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Cutler Corner: Issues behind the scenes on Beacon Hill

The big hot-button issues tend to draw all the attention and headlines on Beacon Hill and usually for good reason. Gun control, medical marijuana and state foster care policies are just a few critical issues currently under debate.

Still, there are plenty of other ideas being championed that could impact our quality of life and our bottom lines in less dramatic, yet still meaningful ways. This month I’d like to call your attention to three such bills. Each is what I would call a common-sense piece of legislation and all three have garnered bi-partisan support.

Direct Shipment of Wine. Massachusetts is one of just a few states that does not allow residents to purchase wine to have it shipped to their homes. That would change under proposed legislation (H. 294) currently before the Joint Consumer Protection Committee, which I am a member of.

In its current form, the bill would allow consumers to purchase a limited quantity of wine directly from out-of-state wineries, such as that of former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe who now runs a winery in the state of Washington. He visited the State House this fall to advocate in favor of the bill and recounted the time he promised Tom Brady he would send him the 12th bottle of his first vintage to match his jersey number. Due to our state laws, however, Bledsoe was forced to ship the bottle to Brady’s father in California who reportedly drank it instead!

Some valid concerns have been raised to ensure that we do not make it easier for minors to access alcohol or harder for our local package stores to do business. For those reasons provisions have been added to limit the quantity of wine that can be shipped and include strict reporting requirements. Massachusetts has some fairly archaic alcohol laws on the books and this is an opportunity to update them to be more pro-consumer.

Charitable license plates. We’ve all seen those specialty license plates on the roads, often promoting a favorite cause. Since 2003, the Massachusetts RMV has allowed non-profit groups to raise money through the voluntary sale of specialty plates, collectively bringing in nearly $75 million for these charitable groups.

While the law has been a smashing success, its demanding requirements mean that only the biggest non-profits can qualify. Applicants must post a $100,000 bond and sell at least 1,500 plates in advance at $40 per plate and 3,000 in the first two years or risk losing their bond. Every year dozens of otherwise qualified charitable organizations fall short of this threshold, shutting them out of a valuable potential revenue stream.

Many other states have much lower thresholds for specialty plates. For instance Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio impose minimums of no more than 500 plates and Missouri requires only 200. With new technology the additional cost of producing a specialty plate is lower and lower.

A bill, H. 3136, I am working on with my colleague Rep. Jeff Roy (D-Franklin) and a bi-partisan group of legislators, would lower this threshold in Massachusetts to 500 plates and allow more charitable groups to take advantage. The bill includes provisions to ensure that the RMV can still recoup any fixed costs for producing the plates. This is a far more manageable threshold and will allow smaller and mid-sized 501c(3) groups to apply.

All of the sudden it would not be out of the question for a local non-profit to qualify for a specialty plate. Imagine driving around town with your “Friends of the Pembroke Library”, or “Pembroke Education Foundation” specialty license plate, and knowing your extra fee was going to a great cause in your own backyard.

Mobile phone tax relief. A recent directive from the Mass. Department of Revenue has caused issues for consumers who purchase mobile phones with a service plan. Instead of paying state sales tax on the purchase price at the cash register, some consumers are being charged tax on the much higher manufacturers price.

In other words, if you paid $199 at the cash register for an iPhone but your phone is actually valued at $799 by Apple, you’d be forced to pay sales tax on $799. For an older model or a used cell phone that means you could actually pay more in sales tax than you would for the actual price of the phone!

Massachusetts is one of just two states to single out mobile phones for such disparate treatment. It is a practice that is unfair to consumers and also a headache for retailers, often putting franchise owned stores at a competitive disadvantage over stores owned by mobile phone service carriers.

A bill that Rep. Jay Barrows (R-Mansfield) and I are working on was recently given a favorable report and is now before the Ways & Means Committee. Our legislation (H. 3586) would level the playing field and treat a mobile phone purchase the same whether it was bundled with a calling plan or not. The price you pay at the register is the price you are taxed on.

So there you have it, three issues that won’t make front page headlines but are still worthy of attention. If you have questions about these bills or any other please drop me a line at

Cutler Corner is a monthly column published in the Pembroke Mariner by Rep Josh Cutler.


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