Baker: No major objections to bills on vaping, education funds and distracted driving

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BOSTON — A ban on flavored tobacco and tax on e-cigarettes, a $1.5 billion public education funding overhaul, and a new attempt to crack down on distracted driving all landed on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk as lawmakers wrapped up their formal business of the year.

His immediate response to all three proposals: no major objections but he wants to read the bills.

Baker has supported parts of each bill or filed his own similar versions, but it remains unclear whether the governor will sign any of the legislation sent to him, return something with a proposed amendment or veto a proposal. In separate public comments Thursday, Baker declined to outline his plans explicitly.

The House and Senate reached a deal after midnight Thursday on a bill that would prohibit sales of all flavored tobacco and impose a 75 percent excise tax on vaping products. Lawmakers included menthol in the list of banned flavors, which would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to take mentholated cigarettes off shelves.

Baker declined to say Thursday whether he planned to sign the bill in its current form.

"I haven't read the legislation yet, but that's certainly something that's a front and center issue for us, and I look forward to reviewing it," Baker told reporters after an unrelated event in Lynn, before adding that he "certainly appreciate(s) the fact that the Legislature chose to take a good, hard look at this" during his temporary ban on vaping products, according to a recording provided by his office.

The Legislature's effort to prohibit flavored tobacco comes with Baker's separate but related ban on sales of all vaping products, sparked by an outbreak of vaping-related lung-illnesses, set to expire on Dec. 24.

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When he declared a public health emergency and enacted a vaping ban in September, Baker said the flavored tobacco bill was "one of the things that we would hope would end up being part of the conversation that we would have if we need to pursue legislative answers to this."

He said Thursday in a separate interview on WGBH's "Boston Public Radio" that he has heard from many advocates about the importance of restricting flavors to help prevent teenagers from becoming addicted to nicotine.

"I can't tell you how many parents and school administrators and teachers have come up to me since this whole thing started and said how much they appreciated the ban on vaping, period, and they're concerned especially about how flavored vaping is — and this is their word, not mine — becoming an epidemic in middle and high schools," Baker said. "They have real concerns about how this is understood and portrayed to kids."

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The governor also declined to weigh in on the Legislature's choice to include menthol in its list of prohibited flavors, a move that riled some Republican lawmakers but had the backing of public health experts.

During his WGBH interview Baker did say that menthol has had a disproportionate impact on addiction rates in communities of color. A caller raised concerns that a ban could create an illicit market in those communities, and Baker said it was a "legit concern" that warranted attention if the bill becomes law.

The bill on Baker's desk also imposes a 75 percent excise tax on e-cigarettes, which currently do not face a tax. In his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, Baker included a similar tax but at a rate of 20 percent for e-cigarettes and other paraphernalia and at a 40 percent rate for vaping liquids.

In Lynn, Baker also described the $1.5 billion, seven-year school funding reform package as "an important and sort of front-and-center issue." As with the other major bills on his reading list, he didn't say how he would act on it but noted that he filed his own proposal in January and discussed the idea of committing to a substantial, long-term investment. The Legislature's bill does not appropriate money or call for new revenues.

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"I certainly think what this means for us and for the Legislature on a go-forward basis, this is going to have to be sort of first-in when we make decisions about what the budget looks like," Baker said.

As the House and Senate negotiated their school funding bills, a key difference was the amount of authority to give the state education commissioner over the plans districts would be required to submit outlining strategies they would pursue to close achievement gaps. The final bill allows the commissioner to send back and require amendments on plans that do not conform to provisions laid out in the bill.

Baker said he still wants to "get a sense of exactly where they landed" on that section of the legislation, "but we certainly believe it's important for accountability measures to be a part of that."

When asked if he would sign legislation prohibiting drivers from using handheld electronic devices behind the wheel except for those in hands-free mode, Baker pointed to similar language he included in a broader driving safety bill earlier this year.

He said he wanted to read the bill before committing, but reaffirmed his support for the underlying proposal.

"This is clearly a top-of-the-pile agenda issue for us," Baker said.


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