The first half of the 2017-2018 legislative session in Massachusetts was dominated by the issue of health-care costs and the role employers should play in helping to close a budget gap in the state Medicaid program.
But larger battles await during 2018 as progressive activists seek to place three questions on the Massachusetts election ballot that would together impede economic growth for a generation. The initiatives would impose an 80 percent surtax on incomes more than $1 million for pass-through businesses, establish a $1.3 billion-per-year paid leave program and increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Associated Industries of Massachusetts worked successfully during 2017 on a range of issues confronting its member employers from every sector of the economy.
The most important achievement was a compromise that transformed a proposed $700 million annual health-care surtax into a two-year, $200 million assessment to close the budget shortfall in the commonwealth’s health-insurance program for low-income people. The assessment increased the Employer Medical Assistance Contribution (EMAC) in a manner that will fall most heavily on companies where employees use MassHealth instead of an employer health plan.
The levy will be partially offset by a two-year Unemployment Insurance rate adjustment that will save employers $335 million over two years versus current rates. AIM was disappointed that lawmakers passed the assessment without making structural reforms to the MassHealth program.
“We believe, however, that the Legislature is committed to resolving the financial problems at MassHealth and employers look forward to working with lawmakers toward that goal in 2018,” said John Regan, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs at AIM.
AIM also played a key role in hammering out compromise legislation to extend employment protection to pregnant workers in Massachusetts.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act requires employers to make reasonable workplace accommodations for pregnant employees — more frequent or longer breaks, temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, a modified work schedule, or seating for those whose jobs require extended standing. AIM opposed early versions of the bill because of concern among employers that the legislation provided an applicant or employee with unlimited power to reject multiple and reasonable offers of accommodation by an employer. The compromise bill addresses that concern.
There was no such compromise in August when the Baker Administration introduced regulations that set specific limits on sources of greenhouse gases, the emissions linked to climate change. State officials indicate that the regulations could increase costs to electric ratepayers by as much as 2 percent. The new rules aim to reduce the state’s carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as required by state law.
The regulations, however, were ultimately unnecessary. The administration could have chosen to work with the Legislature to change the Global Warming Solutions Act to allow alternative ways for the electricity sector to meet these obligations. The administration instead turned a blind eye to the corrosive impacts that high electric rates are having on struggling Massachusetts companies.
The three potential 2018 ballot questions would represent an unprecedented potential policy crisis for Massachusetts:
- The constitutional tax amendment would raise from 5.1 percent to 9.1 percent the levy on income of more than $1 million per year, including income generated by subchapter S-corporations, LLPs, LLCs, partnerships, and other pass-through entities. The $1.9 billion tax increase would be paid by roughly 19,500 filers, 80 percent of whom are anticipated to file with some business income.
- The paid leave question would mandate 16 weeks of paid family leave and 26 weeks of paid medical leave for employees for a total projected cost of $1.3 billion.
- The minimum wage question would raise the wage from the current $11 per hour in annual $1 per-hour annual increments starting in 2019 until it reaches $15 an hour in 2022. That amounts to a projected increase of 36 percent.
Supporters of the paid-leave and minimum wage questions filed the requisite number of signatures last month to move a step closer to the ballot. Massachusetts lawmakers now have until the end of April to consider and pass the initiatives. Any initiatives that are not adopted must gather and file an additional 10,792 signatures by July 3 to make the 2018 ballot.
The income surtax constitutional amendment qualified for the ballot in 2016. In October, I joined four other prominent business leaders in filing a suit challenging the validity of the proposal, asserting that the amendment is riddled with constitutional flaws and would make the new tax essentially permanent and unchangeable.
“It is impossible to overstate the potential threat that these three ballot questions pose for Massachusetts employers. The advocates supporting the questions are well funded and are prepared to spend millions of dollars to get their message across to voters,” Regan said.
The ballot battle will take place just as employers begin to comply with the new Massachusetts Pay Equity Law on July 1, 2018. The law prohibits employers from discriminating based on gender in the payment of wages and other compensation for “comparable” work. Many employers are already undertaking the internal wage studies that provide a safe harbor from litigation under the statute.
Beacon Hill lawmakers will conclude the second year of their two-year session on July 31. The end of formal sessions will kick off an election season that will see Governor Charlie Baker, US Senator Elizabeth Warren and other prominent office holders face re-election challenges.