Representative Howitt reflects on legislative accomplishments, shortcomings at mid-session
BOSTON – State Representative Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk) recently took some time to reflect on some of the major legislative initiatives that were undertaken by the House of Representatives in 2021, while highlighting some of the missed opportunities and outstanding priorities that will need to be addressed in 2022.
The 192nd General Court saw the approval of a comprehensive $4 billion spending plan that puts a portion of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and much of the Fiscal Year 2021 budget surplus to work assisting communities and the Commonwealth with their ongoing COVID-19 recovery efforts. Representative Howitt also cited the passage of a COVID-19 relief package providing a tax break for small businesses and emergency paid sick leave for employees impacted by the pandemic as a top priority.
Additional legislation was signed into law this year authorizing $400 million in state bond funding for rebuilding the Holyoke Soldiers Home, a portion of which will be reimbursed by the federal government, and $200 million to expand long-term care services for veterans across the state. Other successful accomplishments recorded in 2021 were the passage of a bill requiring the teaching of genocide education to middle and high school students starting next year and a student nutrition bill that will expand student access to free meals and eliminate “meal shaming” policies that punish students who are unable to pay.
Prior to the holiday break, the House also passed legislation that would update the determination of needs process for Massachusetts health care facilities to help protect community hospitals from unfair competition and shield consumers from paying higher prices for health care services.
Despite these accomplishments, Representative Howitt pointed to several missed opportunities on key policy issues that legislators failed to take advantage of, noting there is still a lot of unfinished business awaiting the House and Senate in the new year. He said one of the biggest failures of the past year is that the State House – the “people’s building” – remains closed to the public at a time when every other state capitol and businesses across the state have successfully and safely reopened.
Representative Howitt also cited the Legislature’s inconsistent approach to tax policy issues. In June, the House and Senate advanced the “Millionaires Tax” to the 2022 ballot, which would create a graduated income tax by adding a 4% surtax on income in excess of $1 million, beginning in 2023. Less than two months later, both branches blocked Governor Charlie Baker’s efforts to finally implement a charitable giving tax deduction that was overwhelmingly approved by the state’s voters in 2000 but has only been allowed to be claimed just once in the past 21 years. Representative Howitt opposed the Millionaires Tax proposal while standing by Governor Baker and the state’s taxpayers by supporting the charitable giving tax deduction.
Although the House approved legislation last summer authorizing sports wagering in Massachusetts, Representative Howitt said the Senate’s failure to take up the bill is causing the state to lose out on an estimated $60 million in annual tax revenues. And while the House and Senate did take steps to shore up the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund this year, Representative Howitt said the job is not finished and much work remains to be done to ensure the system’s long-term solvency in a way that shields employers from excessive rate hikes while also protecting workers’ benefits.
The following is a brief overview of some of the major legislative initiatives taken up by the House in 2021:
BUSINESS RELIEF – UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE – On March 4, Representative Howitt was one of 49 legislators to co-sponsor a bipartisan letter urging House and Senate leadership to act quickly on House Bill 55, Governor Baker’s proposal to provide unemployment insurance relief to the state’s small businesses. At the time, Massachusetts businesses were facing a 60% increase in their unemployment assessments, with rates scheduled to jump from $539 per worker to $858 per worker in 2021, and additional incremental increases taking effect in subsequent years. House Bill 55 called for freezing the rate at Schedule E for calendar years 2021 and 2022 to avoid this double-digit increase.
On March 11, just one week after the letter was sent, the House approved a two-year freeze on the UI rate schedule, which limited the increase for employers to about 16%. The bill was signed into law on April 1 as Chapter 9 of the Acts of 2021. Chapter 9 also authorized the expenditure of up to $7 billion to repay federal UI loans received during the pandemic, as well as a temporary, two-year assessment on employers to help keep the UI Trust Fund solvent. A special commission was also established to study and develop recommendations for ensuring the long-term solvency of the trust fund.
