Massachusetts Lawmakers Approve Family Leave, Sales Tax, $15 Minimum Wage

Court's ruling appeared to accelerate negotiations to reach what Gov. Charlie Baker had called a "grand bargain"

Massachusetts lawmakers swiftly approved a compromise bill Wednesday that could keep proposals on paid leave, the minimum wage and a reduction in the sales tax from going before voters on the November ballot.

The House passed the measure on a 126-25 vote. The Senate followed, approving the bill by a 30-8 tally.

The measure would allow all workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a sick family member or new baby, and up to 20 weeks of paid leave for their own medical needs. It still needs Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's signature before becoming law.

The measure would gradually raise the state's minimum wage from the current $11 to $15 an hour by 2023. And it would phase out over five years the rule that workers be paid time-and-a-half for working on Sundays, a vestige of the state's mostly defunct Sunday blue laws.

The bill also includes a requirement the state hold an annual August sales tax holiday, but it would not reduce the sales tax from the current 6.25 percent to 5 percent, as proposed by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

One reason lawmakers and Baker are hoping to keep the questions off the ballot is the impact they would have on the state's bottom line if approved.

The proposed sales tax cut alone would reduce state revenues by about $1.2 billion a year, budget analysts estimated. The questions fit together as a kind of policy jigsaw puzzle that makes it difficult to hammer out a compromise on one without wrapping in the others.

Democratic Senate President Harriette Chandler said the bill "is designed to benefit working families, support businesses throughout the Commonwealth, and grow our economy.''

The compromise was unveiled just two days after the Supreme Judicial Court threw out another proposed ballot question, the so-called "millionaire tax'' that would have imposed a 4 percent surtax on any portion of an individual's income above $1 million.

The court's ruling appeared to accelerate negotiations to reach what Baker had called a "grand bargain,'' that would remove the impetus for the other ballot initiatives.

Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor unions, community and religious organizations, sponsored the proposed ballot questions for paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage.

The group, in a statement, said the bill represented a "victory'' for low-wage earners and for workers.

"However, we are troubled by the size of the increase in the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, which doesn't go as far as our proposed ballot question,'' the group said. "Our coalition is also strongly opposed to the Legislature's decision to eliminate Sunday time-and-a-half pay and cut wages for thousands of workers who are working on Sundays to pay their bills.''

The coalition said it would be polling its more than 100 member organizations before committing to the compromise and agreeing to withdraw its ballot questions.

Sponsors of initiative petitions must submit a final round of signatures to the secretary of state's office by July 3. After that, there is no legal way to have a certified question taken off the ballot.

Jon Hurst, president of the retailers association, said the group was prepared to withdraw its ballot initiative to lower the sales tax if the compromise wins final approval.

"It mitigates the timing, cost and damage of the $15 minimum wage and the new paid leave program as laid out in the ballot measures,'' Hurst said in an email, adding he expected some pushback from member retailers over dropping the sales tax cut.

Retailers had also fought to make permanent the summer sales tax holiday, which is popular with consumers but had not been scheduled by the Legislature for the past two years.

"This compromise certainly does not satisfy every desire of everyone but it is a reflection of the work and commitment to broad consensus that we strive for here in Massachusetts,'' said Democratic Rep. Paul Brodeur, the House chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee.

Massachusetts would have the most generous paid family leave program in the country, Brodeur said. California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island also mandate paid family leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The $15 minimum wage would be matched only by California, which plans to institute that wage by 2022.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the only states that mandate time-and-a-half for workers on Sundays.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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