Home Sales Flat, Price Up Ahead Of Spring Market

Source: State House News Service
Author(s): Colin A. Young

What difference can a year make? When it comes to home sales in Massachusetts, the answer is about $50,000.

There were 2,042 single-family homes sold in Massachusetts in February, the exact same number of sales as in February 2023. But analysts at The Warren Group said the median sale price last month reached a new all-time high for the month of February at $548,250, a 10 percent increase over February 2023’s median sale price of $498,369. February’s data added to what has been a familiar trend: monthly sales that are down or flat while the median sale price regularly sets new record highs.

Cassidy Norton, associate publisher and media relations director for The Warren Group, said there’s no reason to expect that dynamic to change in the near future as the spring home buying season gets underway.

“A lack of inventory is the biggest factor driving these trends, and with fewer and fewer homes hitting the market, we can fully expect to see more recording-setting prices paired with a low sales volume in the coming months,” she said.

Through February, there have been 4,438 single-family home sales so far this year in Massachusetts, four more than during the first two months of 2023, The Warren Group said. But the median sale price so far this year stands at $550,000, a 10.2 percent increase over the $498,869 median sale price through the first two months of 2023.

Housing in Massachusetts is inaccessible or unaffordable for many residents, and Gov. Maura Healey last year identified housing as “the number-one issue facing this state.”

Legislative committees are reviewing the five-year, $4.12 billion housing bond bill (H 4138) that Healey filed in the fall seeking to kickstart the production of new housing units. And though there is broad agreement that the state has an economic imperative to make more housing available, some pieces of the governor’s bill — like the potential for local-option real estate transfer taxes — are viewed as controversial in the Legislature because they will add to housing costs.

The Housing Committee gave the bill a favorable report and advanced it earlier this month without making any changes to the governor’s proposal. It is now before the Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets.

On Friday, the National Association of Realtors agreed to pay $418 million over approximately four years to settle antitrust litigation related to broker commissions. The longstanding practice has been that a seller’s agent gets a roughly 6 percent commission upon making a sale, with some of that money then going to the agent who represented the buyers.

Groups behind the litigation argued that the arrangement meant agents might steer buyers towards homes that would produce a higher commission for themselves, and critics bristled at the fact that the commission for the buyer’s agent was essentially taken out of any profit the seller made on a sale.

But while some industry observers have suggested the settlement could help reduce the barriers to buying a home, Norton told WCVB-TV on Friday that it’s “hard to say at this point” exactly how the settlement might change the home-buying or home-selling processes.

“What we do know, at the very minimum, is that the two agents — the buyer agent and the seller agent — cannot communicate with each other over the MLS about what they want their rate to be. They can still email each other, they can still call each other, but they can’t do it over the MLS. So that’s all we know,” she said, referring to the Multiple Listing Service platform. “Things may change beyond that. It may be that the buyer is now responsible for the buyer agent’s commission. It may be that negotiations become a lot more common because it has been about a 6 percent rate for quite a while. But we’re not really sure yet what this is going to do for the market. If it turns out that buyers end up paying their own buyer agents, that’s not good news for Massachusetts because the home prices are already so expensive.”

Healey’s Muni Package Gets Cool Reception In Legislature

Source: State House News Service
Author(s): Sam Drysdale, Alison Kuznitz (State House News Service)

The two top Democrats in the Legislature hesitated Monday to get behind proposals from Gov. Maura Healey regarding raising local taxes and draining one-time funds to pay for emergency shelter.

Beacon Hill’s “Big Three,” Gov. Maura Healey, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka, met in-person Monday for the first time in over two months, for what used to be a semi-regular leadership meeting. Healey later this week plans to unveil her fiscal year 2025 budget, and the busiest stretch of the legislative calendar is underway as lawmakers face a July 31 deadline to get their big priorities done this year.

Healey unveiled a proposal to give municipalities the ability to raise certain taxes on Friday, a day after she said she would not raise broad-based state taxes. The announcement was met with a mixed reception.

Some local leaders are excited about the prospect of another tool in their toolkit to raise revenue, while Republicans and right-leaning nonprofit groups have criticized the move as a “backdoor method” to raise taxes.

The so-called Municipal Empowerment Act would enable cities and towns to raise the maximum local option tax on hotels, motels and other rentals from 6 percent to 7 percent of the price of a room, and to 7.5 percent in Boston. The local option meals tax could increase from 0.75 percent to 1 percent, and a new local option vehicle surcharge plan would give town officials the option to add an additional 5 percent fee onto vehicles registered in their communities.