On April 14, Representative Howitt joined with 54 other legislators in calling for Governor Baker and House and Senate leadership to provide further UI protections to the state’s business community by using federal COVID relief funding received under the American Rescue Plan Act or other appropriate federal funds to replenish the UI Trust Fund. Due to a statutory increase in the formula used to calculate an employer’s experience rating, the annual UI solvency fund assessment was set to jump from 0.58% to 9.23% in 2021, a staggering 1591% increase in just one year that would have cost business owners thousands of dollars in additional expenses at a time when they could least afford it.
On May 19, the House approved compromise language that had been developed with input from the Baker-Polito Administration to mitigate the UI rate increase. In addition to creating a new COVID claims account to handle existing COVID claims that had been placed in the solvency account, the bill re-established the practice of charging new UI claims directly to employers’ accounts beginning August 1. The changes approved in the bill – which also passed the Senate and was signed into law on May 28 as Chapter 16 of the Acts of 2021 – effectively reduced the employer assessment from 9.23% to 1.12%.
On October 29, the House passed a $3.8 billion COVID relief bill that included a $500 million appropriation for the UI Trust Fund to help offset costs. The Senate approved the same funding level before the holiday break, and a final compromise negotiated in conference committee was signed into law on December 13 as Chapter 102 of the Acts of 2021.
BUSINESS RELIEF – PAYROLL PROTECTION PROGRAM – On March 4, Representative Howitt was one of 55 legislators to co-sponsor a bipartisan letter urging House and Senate leadership to amend state tax laws so small business owners incorporated as pass-through entities would not be liable for paying state taxes on their federal Payroll Protection Program loans. These PPP loans, which were offered to help businesses keep their doors open and protect workers’ jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, were forgiven by the federal government if businesses met certain criteria for spending the money.
Because of the state’s tax laws, many independent contractors, restaurants and small businesses faced a collective state tax liability of about $150 million on their PPP loans. The UI reform bill passed by the House on March 11 included a state tax waiver for PPP loans. This waiver was retained in the final bill that was signed into law as Chapter 9 of the Acts of 2021.
WORKER RELIEF/BENEFITS – In 2021, the House and Senate provided tax relief for lower-income workers with household incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level who collected unemployment benefits in 2020 and 2021. Under Chapter 9 of the Acts of 2021, these individuals are able to deduct the first $10,200 in unemployment compensation received in both calendar years from their gross income for tax purposes. The Act also prohibits the Department of Revenue from imposing any tax penalties based solely on the failure to remit taxes on unemployment compensation received in 2020, and allows affected taxpayers to claim an abatement if they have already been assessed the penalty.
One additional provision contained in the Act provides employees with access to up to 40 hours of COVID-related emergency paid sick leave and authorizes eligible employers to be reimbursed for up to $850 a week per employee through a new COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Fund administered by the Executive Office of Administration & Finance.
HOLYOKE SOLDIERS HOME – On May 18, the House enacted legislation to finance the reconstruction of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, which has been in operation since 1952. Signed into law on May 25, Chapter 15 of the Acts of 2021 authorizes the state to borrow up to $400 million to build a new Soldiers’ Home that will meet current federal standards and guidelines for long term care and adult day health services.
By providing this funding authorization, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) was able to begin the design and development phase for a new Soldiers’ Home. Representative Howitt noted that the funding authorization will allow the state to qualify for up to $260 million in federal matching funds (a 65% reimbursement rate) through the Veterans Administration’s State Veterans Home Construction Grant Program. The Act also authorizes an additional $200 million in state borrowing to promote geographic equity and accessibility to long-term care services for all Massachusetts veterans.
When he signed the bill, Governor Baker vetoed language requiring the use of a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for reconstructing the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. In issuing his veto, Governor Baker said the PLA language “threatens the viability of the project by limiting fair competition and disproportionately reducing opportunities for minority, women and veteran-owned businesses.” He also warned that it would drive up the cost of the project. The House Republican Caucus was unanimous in supporting the Governor’s veto when it came up for a vote on June 30, but the veto was overridden on a vote of 130-30.
