BOSTON (State House News Service) — As Gov. Charlie Baker's administration works to supply medical professionals with protective gear and prepare for the coming surge of coronavirus infection, the Legislature on Thursday set about putting in place new housing protections for tenants and homeowners, expanding unemployment insurance, and allowing for high-school graduation requirements to be relaxed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House and Senate both made progress on Thursday advancing key pieces of legislation to strengthen the safety net for Massachusetts residents struggling with the new realities of daily life, including the shuttering of businesses that has forced more than 180,000 people to file for job-loss related benefits.
The House also prepared a bill that would give the Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to modify or waive MCAS testing requirements for high school seniors expecting to graduate this year, but who are unsure if they'll ever return to school.
Riley said this week that he would be prepared to make a decision about the MCAS standardized test soon after the Legislature gave him the power to change the requirements.
None of new bills, however, received all the necessary votes to reach Gov. Baker's desk, creating a fresh pile of bills that have been approved by one branch or the other, but not both.
Staying in session until just before 8 p.m., the House and Senate did strike a final agreement after several days of back-and-forth on a municipal governance bill that includes a postponement of the income tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15 and would allow restaurants to sell take-out beer and wine.
That bill, which is now headed to the governor for his signature, relaxes rules around the scheduling of Town Meetings and local property tax deadlines, and allows permits to stay in place as local boards adapt to work under the new social distancing guidelines.
Senate Democrats were the first this week to produce a bill that would suspend evictions and foreclosures during the public health crisis, but some housing advocates said it didn't go far enough and the bill never came up for a vote.
Instead, the House on Thursday passed legislation putting a moratorium on most residential and commercial evictions and foreclosures until 30 days after Gov. Baker lifts the state of emergency.
Landlords, under the bill, would be prohibited from charging late fees or sending reports to credit rating agencies as long as a tenant provides notice within 30 days of a late payment that their failure to pay was tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House bill also allows for video conferencing instead of in-person consultation on reverse mortgage loans, and prohibits landlords from sending "notice to quit" letters during the emergency.
"During these unprecedented times, we need to do whatever we can to keep people healthy, safe and in their homes. This legislation shields tenants and homeowners from economic insecurity during and immediately after the period of the state of emergency," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a statement.
Evictions would be allowed to proceed if a tenant is engaged in criminal activity or commits a substantial violation of their lease that could be detrimental to public health or safety.
"The House bill puts a comprehensive, temporary pause on evictions from beginning to end, in order to achieve social distancing and prevent the spread of coronavirus. We look forward to continuing to work with Senate and House leadership to finalize a strong public health measure in these unprecedented times," said Joseph Michalakes and Andrea Parks, two attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services.
The Metro Mayors Coalition also wrote to legislative leadership on Wednesday endorsing the bill, though they asked for its protections to be extended at least 60 to 90 days beyond the end of the emergency order.
While the House worked on the housing safety net bill, the Senate passed legislation that would protect businesses that participate in the unemployment insurance system from being penalized financially if their workers file claims as a result of the pandemic, and give non-profits a 120-day grace period on their next payment into the system.
The bill would also ensure a four-week extension of benefits to 30 weeks for workers if unemployment spikes rapidly in the state, and would uncap benefits for dependent children. Currently, workers who lose their jobs may be entitled to $25 a week for a dependent child, but the total amount they can receive is capped at 50 percent of their weekly benefit.
"We are facing a unique situation, but we are taking steps to ensure that Massachusetts workers and employers can maximize the benefits available to them through both state and federal actions as this pandemic unfolds," Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement.
A third bill that surfaced for the first time on Thursday was reported out of the House Ways and Means Committee late in the afternoon, and notably would authorize changes to the state's high school standardized testing requirements.
The House passed the bill that would allow the Riley and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to suspend testing requirements for 10th and 12th graders, but ensures that if a senior is required to pass the MCAS to graduate that they be given a time other than this spring to take the exam.
The bill also mandates that testing requirements for third graders and eighth graders be modified or waived, and give school districts until May 15 or later to file their first three-year education plan required under the new funding law passed last fall.
The bill also allows school districts to budget one month at a time, prohibits towns from shutting off essential services like trash collection or water due to non-payment of taxes or bills, and gives homeless shelters permission to use about $3.3 million in funding for rapid rehousing programs in response to the coronavirus.
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service