“Massachusetts is an expensive place as it is and this will make the Bay State less competitive. This action, if passed through the legislature, will result in companies looking at less expensive options to host their conventions and conferences. Tax increases hurt our communities and make our state less affordable,” GOP Chairwoman Amy Carnevale said in a statement Friday.

Healey pushed back Monday against the idea that introducing the bill went against her word to not seek a state tax hike, as well as her plan to make the state more affordable.

“We are not raising taxes. What we did with the municipal bill, I think it’s being filed right now, is simply convened a series of meetings with local officials from around the state over the last several months. And it was based on those conversations, what we’re hearing from local officials about what they needed to do, what they want to do in their communities,” Healey said.

She emphasized that her bill would not universally raise taxes, but it just creates an opt-in for communities.

“We’re not imposing this. This is just an example of giving local communities the option to do what they think is in the best interest of their community, and for some of your Cape Cod communities, we heard that raising a meals tax, raising a hotel tax that will be primarily paid by tourists is something that they may want to consider and do. Other towns may feel differently,” Healey said.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, incoming president of the Massachusetts Mayors Association, was one among many local officials who commended the move.

“We must be nimble and flexible, but most importantly, we must be efficient because municipal budgets are small and tight. The efforts here by the Healey-Driscoll Administration help us enhance and balance the needs of our residents and the changing financial landscape municipalities experience,” LaChappelle said in a statement.

Mariano and Spilka, however, gave the proposal a lukewarm reception Monday.

Mariano, who last week strongly rejected the idea of raising state taxes to pay for increased spending, said he had not yet read the governor’s new bill. Healey filed the bill later Monday afternoon.

“A lot depends. A lot depends,” he said. “I haven’t read the bill. Some of them, there may be a need. There may have been a long time before anyone has looked at them. So we’ll evaluate them as they come in,” Mariano said.

He continued, “They will be evaluated to see what they have, what impact they have on our competitiveness, which is one of the reasons why we don’t want to raise taxes.”

Spilka also said the Senate would be taking “a good look at it.”

She said she heard “mixed feelings” about the bill at the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s annual meeting, where Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll unveiled the proposal, and would “certainly want to hear from different stakeholders, as well as other senators.”

The municipal tax option bill was not the only Healey proposal that legislative leaders held back on giving an opinion on.

Both Mariano and Spilka said they would need to see the details of a plan the administration floated last month to drain a $700 million account of one-time money to pay for the ongoing family shelter crisis.

In a report to lawmakers in December, the Healey administration proposed covering funding deficiencies for a projected $932 million in emergency shelter funding by tapping into the Transitional Escrow Fund that former Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature set up in 2021 to stash surplus revenue.

Lawmakers and Healey appropriated $325 million to the shelter system when they completed the fiscal 2024 budget late last summer. Just a few months later, as an influx of immigrants has strained the system and brought its occupancy to record highs, the administration is now estimating the tab will approach $1 billion both this fiscal year and in fiscal 2025.

The administration suggested spending down the one-time transitional escrow fund in December, but Mariano said he is waiting for an official legislative proposal out of the governor’s office to consider it. In mid-December the governor said her team would be filing a supplemental budget seeking more funding for the shelter system “in the coming weeks.” That bill has not yet been filed.

“I’m going to wait to see what’s put in front of me as far as the request goes before I start figuring out how to pay for it. We want to see what the bill is,” Mariano said.

He added, “We’re a long way from making a decision.”

Also asked about using the $700 million reserve to pay for the family shelters, Spilka called on help from Washington, D.C., saying if Congress “comes through and gives us some funding, there may not be the need for that.”

As Massachusetts continues to grapple with the flood of new arrivals straining the state’s emergency shelter system, both Healey and Spilka again called for federal immigration reform and funding.

Healey acknowledged that migrants sleeping at Logan Airport are a consequence of the system hitting capacity, even as the administration has also opened up overflow sites to accommodate eligible families on the waitlist. The governor praised airport staff and State Police dealing with migrants there.

“While we’ve seen numbers there, we haven’t had incidents,” Healey said. “We continue to place people in overflow sites and other housing scenarios around the state thanks to the work of many community partners, including what we opened up through United Way.”

Healey had sharpened her rhetoric on the migrant crisis during her State of the Commonwealth address last week, as she called on Congress to fix the border. The governor on Monday noted President Joe Biden’s supplemental budget request, filed in October, contains financial support and border reform policies.

“I can tell you that the governors are working bipartisan on this. We need D.C. to act – we need Congress to act,” Healey said. “The path is there in terms of what needs to be done to fix the border situation, to change some of the asylum processes and get much-needed funding to interior states who have had to shoulder the burden for our problem that is geopolitical and is not the state’s making.”