MILLIONAIRES TAX – On June 9, the House and Senate met in a Constitutional Convention and approved moving the Fair Share Amendment – aka the Millionaires Tax – to the 2022 ballot by a vote of 159-41, with Representative Howitt voting against the proposal. The same proposed Constitutional amendment was initially approved at the June 12, 2019 Constitutional Convention on a vote of 147-48.
With this year’s vote, the Millionaires Tax will go before the state’s voters in November of 2022. If it is approved, beginning in 2023 income below $1 million will continue to be taxed at a rate of 5%, but all income above this level will be subject to an additional 4% surtax, placing the tax rate at 9%.
Language included in the proposed amendment requires the $1 million income level to be adjusted annually to reflect any increases in the cost of living using the same method that applies to federal income tax brackets. Supporters claim the ballot question will generate $2 billion annually, which they say will be used to fund education and transportation. However, a June 8 study by the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) projects slightly more than $1.2 billion in revenues will be generated by the surtax in the first year, and only $1.5 billion by 2027. The BHI study also warns that the passage of the surtax will drive higher-income households to other states, resulting in a loss of jobs, investment and disposable income.
During the 2019 Constitutional Convention, the House Republican Caucus offered an amendment requiring that any revenues generated by the Millionaires Tax be used “in addition to and not in lieu of funds” that are already being appropriated for education and transportation. The amendment was rejected on a vote of 40-156. The BHI study warns that the Millionaires Tax, as currently written, does not include any safeguard “that prevents legislators from diverting some of the (funding) already applied to education and transportation to other purposes and thus undermining the intent of the amendment.” An April 1 report by the Pioneer Institute also warned that, “Despite its purported goal of taxing only the uber-rich, the graduated income tax would fail to protect people of more modest means from overtaxation on one-time windfalls” including those who sell a home or business.
Representative Howitt said another problem with the Millionaires Tax is that the Legislature will not be able to immediately rescind the surtax if it doesn’t work out as planned. Under the Constitutional amendment process, the earliest a repeal question could be placed on the ballot would be in November of 2026, at which point the surtax would have been in place for nearly four years.
CHARITABLE GIVING TAX DEDUCTION – The Fiscal Year 2022 budget, signed into law as Chapter 24 of the Acts of 2021, included language to delay the implementation of the charitable giving tax deduction that was approved by the state’s voters by a more than 2-1 margin in November of 2000. This tax deduction was only in place for one year – the tax year beginning on January 1, 2001 – before the Legislature voted to suspend it in 2002.
Governor Baker opposed the continued delay in implementing the charitable giving tax deduction, particularly with state tax revenues coming in at a robust rate far above original projections, and vetoed this language from the budget. On July 28, Representative Howitt and the entire House Republican Caucus unanimously supported sustaining the Governor’s veto and allowing the tax deduction to finally take effect beginning on January 1, 2022. Unfortunately, the Governor’s veto was overridden on a vote of 124-35, meaning taxpayers still cannot claim this deduction, more than two decades after it was passed overwhelmingly on the state ballot.
Representative Howitt said that in addition to offering savings to taxpayers, the charitable giving tax deduction would also help nonprofits and other charitable organizations that have been hard-hit by the pandemic to better meet the increased demand for their services. A recent survey conducted by Philanthropy Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network found that more than 60% of nonprofits reported revenue loss during the pandemic, with an average revenue loss of 34% over the previous year. According to the survey, the greatest reported unmet needs of the populations served by nonprofits are mental health (48%), followed by food (33%) and housing assistance (32%).
LEGALIZED SPORTS BETTING – On July 22, the House passed legislation to legalize and regulate sports wagering in Massachusetts. House Bill 3993 allows for betting on professional and collegiate sports and designates the Massachusetts Gaming Commission as the agency responsible for administering and enforcing the law.
