Massachusetts lawmakers strike last-minute deal on economic development bill, shelving sports …

Massachusetts legislators reached a last-minute deal overnight on a nearly $627 million economic development bill that includes housing production incentives, small business grants and vocational school funding, but no sports betting legalization.

The bill was swiftly advanced through the House and Senate overnight, as lawmakers repeatedly extended the end of session using pandemic-era emergency rules. They enacted the bill and prepared to send it to the governor’s desk after 4 a.m., hours before newly elected legislators are being sworn in.

“This bill was really about COVID relief. It’s about getting money and getting support out the door to the businesses and the families and the communities that have been most impacted by the COVID recession,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and a key negotiator on the bill.

In an interview early Wednesday, Lesser touted provisions that fund small business grants, restaurant relief and other money that aims to stimulate the state economy despite the pandemic-fueled recession.

The wide-ranging, 101-page omnibus bill would allow tenants facing no-fault evictions to get the records sealed, allot $14 million in tourism grants for businesses and regional tourism councils, offer grants to vocational schools for renovations and equipment purchases and fund other initiatives across Massachusetts.

Lawmakers struck a compromise on the “housing choice” proposal, which Gov. Charlie Baker advocated for this session. Among other things, the economic development bill changes zoning laws so local officials can approve zoning changes with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority. The change is expected to help spur housing production and mitigate the housing shortage that legislators say plays a role in high rental prices in the Greater Boston area.

The House voted 143-4 to enact the jobs bill. The Senate voted 39 to 1 to enact the bill, sending the bill to the governor’s desk as the two-year legislative session closes.

The jobs bill also requires that communities served by the MBTA mandate that multi-unit housing be built within a half-mile of a station. Those units can’t have age restrictions and they have to be suitable for families with children.

“There’s a connection between the COVID spread and our housing shortage in the state,” Lesser said in an interview early Wednesday. “We know people who have been forced into very unsafe housing because it is too expensive, because multiple people have to be in rooms in tighter quarters. That’s contributed to the spread.”

The jobs bill is packed with funding for programs across the state. The Girls Inc. of the Valley, a Holyoke-based nonprofit, would receive at least $30,000 for STEM training with local schoolchildren. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission would receive $50,000 to study cell towers.

Lawmakers negotiating the economic development bill reached a deal late Tuesday and filed a conference report to the House clerk around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Historically, missing the 11:59 p.m. deadline the last night of the two-year session would have been a death sentence for a bill, but lawmakers tested the limits of the House and Senate’s emergency rules. The same rules that enabled them to extend the session past July 31 allowed them to continue reviewing bills past midnight.

Baker has 10 days to sign the bill or can choose not to sign it, effectively killing the proposal in what’s known as a “pocket veto.”

Sports betting quickly became a highly anticipated provision in the “Christmas tree” bill as the standalone bill stalled in the Legislature. The House folded the proposal into the jobs bill in July, but the Senate didn’t. Sen. Eric Lesser and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said at the time they didn’t want to pack a complicated sports betting plan in massive economic development bill.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to more than 12,000 deaths in Massachusetts alone and shuttered businesses across the state over the past nine months.

Lesser said the economic development package would create new jobs for underserved communities and offer relief to restaurant and tourism businesses in hopes of leading the state out of the recession.

If signed into law, the bill would “begin to chart a path out of the recession that we are in, ensuring a path with a brighter and more equitable future for all,” Lesser said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

One of the biggest accomplishments, Lesser said, was the focus on equity. Many grants funded in the bill must be disbursed in a way that “promotes geographic, social, racial and economic equity,” according to the conference report.

“We have to make sure that equity and those who have been disproportionately or most significantly impacted by this recession and this pandemic are also the ones who receive the greatest focus and attention in the policy response,” Lesser told senators. “And that is what this bill does.”

More than five months later, it seems the Senate’s inclination to hold off on sports betting won out in negotiations.

“On one hand, I’ve been surprised at Massachusetts’ inability to get this done, simply because there are a number of key stakeholders who want to get this done. On the other hand, a lot of those stakeholders do have differing visions for what sports betting should look like,” said Chris Grove, an industry analyst and partner at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. “Getting those visions aligned is a process that can stretch out indefinitely, depending on how hard everyone wants to dig in.”

Lawmakers and Baker have pushed for a legal sports betting market in Massachusetts since the U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that states can legalize the practice. Legislators have projected sports betting could bring in roughly $25 million a year, while Baker projected $35 million in state tax revenue in his fiscal 2021 budget proposal.

But opposition from gambling opponents and progressives who argue sportsbooks would profit off of working class made the proposal unpopular in some parts of the Legislature. While the sports betting proposal gained traction, proponents disagreed over whether the bill should prioritize casino owners who are licensed for gaming in the state, mobile sports betting operators, pro sports teams or a combination of the three.

The biggest challenge for launching a legal sports betting market wasn’t the opposition to gambling as much as disagreements about who should participate. Casino operators supported a legal market that prioritizes existing gaming license holders (i.e. casino owners). Online sports betting companies, especially Boston-based Draft Kings, sought to capitalize on a new market, touting their experience in other states, while professional sports leagues and teams fought for access to licenses, at least through partnerships with the online companies.

Meanwhile, keno operators in Massachusetts criticized lawmakers for leaving them out of the process altogether, despite the differences between managing keno games from a tavern and running a sportsbook that could potentially track wagers on games across multiple professional sports leagues.

“You have competing visions around who gets to offer sports betting, and I think that’s arguably the largest point of divergence around stakeholders,” Grove said. “Honestly, this is not terribly surprising in so much that states that have authorized sports betting to date have taken very different approaches on this question.”

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