Dear Friends and Neighbors:
While, so far, the Commonwealth has the lowest COVID transmission rate in the country, please remain vigilant regarding how the virus spreads and intentional in your own actions to prevent it from happening.
To uplift the words of my MA House colleague, Dr. Jon Santiago, who represents the 9th Suffolk District in Boston and serves as an emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center, often working overnights on the weekends, please read his powerful opinion piece in Saturday's 6/27 Commonwealth Magazine entitled Two scourges, intertwined: The dual pandemic of COVID-19 and racism. Below are the final three paragraphs, but do yourself a favor, and read the whole thing!
Many of us have stood with and encouraged demonstrators to speak up and express their indignation and desire for change. The protests have been solution-oriented, constructive, and predominantly peaceful. The demonstrations are as American as those associated with the founding of this country, from the Boston Tea Party to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And while I share the concern that large protests may lead to a second coronavirus surge, I cannot in good faith tell a young black man to not speak up when he feels that he is more likely to die from police brutality than COVID-19.
I urge mask wearing, social distancing when possible, and encourage virtual protesting as an alternative. I stand near the back of the protests, separated six feet away with my own mask, lost in moments of reflection. I do my best to explain to my colleagues in government and healthcare why we cannot address COVID-19 and racism without transforming minds and laws that govern society.
And despite the continued loss of life from both epidemics, I remain inspired by the awakening and growing pains our country is undergoing. I feel it in the patients I care for who have shown incredible resolve in the face of an unrelenting virus. I feel it in discussions with legislative colleagues who recognize now is the time to tackle structural inequities with boldness and urgency. For if America has proven anything, it is our capacity to change and desire to fight for a more perfect union. And that moment has arrived.
State House News Service Advances
Week of June 28, 2020
COVID - PHASE 3: Pressure will begin to mount on Governor Baker next week to announce whether Phase 3 of the state's economic reopening plan will get underway on Monday, July 6. That's the earliest possible date for the third phase, which will include the return of gyms, sporting events, casinos, museums, and movie theaters, but Baker has said that his decisions will be driven by data and not arbitrary dates. Though he has said decisions about additional reopening will take into consideration things like the positive test rate, number of patients hospitalized, the state's testing capacity and more, the governor said he is particularly interested in seeing two week's worth of public health data from days when indoor restaurant dining has been allowed. Indoor dining resumed June 22. But the governor also acknowledged that, so far, the state's phased reopening process has not led to concerning spikes in cases. "As we continue to gradually reopen Massachusetts, our public health data continues to trend in the right direction," he said. -- Colin A. Young
THE BUDGET: Massachusetts begins fiscal 2021 on Wednesday with a $5.25 billion interim budget in place, a COVID-19 spending bill up for consideration in the Senate on Thursday, and Gov. Charlie Baker's $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget beginning its sixth month under review in the House Ways and Means Committee. Before deciding on how to proceed, Baker and legislative leaders are waiting to see how tax collections perform in the wake of the decision to push the annual tax-filing deadline forward from April 15 to July 15. They are also waiting to see when and whether Congress will pass another major stimulus bill providing additional support to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments struggling due to the pandemic's impacts. The House, which usually holds its annual budget deliberations in April, set a July 1 deadline for its Ways and Means Committee to recommend a post-pandemic fiscal 2021 budget, but committee chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz told the News Service this week that his panel's General Appropriations Act recommendation won't be ready by that deadline. For the moment, state government appears set up to get through July on its interim budget. After that, it's not clear whether the House and Senate will be able to quickly agree on a fiscal 2021 budget before the end of next month or whether they will need to suspend their rules to facilitate consideration of the budget, and perhaps other matters, sometime after July 31. - Michael P. Norton
LOCAL ROAD FUNDING/MBTA BOARD COMPROMISE: The House and Senate each need to take one more vote to finalize a compromise they struck during the week over local road and bridge maintenance funding and MBTA oversight. Under the compromise, annual funding for the Chapter 90 reimbursement program would remain at $200 million -- not increase to $300 million as each branch initially supported before the House walked back its position amid concerns over revenue -- and the T's Fiscal and Management Control Board that expires June 30 would remain in place one year longer. The potential resolution comes at the 11th hour for both issues: cities and towns typically expect an annual authorization for Chapter 90 in the spring so they can seek bidders and plan out construction seasons, and financial control and oversight of the T will revert to the Department of Transportation Board of Directors starting Wednesday without a legislative solution in place. MassDOT's board may still wind up in control for some time, given that Gov. Charlie Baker will have 10 days to review whatever hits his desk and that he has not yet indicated if he supports a one-year stopgap extension of the existing board. Transportation officials scheduled the next MassDOT board meeting for July 27, creating a weeks-long cushion before an extension of the FMCB would need to take effect. - Chris Lisinski
POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY REFORMS: Enacting reforms to hold police accountable for their behavior is a goal of some that is consuming much of the political oxygen on Beacon Hill as massive demonstrations against police violence and systemic racism continue to take place across the state. Several policy points have emerged as leading ideas to tackle the issue and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus is behind most of them, pushing their 10-point plan to address racial justice. Gov. Charlie Baker last week presented a bill (H 4794) that would start an effort to prevent police violence and improve transparency by implementing a licensing system that would allow the state to decertify officers who commit certain acts of misconduct. The bill, which remains in committee, would create a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee charged with certifying all officers. In the Legislature, Rep. Liz Miranda (D-Roxbury) and Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) filed a bill (HD 5128/SD 2968) that would prohibit the use of excessive force by police and require law enforcement agencies to report officer-involved injuries or deaths. House Speaker Robert DeLeo also pledged to get legislation to Baker's desk by July 31 banning the use of chokeholds and creating an independent office to enforce policing standards and conduct. DeLeo tapped Judiciary Committee Chair Claire Cronin of Easton to work on a bill. Senate President Karen Spilka put Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz in charge of an advisory group on racial justice to review policy responses that could be taken up this session. As the calendar turns to July, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee is working on a date for a public hearing on Baker's bill and perhaps others. - Chris Van Buskirk
UMASS FALL PLANS: The University of Massachusetts Boston has announced that it will stay remote for the fall semester, and UMass Lowell plans to return to on-campus instruction, with more details to be announced on July 1, a spokeswoman said. The two other undergraduate UMass campuses are almost ready to announce their fall plans. At the flagship campus in Amherst, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy "will determine a final plan by June 30," and UMass Dartmouth officials say they'll announce their plans early in the week. UMass and other public higher education institutions are expecting to face multiple years of financial challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the educational and public health implications of repopulating their campuses with students who will be coming from all directions. They'll have to weigh budgetary matters, including the revenues associated with room and board and the costs of whatever new precautions are needed to bring students back safely. - Katie Lannan
FOUR BALLOT QUESTIONS: With the Legislature showing little interest in passing alternative proposals, four campaigns hoping to put proposed laws before voters in November face the final step on the path to the ballot. Campaigns already had to submit at least 13,347 valid signatures from Massachusetts voters to local election officials for certification, and now they must file the certified signatures with Secretary of State William Galvin's office by Wednesday. Supporters of two of the initiatives, one implementing ranked-choice voting in the state and the other expanding access to automobile telematic data, touted their submission of more than the required amount of signatures to local offices. A campaign pushing for increased funding for nursing homes submitted just under 20,000 signatures for certification and is hoping to qualify for the ballot. The campaign behind a question that would allow more food stores to sell beer and wine has been quiet about their chances of clearing the required threshold. - Chris Lisinski and Michael P. Norton
SOLDIERS' HOME REFORMS: Gov. Baker added another item to the late-session legislative agenda this week, filing a bill that, among other oversight reforms, would require new state inspections at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and change how its superintendent is appointed. A scathing report released this week knocked the homes's leadership for errors leading up to the death of at least 76 veterans with COVID-19. Baker said when he filed the bill that he wanted "prompt enactment," but his bill received a mixed response upon arrival. He filed the bill in the Senate, where President Karen Spilka has said lawmakers should take action. But in the House, Speaker Robert DeLeo thinks lawmakers should undertake their own probe before acting. When the report was released, Baker said he'd accept and implement all of its recommendations. Not all of them are being pursued through legislation, though, and one in particular -- the recommendation that future soldiers' home superintendents be licensed nursing home administrators -- is emerging as a potential pressure point. The administration said it plans to post the Holyoke superintendent's job with "a preference for hiring a licensed nursing home administrator," but Baker isn't seeking to enshrine the qualification as a statutory requirement. Attorney General Maura Healey, who's also investigating the home, appears to be among those who disagree with that approach. "If a license requirement is necessary to ensure a baseline level of care at every other long-term care facility in our state, then why would we compromise that standard when it comes to caring for our veterans?" she said in a statement. - Katie Lannan