Healey added, “And that’s going to be my continued demand to Congress and to the federal government, that we need help here.”

Spilka said that immigration is a federal problem that Congress needs to address. Asked whether she recommended that Congress tighten the border or if she was looking for only more funding, Spilka told reporters, “I think primarily funding.”

“Finally getting federal immigration reform, that will help not only Massachusetts but all states experiencing this,” Spilka said. “It’s up to Congress to figure out what kind of reform, what kind of immigration policy the country should have. That is a specific policy that is left to the federal government and it’s time that they take some action on it.”

Mass. Eyes Trillion-Dollar State Club

Source: State House News Service
Author: Colin A. Young

The broad goal of the economic development plan the Healey administration put forward this week is to build upon the state’s strong points to keep Massachusetts an ideal place to live, raise a family and grow a business well into the future.

But another aspiration was revealed Wednesday when Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao detailed the plan for lawmakers — for Massachusetts to join the small club of states that have a gross domestic product of $1 trillion or more.

The plan’s vision matches up traditional economic development topics like talent attraction and retention, boosting housing production, making public transportation more reliable, and streamlining access to state resources with Healey’s specific emphasis on values like inclusion as well as state policies around reproductive and civil rights. It aims to “lengthen our lead” in sectors like life sciences, health care, and advanced manufacturing, while also seizing opportunities to become new leaders in climate tech and tourism.

Photo Credit: State House News Service

“This is the way we become more than a trillion,” Hao said in response to a question from Sen. Barry Finegold, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. She added, “The majority of our economy is aligned around industries that are growing — health care is growing, life sciences is growing, climate tech is growing, advanced manufacturing is growing, AI is growing, robotics are growing. So we have a ton of tailwinds in growth sectors and so we just need to make sure that we continue to lengthen our lead and continue to invest and continue to implement all of these initiatives here. Those sectors are growing already. If we can just continue to — not even just hold our share, but even increase our share, we’re going to become a trillion dollar GDP.”

GDP measures the market value of the goods and services produced in a state. Massachusetts had a GDP of $691.46 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Only five states had a GDP equal to or greater than $1 trillion last year: California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

The discussion of a $1 trillion GDP as a goal for Massachusetts spurred Sen. Liz Miranda to highlight that using GDP as a measurement has “fostered a fixation on growing the pie that sometimes ignores” that economic growth is not spread evenly across the state but often concentrated in a select few areas.

Massachusetts is the most educated and wealthiest state in the country, the administration’s economic development plan says, but it is also the third-most unequal of the states, based on 2022’s Gini coefficient, a common measure of inequality that economists rely upon.

Miranda said she was “really feeling like we can’t totally evaluate the effectiveness of our economic development policies without a consistent, high-quality measure of how economic growth is distributed in the commonwealth, particularly across geographic and non-geographic communities who have historically been in lowest percentiles and living in the margins.”

“I know it’s incredibly important, we want to grow to a trillion. But how do we actually measure that so we actually know the truth about how it’s being distributed across the commonwealth?” Miranda asked Hao.

The secretary said she sees there being two ways to achieve equality: “We can be more equal but have everything stay the same. Or the real way to get equity, I think, is to continue to grow and have everyone lift up and to close the gap.”

“And so I think we need to measure multiple metrics. So looking at GDP overall is important, looking at GDP growth is important. But looking at the gap, and closing the gap, is really important. And so the Gini coefficient is a number that I pay a lot of attention to. I’m a former economist, and it is the universal way to look at income inequality. In our state, we want to look at Gini coefficient by different areas — by race, but also by region. Our gap in race is quite dramatic. So if you look at kind of average income by race, it’s a $20,000-$30,000 difference. It’s also equally dramatic by region. Western Mass. versus Eastern Mass., even amongst people of the same race, is $20,000 or $30,000. And so we have a lot of work to do on thinking about income inequality.”

October Home Sales Fell To 12-Year Low

Source: State House News Service
Author: Colin A. Young

As Gov. Maura Healey and her team rolled out her plan to move the needle on housing production and ease housing hardships with outside-the-box policies, people looking to buy a home in Massachusetts faced much of the same in October: the thinnest inventory in more than a decade, record high prices and expensive borrowing costs.

There were 3,515 single-family homes sold in Massachusetts last month, down 16.9 percent from October 2022’s 4,228 sales and the fewest number of single-family home sales for any October since 2011, The Warren Group said in its first look at monthly real estate data since Healey filed her policy-heavy $4.1 billion housing bond bill on Oct. 18.

