Published on Thursday, May 17, 2012
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
The prospect of an economic development bill passing the House soon and possibly being signed into law this year brought out those who want more from the legislation and one official who thinks it went too far.
James Igoe, of Preservation Massachusetts, said the bill unveiled Monday by House leaders could help stimulate the economies of older cities by increasing the $50 million cap on tax credits for developers who restore historic properties.
“I think they’re hugely important not only for historic preservation,” said Igoe, who told the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets that restorations revitalize downtowns and provide jobs to construction workers, but state reimbursements to developers have fallen from an average of $1.5 million per project to about $250,000 each.
The bill, which was written by the Joint Committee on Development and Emerging Technologies, takes a sweeping approach toward boosting startups, research and manufacturing in the state.
An Act Relative to Infrastructure Investment, Enhanced Competitiveness and Economic Growth in the Commonwealth (H 4093) would establish a $50 million matching fund for research and development projects, a matching fund for internships, and a two-year extension for local permits – so that developers who have been set back by the economic downturn are not penalized – and require the state’s pension fund to invest more, as much as $100 million, in institutions that provide capital to small businesses.
Asserting there are “many things to like about this bill,” Housing and Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki said at the hearing that the legislation would benefit more than computer coders.
“That term innovation economy casts a very broad net,” said Bialecki, who supports the bill as long as the public benefits of the its proposed tax credits are properly analyzed.
The bill provides tax credits to community development corporations and to developers who clean up polluted sites.
While a slew of House members attended a press conference Monday to applaud the bill, no one from House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team testified for it. Most Beacon Hill insiders expect the bill to clear the House, with the biggest questions being the timing of that vote and treatment of amendments.
While generally in favor of the bill, Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville) worried that some provisions could lead to irresponsible borrowing and another would hamper local control over zoning.
Provost objected to a provision that she said specifically rules out oversight on local authorities that are established to oversee development districts and have the power to borrow money based on the promise of new property tax revenues.
“I would hope that we would have some kind of oversight somewhere instead of this specific language exempting [oversight],” Provost said, raising the specter of bankruptcies and promised developments stalled.
Chairman Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) disagreed that government entities could borrow too much because, he said, no one would buy bonds without reliable funding in place.
“We learned again from J.P. Morgan, but this is not the kind of debt and the investments that we’re talking about,” Cabral said. “No one will buy your bonds if you’re not guaranteeing your assessments.”
Provost also questioned a portion of the bill that prohibits municipalities from passing any ordinance or bylaw that interferes with interstate or intrastate commerce.
“That gets into some tricky territory. Conflict of laws territory,” Provost said. “Interstate commerce can be just about anything that is not purely local… I’m not sure why it’s here, what was intended.”
The bill would provide grants for municipalities to make infrastructure improvements, but Steven Long, of The Nature Conservancy, asked that the bill also provide funding to remove certain pieces of infrastructure – specifically dams.
Long said that most of the state’s dams had been built during the Industrial Revolution when they were used to power mills. Those dams are sometimes dangerous, have no modern use and removing them would make those areas better destinations for fishers and kayakers, Long said.
“Think about the business related to kayaking and canoeing,” Long said.
Though a few wanted the bill tweaked, still others said they supported it in its entirety. Allison Staton, of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations and Tara Small, a lobbyist for commercial property developers, both gave the bill their full support.
“We’re thrilled with the entire bill,” Staton said.
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