TRANSPORTATION POLICY/FUNDING: At the start of 2020, transportation funding and policy appeared to represent the largest and most important topic that the Legislature would address this year. The pandemic quickly changed that and heading down the stretch toward July 31 it seems possible that lawmakers are poised to just punt some of the once-critical issues into 2021. The House in March approved an $18 billion transportation bond bill and a $500 million tax and fee package designed, in part, to improve MBTA, regional transit and other transportation services. The Senate hasn't taken up either of those bills, although Senate President Spilka has expressed interest in passing a bond bill. House leaders have prodded the Senate to pass a transportation finance bill, saying a $300 million local road and bridge repair agenda could be supported with more revenues. This week, however, in a response that might indicate where senators stand on new taxes right now, the Senate opted to cut the Chapter 90 program authorization back to $200 million. For the moment at least, the situation on the ground has also changed, with fewer riders using the MBTA and traffic volumes down as many workers continue to do their jobs from home. - Michael P. Norton
HOUSE RESPONSE ON HEALTH CARE: Attention on the health care front now turns to the House for its response to a Senate-approved health care bill (S 2769) enshrining access to telehealth, making scope-of-practice adjustments and outlining an approach to out-of-network billing. However, the legislation's fate may already be sealed as a result of infighting among the Democrats who hold supermajorities in both chambers. The heads of the Health Care Financing Committee, Sen. Cindy Friedman and Rep. Daniel Cullinane, spent the week trading public barbs, with the House accusing the Senate of "obstruction" by pushing its legislative priorities through channels outside the committee, and the Senate responding by questioning the House's commitment to achieving a resolution on health care bills. If the branches remain at odds and cannot find agreement by the end of formal lawmaking business -- currently slated for July 31 -- it will be the second straight session that Democratic efforts to reform health care broke down. Senators next week are following up their health care bill's passage with a comprehensive listening session on Monday that will shed more light on the health care landscape in Massachusetts, where providers are reeling from the negative fiscal consequences of pandemic response. - Chris Lisinski
MAIL-IN VOTING TALKS: The window is narrowing for a legislative panel still privately negotiating an agreement on expanding the use of vote-by-mail in Massachusetts this election season. Both the House and Senate bills (H 4778 / S 2764) call for Secretary of State William Galvin to send every registered voter an application for a mail-in ballot by July 15, though they differ in whether that first batch of mail would include applications for both the primary and general election or just for the primary. Galvin is close to finalizing the ballots for this year's cycle, too: the State Ballot Law Commission issued decisions Friday on eligibility challenges filed against five candidates, and four potential ballot questions must submit signatures to the secretary's office by Wednesday to go before voters on Nov. 3. Greater use of mail-in ballots will likely be a key factor in the Sept. 1 primary election and Nov. 3 general election as voters grapple with concerns about COVID-19 transmission, particularly if Massachusetts experiences a second wave of cases this fall. - Chris Lisinski
DROUGHT/MOSQUITOES: The recent scarcity of rain could be helping to keep the mosquito population down but has also driven the Greater Boston area into abnormal dryness, with parts of northern, central and western Massachusetts experiencing a moderate drought. The conditions are being watched closely for impacts on agriculture, fire dangers, and water supplies - some local systems have begun instituting restrictions on water use. On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force recommended moving to a Level 2 Drought Condition, formerly a drought warning, for the West, Connecticut River, Central and Northeast regions. On Beacon Hill, a Senate approved a bill designed to modernize the state's approach to controlling mosquitoes, and by extension the deadly viruses the insects can transmit. It remains pending before the House. The bill is based on legislation Gov. Charlie Baker filed in April and would give the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board new powers to fight mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile Virus and Eastern equine encephalitis when the Department of Public Health determines there is an elevated risk. "Many cities and towns have not joined a mosquito control project," Gov. Charlie Baker wrote when he submitted his bill in April. "In these parts of the Commonwealth, there is no entity -- state, regional or local -- that can engage in mosquito control. While a town by town approach does allow for maximum local input into mosquito control, unfortunately mosquitos and viruses do not respect borders." - Michael P. Norton
6/26 - Governor Baker announced a $275 million COVID-19 economic recovery package. This package is an update to the economic development legislation that the Administration filed on May 4. The $275 million would be used to invest in housing, community development, and business competitiveness.
