Local legislators play major role in  ‘Grand Bargain’

State Senator Jason lewis (D-Winchester) and State Rep. Ken Gordon (D-Bedford) were on hand for the signing of the ‘Grand Bargain’ along with (l-r) House Speaker Bob DeLeo, Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Harriet Chandler, Lewis, State Rep. Paul Brodeur and Gordon.

With partisan politics pushed to the side earlier this summer to celebrate passage of the "Grand Bargain Bill", a handful of area legislators played pivotal roles in securing the deal to boost workers' compensation packages while simultaneously enacting a handful of business-friendly initiatives.

On June 28, just days after the state Legislature passed a bill previously known as H.4640 or An Act relative to minimum wage, paid family medical leave, and the sales tax holiday, Republican Governor Charles Baker joined with Democratic rivals to celebrate the good-spirited negotiations leading up to signing ceremony.

The new law, when fully implemented, will raise the state's minimum wage to $15, establish a new paid family and medical leave program, and in concessions to the state's private employers, exempt small businesses from the paid leave program costs, permanently institute a weekend-long sales tax holiday once a year, and eliminate a requirement that retail industry workers receive time-and-a-half pay for Sunday hours.

Lastly, the partisan "coming together" moment also guarantees a proposal aimed at slashing the Mass. sales tax from 6.25 to 6 percent. It will share the same fate as the so-called "millionaire's tax" referendum by being removed from November's upcoming election ballot.

"I am thankful that all parties came together, compromised and found common ground to produce a better set of policies than what the ballot questions represented. The Massachusetts workforce continues to grow with more and more people finding jobs, and our administration is committed to maintaining [that] competitive economic environment," said the governor of the deal.

"This compromise strikes the right balance of empowering employees, supporting our hardworking residents, and ensuring that businesses can continue to provide good, steady jobs," House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) also commented. "I sincerely thank the stakeholders who came to the table and the legislators who brokered this compromise."

Some of the major achievements of the bill include:

• The establishment of a paid worker leave program, to be funded for through a new .63 percent payroll tax, which beginning in 2021 will allow all state workers to take up to 12 weeks of compensated family leave and 20 weeks of personal medical leave (the benefit is capped at a maximum $850 per week reimbursement rate).

• A provision which exempts small businesses with fewer than 25 workers from having to contribute towards the new payroll tax for the family leave program;

• An incremental minimum wage hike from $11 to $15 by increasing the rate to $12 in 2019 and then by 75 cents on an annual basis until 2023;

• A hike for tipped employees like restaurant waitstaff, who will see their minimum pay rate jump from $3.75 an hour to $6.75 through annual 60 cent increases in wages between 2019 and 2023.

• The creation of a two-day sales tax holiday every August;

• The end of time-and-half pay for retail workers on Sundays and holidays;

In a moment that captured the spirit of compromise between the state's top powerbrokers, DeLeo and Senate President Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) were captured laughing and joking with Baker just moments before the state executive signed the bill into law.

And while those images aptly illustrate why the initiative has since been dubbed the "Grand Bargain", photographs of the moment also call attention to the rank-and-file legislators who championed various aspects of the legislative package.

Among those standing right beside the leadership team are Winchester, Reading, and Stoneham State Senator Jason Lewis, State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat whose district includes Burlington and Wilmington, and Melrose State Rep. Paul Brodeur, whose constituency includes portions of Wakefield.

Unlikely alliances

According to Lewis and Brodeur, who beside being from neighboring legislative districts also serve as co-chairs of Beacon Hill's Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, they played a key role in finalizing the language of H.4640 over the past year.

The final bill signed into law by Baker earlier this summer is an unlikely combination of legislative priorities championed by the interests of the pro-business and labor and union lobbies, who had introduced opposing ballot referendum questions to be decided by voters during state elections in November.

Those questions, all of which will now be withdrawn as a result of the "Grand Bargain Bill", included:

• An initiative backed by the Mass. Retailers Association to slash the state sales tax from 6.25 to 5 percent;

• A referendum which would have incrementally hiked the state's minimum wage to $15 by 2022 and increased tipped worker's basic pay rate to $9 an hour;

• Another proposal by workers' advocacy group Raise Up Massachusetts to institute a paid leave program that provides all workers with up to 16 weeks of family leave and 26 weeks of medical leave;

• A ballot question, backed by business groups, which aimed to establish a week-long sales tax holiday each year;

• And the establishment of a Fair-Share Amendment, which would have both imposed a 4 percent income surcharge on any individual who earns more than $1 million a year and steered those new tax revenues towards transportation and education programs.

With many pre-election polls showing a majority of those ballot questions had a likely chance of passing this November, both sides were urged to come together in mid-June, when the Mass. Supreme Court ruled Raise Up Massachusetts' proposed millionaire's tax violated the state Constitution. As a result, the jurists in a 5-to-2 decision disqualified the local referendum question from being placed on the ballot.

Though appearing on its face as a victory for pro-business interests, the court ruling was classified by state leaders as a potential budget liability, as the likely passage of the sales tax rollback — expected to drain state coffers by $1.2 billion annually — no longer had any shot of being offset by the simultaneous approval of the Fair Share Amendment.

The potential crisis, which resulted in a push by the governor and Beacon Hill leaders to find a compromise, played right into the hands of Lewis and Brodeur, who had reportedly already been trying to broker such a deal.

"The signing of this legislation into law is a culmination of an almost year-long process led by Senator Lewis and Representative Brodeur. In their role as co-chairs of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, they brought together stakeholders from Raise up Massachusetts and leaders of the business community to work closely together to design a paid family and medical leave program that would meet the needs of workers while addressing the concerns of employees," a joint statement from the area lawmakers explains.

With the creation of a paid leave program forming the backbone of the deal, the compromise relied heavily on a bill already drafted by Bedford’s Gordon, who had championed the worker benefit by sponsoring legislation that sought to establish a state program for three consecutive years.

In a milestone moment for the third-term legislator, Gordon rose to the floor of the State House just prior to H.4640's passage and praised the spirit of compromise that led to its adoption.

According to the Bedford Democrat, after speaking with local constituents like those who manage the popular Sammy's Deli & Catering in Burlington, small business owners will no longer have to grapple over painful decisions regarding the future employment of sick workers who have become like family.

Likewise, he heralded the official launch of the program - workers can begin utilizing it in 2021 - when parents won't need to depart their children's hospital rooms or ailing parents' bedsides in order to ensure household expenses and medical bills can be paid.

"I thank advocates from both the employees and business communities for their good-faith efforts to get into the weeds on this bill and help us come up with a compromise that considers the needs of all stakeholders," said Gordon from the house floor.

"We in government like to talk about family values. And here today in Massachusetts we're passing a bill that reflects our family values. This bill keeps families together in times of great stress and joy.

Once we pass this paid family and medical policy, parents will no longer have to choose between holding the hand of a very sick child confined to a hospital bed or kissing that child goodbye to go to work," he added. "No longer will a mother or father have to leave a newborn or newly adopted child with a stranger or pay for expensive day care [providers]."

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