BOSTON – Lawmakers in the House and Senate continued negotiating details of a House bill passed last week that would give communities more flexibility in completing town meeting business and finalizing a budget during a declared state of emergency.

The bill, passed by the House on Friday and awaiting action in the Senate, would allow bars and restaurants holding liquor licenses to sell beer and wine for takeout under certain conditions, and extend the state income tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15.

State House News Service reported a vote by the Senate is expected Wednesday.

House Bill 4598, to address challenges faced by municipalities and state authorities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, authorizes town moderators – in consultation with the selectboard and local public health or safety officials – to postpone town meetings for up to 30 days due to a declared public health or safety emergency, according to a press release from state Rep. James Kelcourse's office. 

A recess or continuance can be repeated as long as the state of emergency is in effect and for up to five days after the order is lifted. However, the town must notify the attorney general within 10 days of the initial recess or continuance and provide details on the reasons for postponement.

Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, said the bill as passed by the House would give local selectboards the option to extend town meeting business beyond the June 30 cutoff mandated by state law, and would allow towns that are unable to finalize a new municipal budget by June 30 to continue operating using monthly interim budgets.

These interim budgets can be funded using free cash or unexpended funds in a revolving account, enterprise fund or special revenue account, with the approval of the director of local accounts at the Department of Revenue.

The provision to allow takeout sales of beer and wine from bars and restaurants is aimed at helping businesses make up some of the revenue lost when the governor banned dining in.

The House version of the bill would allow beer and wine sales in conjunction with food takeout or delivery orders, with customers limited to 1.5 liters of wine and 192 ounces of beer per transaction.

As passed by the House, the bill also would extend the deadline for municipalities to exercise a right of first refusal option to buy property until 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted; removes the annual cap on hours and earnings for retired employees collecting a pension so they can work during the state of emergency, provided they did not retire under a general or special disability law; and allows communities to extend deadlines for property tax payments and applications for tax exemptions to a date no later than June 1.

The bill also authorizes communities to waive interest payments and other penalties for late payments of excises and taxes, including water and sewer payments, if payment is made before June 30; allows permit-granting authorities to hold meetings and public hearings remotely during the state of emergency, using the guidelines established in the governor’s March 12 order suspending certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law; and ensures that no permit, variance, special permit, license, amendment, extension or other approval issued by a permit-granting authority will lapse or be deemed granted, approved or denied until 45 days after the state of emergency is lifted, or by a date otherwise prescribed by law, whichever is later.

“This legislation will support our communities as we navigate this difficult time economically and from a public health perspective. We want to give cities and towns the tools they need to stay afloat financially while protecting our citizens from the virus,” Kelcourse said in the release. “We are hopeful the Senate and Baker-Polito administration will take swift action on this legislation.” 

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