With minimum-wage increases already locked in for years to come and a new push for a surtax on high earners underway, Senate President Karen Spilka told small business owners on Thursday that she would continue to work toward compromise even as lawmakers consider how to bring in new revenues.
Spilka, the keynote speaker at the annual Small Business Day, outlined in broad terms her desire to see the Legislature take action to improve transportation infrastructure, better fund education and reform health care. She also touted the Senate's new tax-reform working group that brings together a range of interests and expertise.
"I believe that every issue we will tackle this session is in some way an economic development issue," Spilka said.
The tenor of the event was somewhat more muted than last year when lawmakers faced a frustrated crowd amid debate over a minimum-wage increase that would soon be approved in the so-called "grand bargain."
But the strain was still apparent.
Christopher Carlozzi, Massachusetts director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, warned that a 4 percent surtax on income above $1 million -- which was thrown off the ballot last year by the courts but has been redrafted by legislators for a second attempt -- could cut into retirement savings when owners sell their businesses. One question posed to Spilka, after listing the wage increase and a paid family leave program, concluded: "When does it stop?"
"Some of the minimum wage, paid family and medical leave -- that was all part of the grand bargain and getting rid of time-and-a-half (pay) on Sunday," Spilka answered. "There were business groups at the table there. That is a compromise that was done."
Some of Spilka's remarks were well-received. She drew applause when she mentioned that the Employer Medical Assistance Contribution assessments, a push to collect $200 million from some businesses to offset MassHealth costs, would sunset by the end of the year as required by law, and again when she spoke about online retailers being required to collect and remit sales tax as brick-and-mortar stores do.
On health care more broadly, Spilka said Thursday that the Senate plans to revive components of its past push for omnibus legislation aimed at reducing costs and improving access. Components of the 2017 bill -- a wide-ranging package that aimed to increase access to telemedicine, minimize out-of-network charges, and more -- will be considered this session, she said, after the House and Senate were unable to reach a final compromise on the topic last session.
After the event, Spilka declined to identify which specific provisions will be the subject of the new health care push, telling the News Service it was "premature" to do so until the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing could examine them in more depth.
The Senate passed its version of the health care bill in November 2017, but the House did not take up the issue until June of the following year, and negotiators failed to strike a deal by July 31. Spilka said she is optimistic an earlier start this time around will bring success, though she did not put a timeline on when the Senate might be ready to debate a bill.
"It was late in the year, so we're hoping that things are done earlier," she said. "I think that might help and give us time. These are very complicated issues. Health care is probably among the most complicated issue that we'll be dealing with, so I think that will help, too."
Business leaders also used Thursday's event as an opportunity to advocate for and against bills they said would affect them, outlining their cases before visiting elected officials later in the day.
One bill, S 1110, would require retail, hospitality and food service businesses with more than 50 employees to post work schedules a minimum of 14 days in advance and pay extra when hours or shifts are changed within that range. Massachusetts Restaurant Association President Bob Luz said the proposal is "potentially going to break the camel's back on each one of us."
"The reality is none of our employees are asking for this," Luz said. "It's folks outside of our industry that believe this is necessary."
Another proposal particularly relevant to the restaurant industry is one to implement a lower wage for minors or for those who are training for a new job. Several different approaches to the idea are currently circulating on Beacon Hill, from a Rep. Shawn Dooley bill (H 1612) that would allow employees 18 and younger to be paid the federal minimum wage -- currently $7.25 per hour -- to one from Rep. Shaunna O'Connell (H 1671) that would allow businesses to pay teenagers up to 20 percent less than the Massachusetts minimum wage.
Brian Houghton, senior vice president of government affairs and communications for the Massachusetts Food Association, said a decrease in wages for trainees and young employees is necessary to offset a "perfect storm" of increasing labor costs, health care and overhead such as real estate.
"You've got to put all these things in the bucket and look at how it affects every bucket," Houghton said.
Associated Industries of Massachusetts Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Bob Rio also warned about rising energy costs driven by mandated fees to subsidize renewable energy, describing it as "death by a thousand cuts."
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