the state level, their combined income can total more than $1 million and the 4% surtax applies to them and many more filers, which is not what voters approved on the 2022 ballot question imposing the 4% surtax.

“This amendment would have restored the original language of the surtax, which would have allowed married couples in Massachusetts to file state taxes separately despite filing jointly for federal taxes,” said Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton. “In doing so, couples in Massachusetts would have had the opportunity to keep more of their hard-earned income versus sending it over to the state.”

Amendment opponents said requiring married couples who file jointly at the federal level to file jointly with the state is reasonable and is working well. They noted the surtax is raising more money than predicted and is allowing funding of some of the most important programs in the budgets including universal free school meals, breakfast and lunch, for every student; free community college; and increased scholarships — none of that would be possible without the surtax revenues.

A “No” vote is against the amendment and favors requiring joint filing.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — No

Sen. Paul Mark — No

Capital gains tax (S 4)

The Senate, 4-35, rejected an amendment that would retain a current law that requires any excess revenue in capital gains revenue over $1 billion to annually automatically be transferred as follows: 90% to the Rainy Day Fund; 5% to the State Retiree Benefits Trust Fund; and 5% to the State Pension Liability Fund. The $1 billion would remain in the General Fund and be spent by the Legislature with no restrictions.

The proposed Senate budget changes that for only fiscal year 2025 by raising the threshold by $375 million so that any excess over $1.375 billion would automatically go to those three funds if the secretary of administration and finance makes a determination that the funds are needed to achieve balance for fiscal year 2025. The $1.375 billion would remain in the General Fund to be spent on by the Legislature with no restrictions.

“This amendment would have restored the original language of the capital gains law that allows transfers of excess gains collections over $1 billion in one fiscal year,” said Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton. “Changing this language for one year … would create a precedent that would mean less transparency year after year by allowing a greater amount of taxpayer money to be used outside of the intended purpose of the capital gains tax.”

Opponents said the additional $375 million is needed in the General Fund this fiscal year to fund many useful new programs in the budget including the new free community college program. They noted that the state estimates that there will be $513 million in excess capital gains this fiscal year, which means that a total of $138 million will still be deposited in the Rainy Day Fund and the two other retirement funds. They noted that a little less money for the Rainy Day Fund this year is acceptable because there is a healthy balance of $8.4 billion currently in the Rainy Day Fund.

A “No” vote is for raising the threshold to $1.375 billion.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — No

Sen. Paul Mark — No

Continue session beyong 8 p.m.

The Senate, 36-3, approved a motion to suspend Senate rules to allow the Senate budget debate session on May 22 to continue beyond 8 p.m. Under Senate rules, the Senate cannot meet after 8 p.m. unless the rule is suspended. The session lasted two hours and 15 minutes beyond 8 p.m. and adjourned at 10:15 p.m.

Supporters of rule suspension said that the Senate has important work to continue on the fiscal year 2025 budget and should stay in session to work on it. Opponents of rule suspension said it is irresponsible for the Senate to debate and vote late at night when taxpayers are asleep.

A “Yes” vote is for meeting beyond 8 p.m.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

$350,000 more for YWCAs (S 4)

The Senate, 39-0, approved an amendment that would increase funding for YWCAs by $350,000 (from $650,000 to $1 million).

“For close to 150 years, YWCAs around the world and the nine YWCAs in Massachusetts have stood beside our young women as a pillar of support and empowerment and across the state they are working hard to expand outreach, staffing, programming and support services to hundreds of at-risk girls,” said Sen. Robyn Kennedy, D-Worcester, the sponsor of the amendment. “This $350,000 amendment is critical to the continuance of our investment in gender specific youth violence prevention.”

A “Yes” vote is for the $350,000.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

$1 million for civics education (S 4)

The Senate, 39-0, approved an amendment that would increase funding for civics education in schools across the state by $1 million (from $1.5 to $2.5 million).

“I am so proud to support our continued investments in civics education, which empowers young people and gives them the tools to make their voices heard as they advocate for social, racial, economic and environmental justice,” said amendment sponsor Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham. “My amendment fully funds the Civics Project Trust Fund, boosting our school systems’ ability to implement civics education curricula and support student civics projects. I’ve met and corresponded with hundreds of students about their civics projects, and I can say with confidence that our investments in civics education are paying off.”

