Testing, Tax Measures In New Muni-Relief Bill

BOSTON (State House News Service) — Restaurants would be able to sell beer and wine with to-go orders, requirements around MCAS tests could be changed, and municipal governments could give residents more time to make tax payments, under new bill Gov. Charlie Baker filed Tuesday to create flexibility in local responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito introduced the bill during their daily coronavirus update, with the governor saying it "cuts red tape for cities and towns" and aims to make it easier for municipalities to meet their residents' needs and keep their governments running.

"It's clear that we have to stick together, but stick together in a time where social distancing is becoming and is very much a real part of our lives," Polito said, voicing appreciation for local governments offering services via remote workforces, boards of health ramping up their efforts, and first responders who continue to deal with emergencies like house fires.

Filed the same day that an emergency order closed most of the state's businesses—except for essential operations like grocery stores and medical facilities—and with the Department of Public Health advising residents to stay home, the bill (HD 4974) contains a number of provisions.

With restaurants and bars temporarily limited to takeout and delivery service only, under a Baker order,the billwould let establishments licensed for on-premises alcohol consumption sell wine and beer with their to-go orders during the current state of emergency.

"This change would restore a critical source of revenue to restaurants and other food establishments," Baker wrote in his filing message.

The beer and wine would need to be sold in its original sealed container, and purchased in the same transaction as a food order. Customers would be limited to 192 ounces of beer and 1.5 liters of wine in a single transaction.

Some states, including New Hampshire, have already taken similar steps around beer and wine sales. Asked Friday if he'd propose such a move here, Bakersaidhe was not considering it at that moment.

Another emergency order closed K-12 schools in Massachusetts until at least early April, and the legislation proposes a number of education-related measures.

If passed, it would grant Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to modify or waive the requirement for the annual statewide MCAS assessment. Scores on tenth grade MCAS tests are used as a "competency determination" for high school graduation, and Baker's bill would also allow the state education board to modify or waive the competency determination requirement, on a recommendation from Riley.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has been calling for the cancellation of MCAS exams this spring. Riley, in his department's weekly email update, said Monday that officials are "exploring all options" on this year's tests.

"There may be an opportunity for a one-year assessment and accountability waiver from the federal government, but even if that is granted, we would need legislative relief from our state legislature to waive the state law around the testing requirement," he wrote.

A $1.5 billion school funding law passed last year called for school districts to prepare three-year plans detailing steps they will take to close persistent achievement gaps, and set April 1 as the deadline for the first such plans. The bill would let Riley set a new deadline for this year's plans, though it does not specify when that later date would be.

Regional school districts would be able to suspend the statutorily required vote on their fiscal 2021 budgets, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could then certify a sufficient funding amount for the district until a full budget could be adopted.

The MBTA would also be given additional time to approve a preliminary budget and submit a final version, according to Baker's office.

Elsewhere on the local finance front, the bill would allow municipalities to change their tax bill due date from April 1 to June 1, and to waive late-payment penalties for fourth quarter tax bills. Cities and towns could also extend deadlines for property tax exemptions and deferrals.

The bill would also allow electronic signatures on search warrants and criminal complaints, which Baker wrote would "decrease traffic to courthouses and thereby reduce risk to judicial and public safety officers as well as courthouse staff and court users."

The legislation would also relax local permitting processes while the state of emergency is in effect. Permit applications could be filed online, any current valid permit would not lapse or expire during the state of emergency, and no permits would be automatically granted or denied because the local authority could not act in the time period specified under other laws.

Baker filed the bill on Tuesday with the House clerk's office, and the earliest the Legislature could take any action on it is Thursday, when the House and the Senate next plan to hold sessions. Most lawmakers have stayed away from Beacon Hill during the state of emergency, leaving a few to process bills between the branches.

The House on Monday gave initial approval to a version of another municipal relief bill Baker filed last week (H 4580), which would provide flexibility around budgeting and town meeting requirements.

Baker said in his note to lawmakers that he and Polito were pleased to see that bill advance out of committee.

"We look forward to working with you to share ideas and language to achieve our common goals," he wrote. "In light of the ongoing emergency, I urge your prompt enactment of legislation to relieve pressure on our cities and towns."

by Katie Lannan, State House News Service

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