6/25 - The Office of Attorney General Maura Healey circulated an advisory to small businesses that answers questions about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and provides information on how to apply for it.
6/25 - Governor Baker announced the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released initial guidance for reopening schools this fall. Districts will be required to submit plans for in-school learning, hybrid learning, and all remote learning. If returning in person, teachers and students second grade and older will be required to wear face coverings and desks will need to be spaced at least 3 feet apart and face forward. The Administration is making approximately $200M from the state's federal Coronavirus Relief Fund available to schools.
6/24 - Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the U.S. Department of Labor created a tool to help workers determine their eligibility for paid sick leave or paid expanded family and medical leave. Check here: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/ffcra/benefits-eligibility-webtool/employee
6/24 - The. U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration announced a $400,000 CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant award to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in Boston and the Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Development District in Taunton.
6/24 - The independent report ordered by Governor Baker to investigate the COVID-19 outbreak at Holyoke Soldiers' Home was released. He announced that 76 veterans have died from COVID-19 at the home. Department of Veteran's Affairs Secretary Francisco Urena resigned from his position Tuesday night, and the Administration will move to fire Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh.
6/23 - Governor Baker announced of the 17,000+ people who received free COVID-19 testing after attending racial justice demonstrations, there was a 2.5% rate of infection. (As of Friday, the Globe reported a 1.27% positive rate “is the most up-to-date number” of those tested).
6/23 - Governor Baker announced a sales tax holiday this year on August 29 and 30.
6/22 - Governor Baker didn't hold press conference.
6/22 - The Department of Conservation and Recreation will reopen agency-managed campgrounds to the public on July 1, 2020. You can now make reservations online to camp at DCR camping facilities. Restrictions will be in place at campgrounds to encourage social distancing and aid in COVID-19 prevention.
7/2 - Senate meets in a full formal session at 11 a.m. to consider a COVID-19 supplemental budget (H 4808) and an information technology bond bill (H 4733). The House passed the I.T. bond bill on May 20 and the supplemental budget on June 24.
6/30 - Equitable Recovery in Boston Virtual Special Listening Session at 1 p.m. hosted by Senator Collins and Representative Tyler.
6/30 - The MA House plans to meet in a full formal session with roll calls at 1 p.m. Representatives have been advised to prepare for an enactment roll call vote on H 4803 directing Chapter 90 funds to municipal road and bridge projects. The Senate adopted a compromise amendment Thursday agreeing to $200 million in bond authorizations, rather than the $300 million originally sought, and extending the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board for another year.
6/25 - Education Committee Update from House Chair Peisch
Governor Baker announced the release of the initial guidance for reopening schools in the fall. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) goal is to get students back in the classroom safely, while following comprehensive health and safety requirements. With this goal in mind, districts are being required to develop plans for three separate scenarios:
Hybrid learning (in-school/out-of-school combination)
DESE has worked with a large group of education stakeholders, as well as medical and public health experts to develop these guidelines. All of the relevant parties are encouraged by recent trends in COVID-19 data, and optimistic that we will be able to get as many students as possible back in the classroom this fall. As we are all aware, however, this public health crisis is not static and a return to school requires the ability to adapt to potentially changing conditions. That is why districts are required to plan for various scenarios. Additionally, schools must offer remote learning for students who are unable to safely return to the classroom, or families that do not yet feel comfortable sending their children back to school.
The fall guidance includes initial health and safety protocols, with more detailed information expected soon. In-school learning will include face coverings and other PPE, physical distancing, smaller groups for student cohorts, hand washing, proper hygiene, and facilities sanitation. Federal CA