A “Yes” vote is for the $1 million.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Ban home equity theft (S 4)

The Senate, 39-0, approved an amendment that would prohibit cities and towns that foreclose on properties on which the owner owes back property taxes, from keeping all of the profits when the city or town sells the property at auction. Current Massachusetts law allows this practice. The bill would allow the city or town to keep only the amount owed in back taxes and send the rest to the owner.

Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that cities and towns that foreclose on properties on which the owner owes back property taxes, cannot keep all of the profits when the city or town sells the property at auction. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, writing a unanimous decision about a similar Minnesota law, said that “a taxpayer who loses her $40,000 house to the state to fulfill a $15,000 tax debt has made a far greater contribution to the public fisc than she owed.”

“For far too long my constituents, and homeowners across Massachusetts, have been robbed of their rightful equity by greedy profiteers and apathetic bureaucrats,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, the sponsor of the amendment. “The Supreme Court’s ruling last year, along with the Hampden Superior Court’s decision last month, brought new hope that this thievery would finally come to an end. The Senate has taken the lead on ending this injustice in Massachusetts and I am proud to ensure that we’ve taken this opportunity to provide strong protections for struggling homeowners who are often facing incredible challenges in their lives. Homeowners deserve relief and any municipality who has engaged in this predatory process should proactively refund the money to those aggrieved.”

A “Yes” vote is for the amendment.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Also up on Beacon Hill Electronic wage cards (H 1841)

The House gave initial approval to legislation designed to protect the rights and money of workers who receive their wages through electronic wage cards from their employers.

“I sponsored this bill in order to protect workers who receive their wages through electronic wage cards from their employers,” said sponsor Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy. “Without this bill, employees are subject to unfair fees when trying to access their wages. This bill would help ensure that workers are protected, made aware of any fees associated with usage of their card and provided with a means of checking their balances without cost.”

Protect firefighters (H 2339)

The House gave initial approval to a measure that would require a manufacturer or person that sells Firefighting Personal Protective Equipment to any person or government agency, to provide, beginning Jan. 1, 2025, written notice to the buyer, at the time of sale, if the equipment contains toxic PSAs, as well as the reason such chemicals were added to the equipment. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2027, the bill prohibits any person from manufacturing, knowingly selling or distributing any equipment containing intentionally added PFAS chemicals.

“Firefighters put their life on the line every day to protect the residents of Massachusetts,” said sponsor Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro. “The gear used to protect them in the performance of their duties in fact contains PFAS which is contributing to the rates of occupational cancer among firefighters. [The proposal] will not only help identify turnout gear containing PFAS but phase out such forever chemicals from this gear going forward.”

Require sprinkler systems (H 2289)

The House gave initial approval to legislation that would allow cities and towns to require the installation of an automatic sprinkler system in every newly-constructed one- or two-family home.

Sponsor Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton, said that today’s new homes burn hotter and faster than those of the past because of modern construction techniques and synthetic furnishings. She noted that as a result, residents have only one to three minutes to flee the average home without sprinklers.

“Automatic sprinklers work fast and give people more time to escape,” said Balser. “According to the Massachusetts Fire Sprinkler Coalition, having both sprinklers and smoke alarms reduces the risk of dying in a home fire by 80%. Additionally, automatic sprinklers put out 90% of home fires before the fire department arrives, which reduces firefighters’ exposure to the toxic products of combustion that cause cancer.”

$13 million for student mental health

Gov. Healey announced that the state is investing $13 million in the Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) program, an in-school program supporting students who have fallen behind academically due to challenges with their mental health. This is the first time the state has provided funding to establish BRYT in schools. Up until now, the program had only been available to districts with the economic resources to get it off the ground.

“Far too many young people in Massachusetts have been affected by a growing mental health crisis that was only amplified by the pandemic,” said Gov. Healey. “Every student should have the support needed to balance their mental health and education. Expanding BRYT is a critical step that is bringing us closer to that goal.”

“Across Massachusetts and the nation, young people are struggling,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh. “They’re expected to juggle academics, extracurriculars, social lives and family needs — often in the harsh and unrelenting light of social media — while also maintaining their mental health. Teens frequently have to navigate multiple systems to address their health needs.

“Our kids shouldn’t have to ‘case manage’ themselves — that’s why BRYT is so valuable,” Walsh continued. “BRYT helps students navigate and balance academic requirements and mental health treatment, while also providing the space to take a step back when needed. Expanding this program means that more students than ever before will be able to access the mental health support they need, in their home and at school. We’re thrilled to help make that a reality.”