The House bill creates three categories of sports wagering licenses:
o Category 1 licenses for in-person wagering at a casino
o Category 2 licenses for in-person wagering at a racetrack or simulcasting facility
o Category 3 licenses for sports wagering conducted through a mobile application or other digital platform approved by the Commission.
Under the House bill, Category 1 license holders will be allowed to partner with up to three individually branded mobile applications or other Commission-approved digital platforms, but Category 2 license holders will only be allowed to partner with one mobile application or digital platform.
According to Representative Howitt, the revenues generated by taxes and licensing fees associated with sports wagering will be used to support the existing Gaming Local Aid Fund and the Public Health Trust Fund, as well as three new funds created by the bill, including:
o A Workforce Investment Trust Fund to provide grants for workforce opportunities for low-income communities and vulnerable youths and young adults
o A Youth Development and Achievement Fund to assist Massachusetts students enrolled in a public or independent college or university; to provide funding for after-school and out-of-school activities; and to provide matching grants to support academic events and programs, cultural events and award ceremonies at elementary and secondary schools
o A Players’ Benevolence Fund to distribute funding to charitable organizations recommended by a new advisory committee created under the bill
House Bill 3993 also contains a provision that would allow local veterans organizations, such as VFWs, to apply for a limited slot machine license that would authorize up to 5 slot machines. Because the Senate has yet to act on this bill, the Commonwealth is losing out on tens of millions of dollars in revenue that sports wagering would generate.
NEXT-GENERATION ROADMAP BILL – The House’s work on this climate policy bill began in 2020 but stalled out at the end of last session. The bill was refiled early in 2021 and was initially enacted in both branches on January 28 before Governor Baker returned the bill with an amendment. Following the bill’s re-enactment on March 18, it was signed into law by Governor Baker on March 26 as Chapter 8 of the Acts of 2021.
Chapter 8 amends the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act to direct our state to set interim economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions limits, as well as sector-based emissions sublimits for certain sectors, every five years. More importantly, it codifies the state’s long-term emissions limit of net-zero emissions by 2050 and directs the adoption of a 2030 emissions limit of at least 50 percent below 1990 levels and a 2040 emissions limit of at least 75 percent below 1990 levels. It also increases the RPS requirements, directs the creation of a municipal opt-in building code, codifies environmental justice protections, and authorizes an additional 2,400 MW of offshore wind.
STUDENT NUTRITION BILL – On October 6, the House enacted House Bill 3999, An Act promoting student nutrition, which was signed into law on October 14 as Chapter 62 of the Acts of 2021. Representative Howitt said this Act expands student access to free meals and takes steps to eliminate “meal shaming” policies that penalize students who are unable to pay.
Chapter 62 requires individual schools and school districts where at least 50% of the students are considered low-income to participate in the federal program that provides universal free school breakfast and lunch to all students. School districts can apply for a waiver if participating in the program will result in a financial hardship. The Act also directs school districts participating in the national school lunch program to maximize federal revenues and minimize debt on students’ families. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will assist school districts in meeting these goals.
Strong protections are built into the Act to ensure that students are not punished if they are unable to pay for a school meal or owe money for a previously-served meal.
The Act specifically prohibits schools from:
o taking any action that publicly identifies a student who owes money for meals;
o serving a student with unpaid meal debt an alternative meal that is not available to all students;
o denying a meal to a student as a form of behavioral discipline or punishment;
o disposing of an already served meal because the student is unable to pay for the meal or has unresolved meal debt;
o blocking a student or their siblings from participating in extracurricular activities, field trips or school events because of the student’s unresolved meal debt;
o preventing a student from graduating or blocking the release of a student’s grades, official transcripts, or report cards solely because of unresolved meal debt; or
o requiring a parent or guardian to pay fees or costs for meals previously served to the student in excess of the actual amounts owed
GENOCIDE EDUCATION – On November 16, the House approved legislation requiring the teaching of genocide education to middle and high school students, beginning with the 2022-2023 academic year. The bill was signed into law on December 2 as Chapter 98 of the Acts of 2021. Representative Howitt noted that school districts will be required to educate students about the history of genocide, consistent with the standards articulated in the history and social science curriculum framework adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Schools can partner with community-based organizations, including municipal human rights commissions, to help facilitate this instruction.
