Lawmakers OK Rental, Voter, Climate Bills As Deadline Looms

BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Legislature gave final approval Monday to a bill that would tax and regulate short-term rentals, including those offered by Airbnb and other online platforms.

After weeks of negotiations, House and Senate lawmakers reached agreement on the compromise bill over the weekend. It called for extending the state’s current 5.7 percent hotel tax to most short-term rentals and giving cities and towns the option of tacking on an additional 6 percent to the tax; 9 percent if an owner rents out two or more units in the same community.

Several other bills were awaiting action before a Tuesday midnight deadline for completing work on major legislation. Under legislative rules, the House and Senate can continue to meet informally after July 31, but only to take up noncontroversial items.

Lawmakers also gave final approval Monday to a bill that would automatically update the registration status of voters when they interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program.

If the bill is signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Democratic Secretary of State William Galvin said his office would be able to start automatically registering voters on Jan. 1, 2020. Those automatically registered would be notified by mail of the opportunity to choose a political party or to decline to register.

“We should do everything we can to make it easier for people to vote,” said Democratic Sen. Cynthia Creem, of Newton, who worked on the final version of the bill.

Lawmakers also sent Baker a bill Monday that would authorize Massachusetts to borrow up to $2 billion to make the state more resilient to climate change, including funds to protect the state’s coastline against more frequent storms.

As the clock ticked down toward adjournment, behind-the-scenes negotiations were believed to be continuing at the Statehouse on a major health care bill that sought to reduce price disparities between large teaching hospitals and smaller community hospitals that are struggling to keep pace.

Among other measures hanging in the balance: a major economic development bill that includes a proposed sales tax holiday for the weekend of Aug. 11-12; a bill to expand access to addiction treatment; proposals to increase the supply of clean energy in the state; and a measure that would revamp the formula the state uses for providing direct assistance to public school districts.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo had wanted the Democratic-controlled Legislature to remain in session over the weekend to work on the backlog, but on Thursday, Senate President Karen Spilka decided to adjourn the Senate until Monday morning, leaving less than 48 hours to wrap things up.

The House finished its business on Monday just before 7 p.m. The Senate agreed to keep working later into the evening.

As the popularity of entities such as Airbnb has grown, so have concerns in some communities over investors buying up homes or condos just to rent out the rooms by the day or week — contributing to what is already a shortage of available permanent housing.

In addition to taxing entities such as Airbnb, the bill would make Massachusetts the first in the U.S. to track short-term rentals through a statewide registry.

A group representing traditional hotels and motels in the state, which has sparred with Airbnb on regulations, praised the compromise and urged lawmakers and Baker to swiftly approve it.

“It goes a long way toward leveling the playing field for all lodging businesses while maintaining a welcoming environment for new home-sharing platforms,” said Paul Sacco, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Lodging Association.

The Senate also took votes on Monday to restore spending vetoed by the governor from the state’s $41.7 billion budget, joining the House, which voted on Friday to override many of those vetoes.

A group of conservative Republican House members, meanwhile, pushed unsuccessfully for a floor debate over their bid to remove from the bench Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley. The GOP lawmakers claim the judge has been too lenient on some violent criminals and drug dealers.

Critics of the impeachment effort, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, contend it would be inappropriate for the Legislature to remove a judge over sentencing decisions that were within guidelines and in some cases backed by prosecutors.

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