Top Democrats on Beacon Hill have said they don't want to increase state taxes next year, but they're keeping an open mind on a bill from Gov. Maura Healey that could clear the way for some local taxes to rise.
At a Massachusetts Municipal Association conference last week, Healey announced her plans to file a bill that would raise the ceiling for local meals and lodging taxes in communities that want to adopt them. Healey's bill, filed Monday, would also give municipalities the option of imposing an extra 5% surcharge on top of their existing motor vehicle excise tax.
The bill would not require any community to increase their taxes or add new ones.
Healey said allowing higher local taxation would "absolutely not" contradict her pledge to make Massachusetts more affordable, describing it instead as a way to give communities new options to raise needed revenues.
"If you're a Cape Cod community, we heard, you know, raising a meals tax, raising a hotel tax that will be primarily paid by tourists, is something that they may want to consider and do," Healey said. "Other towns may feel differently."
After meeting privately with Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll Monday afternoon, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka said they'd consider Healey's proposal but didn't stake out firm stances on it.
"Like the House, we certainly will take a good look at it," said Spilka, an Ashland Democrat. "I was at the MMA conference this past weekend and got mixed feelings about it, so certainly we want to hear from different stakeholders as well as other senators."
Mariano said lawmakers will evaluate Healey's proposals to see "what impact they have on our competitiveness, which is one of the reasons why we don't want to raise taxes."
Spilka did express interest in a provision that didn't make it into the final bill: liquor-licensing reform.
When Healey announced the bill Friday, her office said it would include a measure "empowering local governments to set their own liquor license quotas and bypass the existing home-rule petition process."
However, a Healey spokesperson said Monday that the governor dropped the liquor-licensing piece of the bill because, while Healey still supports the idea, the administration needed more time to get the language right.
Currently, local governments need to seek the Legislature's approval to issue more liquor licenses once they've hit a certain cap. Boston officials, for instance, have been hoping lawmakers will sign off on a bill to let them grant 250 extra licenses in specific zip codes over a five-year period, to help counteract a system where many of the city's bars and restaurants are concentrated in places like downtown and the Seaport.
"I do have to say, with the liquor licenses, honestly, I never understood why the Legislature approves them to begin with, so I would certainly be willing to take a look at that and making some changes there," Spilka said.
Healey's new bill, dubbed the Municipal Empowerment Act, would also make permanent the pandemic-era flexibilities that allow communities to host hybrid public meetings and restaurants to sell to-go cocktails with takeout food orders.
It includes other measures involving procurement laws, borrowing rules for school building projects, property tax exemptions for seniors and the creation of regional Boards of Assessors.
Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Amy Carnevale panned the bill's proposed local tax changes Friday, saying higher meals and rooms taxes would hurt the restaurant and tourism industries by driving up consumer costs.
"Tax increases hurt our communities and make our state less affordable," Carnevale said in a statement. "It’s not fair to further burden residents when the cost of living is already too expensive."
Healey's office touted the filing of the bill Monday, circulating statements in support of its various provisions from more than two dozen local officials across the state.
"From the roads people drive or walk on to get to work, the schools our students attend, the water people use to brush their teeth, and beyond – the services provided on the local level are vital to providing a top quality of life," Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson said. "However, these services require the tools, resources, and flexibility needed to respond to the situations facing each city and town."