Genocide education will be structured to promote the understanding of human rights issues, with a focus on:
o the inhumanity of genocide;
o the history and patterns of genocide that demonstrate how hatred against national, ethnic, racial or religious groups impacts nations and societies; and
o the rejection of the targeting of a specific population and other forms of prejudice that can lead to violence and genocide
The Act also establishes a Genocide Education Trust Fund, which will be sustained in part by revenues collected through fines assessed for hate crimes and civil rights violations. The fund will be used to create genocide education materials for students and to provide professional development training for teachers.
TEMPORARY COVID-19 POLICY EXTENSIONS – On June 15, the House and the Senate agreed to temporarily extend certain policy changes that had been implemented during the pandemic to assist municipalities and businesses. Chapter 20 of the Acts of 2021, which was signed into law by Governor Baker on June 16, extended some policy changes until December 15, while others were extended into the new year. Specifically, the Act:
o extends outdoor table service and outdoor alcohol service until April 1, 2022;
o extends the sale of cocktails “to go” in conjunction with food takeout orders until May 1, 2022 while also requiring the price of the alcohol to be the same whether it is consumed at the restaurant or off-premises;
o allows government bodies to continue to conduct meetings virtually until April 1, 2022 as long as the meetings can be easily accessed by the public in real time and residents can participate remotely; and
o requires landlords, until January 1, 2023, to include a form with a notice to quit for non-payment of rent that informs tenants about their rights in an eviction case and rental assistance options
Representative Howitt noted that several policy changes approved as part of Chapter 20 expired on December 15, but may be revisited in 2022, including provisions to:
o extend virtual reverse mortgage counseling;
o allow quorum requirements for Town Meetings to be reduced to not less than 10% of the normal quorum requirement;
o allow notaries public to use electronic videoconferencing to perform acknowledgements, affirmations, and other notarial acts; and
o allow public corporations, including non-profit corporations, to conduct shareholder meetings solely by means of remote communication
HOSPITAL DETERMINATION OF NEEDS REVIEW – On November 17, the last day of formal sessions for the calendar year, the House passed legislation to update the determination of needs process for Massachusetts health care facilities to help protect community hospitals from unfair competition.
Representative Howitt said House Bill 4253 authorizes the Health Policy Commission (HPC) to conduct a cost and market impact review to determine if any planned hospital expansion would create a dominant market share for the services offered by the health care provider or would lead to higher prices for the same services in the same market. The HPC would also be authorized to initiate a review to determine if the proposed expansion would have a “significant impact” on competition or the state’s ability to meet its health care costs growth benchmark.
In addition, the Attorney General’s office would be empowered to conduct an investigation based on HPC’s findings, and to take appropriate action to protect consumers, including seeking injunctive relief based on unfair methods of competition or unfair and deceptive trade practices.
House Bill 4253 also calls for the Health Planning Council, which currently falls under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to be re-constituted under the Health Policy Commission. The 11-member Council would be responsible for developing a five-year state health plan that identifies:
o existing health care resources;
o anticipated needs for health care services and providers;
o the resources necessary to meet those health care needs; and
o priorities for addressing those needs, including ways to address existing health care disparities across multiple demographics.
The Health Planning Council will be required to hold at least four public hearings annually across the state to solicit feedback on developing the state health plan, with the first such plan to be submitted to the governor and the legislature by January 1, 2023. House Bill 4253 requires the Department of Public Health to utilize the state health plan, along with data from the Center for Health Information and Analysis and information provided by the HPC’s cost and market impact review, when making a determination of need.
Representative Howitt noted the bill also prevents DPH from acting on a determination of need application unless it has been on file for at least 30 days, the appropriate state agencies have been notified and given adequate opportunity to provide information and commentary, and any requests for a public hearing have been fulfilled. House Bill 4253 also establishes a new process for determination of need applications when the primary service area of the proposed project overlaps with the primary service area of an existing independent community hospital. In these instances, the bill empowers impacted independent community hospitals to petition the superior and supreme judicial courts and establishes civil penalties to address violations.
In addition, the bill establishes a task force that will provide recommendations for financing the HPC, with a report due by June 1, 2022. Currently, the HPC is financed through an assessment on insurance companies and hospitals. The Senate has not yet acted on this bill.
ARPA/BUDGET SURPLUS SPENDING BILL – On December 3, the House and Senate enacted House Bill 4219, An Act relative to immediate COVID-19 recovery needs. The nearly $4 billion spending bill utilizes $2.55 billion in federal funding Massachusetts received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and $1.45 billion from the state’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget surplus to make important investments in communities throughout the Commonwealth.
Representative Howitt said the bill provides significant funding support for housing, economic development, workforce training, health and human services, education, food security, the environment, and other critical areas impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic. The bill includes:
o $500 million to help sustain the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund
o a $500 million premium pay program to provide bonuses of $500-$2,000 for lower-income essential employees who continued to work in person during the pandemic
o $200 million for local and regional public health systems
o $260 million for financially strained hospitals in communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19
o $50 million for capital improvements and workforce recruitment and retention at nursing facilities
o $100 million for capital improvements grants for vocational high schools
o $100 million for public school districts to improve ventilation and indoor air quality in their facilities
o $150 million to rehabilitate state-aided public housing developments
o $150 million for developing permanent supportive housing
o $115 million for the creation of affordable rental housing
o $115 million to promote homeownership opportunities
o $107 million for workforce and career technical skills training
o $75 million in small business grants
o $100 million for environmental infrastructure
o $100 million for water and sewer infrastructure
o a $400 million reserve for expanded access to mental and behavioral health services
o a $300 million reserve to support expanded Medicaid and community-based services
o $44.8 million to address food insecurity issues
Governor Baker signed the bill (in part) on December 13 as Chapter 102 of the Acts of 2021. He also issued several vetoes and an amendment, which are expected to be addressed by the House and the Senate in 2022.
ANIMAL WELFARE BILL – On October 6, the House approved legislation to promote hen welfare and establish uniform cage-free standards for the egg and meat industries. The bill set standards to ensure that livestock used to produce eggs and meats such as pork and veal are not confined to tight spaces that restrict their movement. Without legislative action, a new law that was scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2022 could have led to a shortage of eggs available to consumers due to non-compliance with the previous industry standards established by a 2016 ballot question.
A compromise version of the bill worked out by a six-member House and Senate conference committee was enacted by both branches on December 20. The final bill applies not only to shelled eggs, but to other egg products sold in Massachusetts, such as liquid eggs. It also extends the deadline for pork products to comply with the new standards until August 15, 2022. The bill was signed into law by Governor Baker on December 22 as Chapter 108 of the Acts of 2021.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS FOR 2022 – Looking ahead to 2022, Representative Howitt identified several pieces of unfinished business he hopes will be addressed in the coming year, including the enactment of legal sports wagering; the implementation of the charitable giving tax deduction; and the passage of Nero’s Bill.
The Senate passed a version of Nero’s Bill on November 10, but the House has not acted yet on the bill, which is named for a K-9 police dog who was injured in the shooting that claimed the life of its partner, Yarmouth Police Sgt. Sean Gannon. Passing this bill would allow emergency medical service personnel to provide emergency treatment and transport of K-9 partners, including basic first aid, CPR and administering life-saving interventions such as naloxone.
Representative Howitt also noted that approximately $2.3 billion in federal ARPA money provided to Massachusetts remains unspent. He said it is important that this funding be earmarked in the coming year to address some of the most critical needs facing the residents of the Commonwealth and ensure a robust post-pandemic recovery.
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