With the options for prospective homebuyers relatively few and far between, the median sale price for a single-family home jumped 10.6 percent year-over-year to $575,140, The Warren Group said. Like September’s $565,000 median sale price, October’s mark set a new all-time high for the month.

“Home sale prices in October climbed to the highest they’ve ever been during this time of year,” Cassidy Norton, associate publisher and media relations director at The Warren Group, said. “Inventory is far below historical norms, and limited choices make it more difficult to find a home. And record high prices paired with rising interest rates make the task of buying a home that much more formidable.”

Through October, there had been 34,515 single-family homes sold in Massachusetts this year. That represents a 23.9 percent decline from the first 10 months of 2022. The year-to-date median sale price is up 3.6 percent from last year, at $570,000, The Warren Group said.

Potential homeowners are running out of options in Massachusetts, the group said in its October analysis. Last month’s 1,562 condominium sales marked a 9.4 percent decrease from a year ago while the median sale price climbed 4.4 percent to $500,000. Year-to-date, condo sales are down 19.7 percent and the median price is up 4.9 percent to $515,500.

“Massachusetts condo prices soared to a record high in October, setting a new benchmark. Condos previous offered a more affordable purchase option; arguably, at just $75,000 less than a single-family home, those times are over,” Norton said.

High interest rates are affecting would-be homebuyers, and potential sellers. With rates as high as they are now, some prospective buyers have to limit their options because it is far more expensive to borrow money than it was two years ago. And people who are locked in at a much lower mortgage rate are less likely to give that up by making their home available for sale.

As of Thursday, the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 7.44 percent APR, according to data compiled by Freddie Mac. A year ago, the average interest rate was 6.61 percent, and two years ago it was 3.10 percent, Freddie Mac said.

Healey and Housing Secretary Ed Augustus have hit the road over the last month to tout the five-year, $4.12 billion housing bond bill that they think will help to ease the housing crunch that threatens the state’s continued development and its competitive standing with other states. In Attleboro last month, Augustus said that 1.6 percent of housing units across Massachusetts were available for sale or rent, calling it the lowest vacancy rate of all 50 states.

“A healthy housing ecosystem should be 4 to 5 percent vacancy rate at any given time, which empowers a consumer to be able to get a rental unit or to make a reasonable offer on purchasing a home,” he said. “How many people here have a family member or experienced themselves or know somebody they’ve worked with who’ve had to make multiple over-asking offers and then still to come away not having the opportunity of homeownership? That is what that low vacancy rate represents to real people.”

He added, “And those people increasingly are saying, ‘Well, I guess that homeownership isn’t an opportunity for me here in Massachusetts. I’m looking elsewhere.’ And the governor was very clear and very specific: We can’t let that happen any longer.”

Healey has tried to attach a level of urgency to her bill (H 4138), suggesting it will be a missed production opportunity if the policies in her bill are not law before the spring construction season gets underway.

But the bill is now in the hands of a Legislature that has struggled to make quick decisions, meet its own deadlines and seldom reaches agreement on anything of consequence without taking it to, and sometimes beyond, the brink. Healey’s housing bill has not moved since it was sent to the Housing Committee on Oct. 18 and the Legislature is in a seven-week stretch of limited activity.

In Attleboro last month, the governor said she needed help from local officials and supporters “to get it done and get it done quickly.”

“Housing construction starts will start in the spring or not, right? So we’ve got to get this going and get this going now,” Healey said.

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Things That Go Bump

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Katie Lannan

APRIL 16, 2021….With at least one COVID-19 shot in the arms of more than half of Massachusetts adults and almost two months elapsed since that four-legged orange octopus heralded a website fail, it’s been a while since Gov. Charlie Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have had to return to their go-to adjectives for hiccups in the state’s vaccine rollout: “lumpy” and “bumpy.”

This week, it was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s turn.

Boston Mayor Kim Janey and Gov. Charlie Baker lay a wreath at the site of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial on Thursday, marking eight years since the terrorist attack shook the finish line. It was one of their first public events together since Janey became acting mayor last month. [Nancy Lane/Boston Herald/Pool]

“Our partners will be working to reschedule people who have the J&J vaccine appointments in the days ahead,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said Tuesday. “This may be a bit bumpy. We want to make sure that we’re getting the word out to the public and to our providers.”

Federal officials’ Tuesday recommendation that use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines be suspended while they review extremely rare but serious post-vaccine cases of a blood clotting condition — reported among six U.S. women, out of more than 6.8 million people nationwide to receive that shot — definitely counts as a speed bump.

It’s one that Baker projects Massachusetts can cruise over with minimal disruption, since most of the state’s doses come from Moderna and Pfizer.

The CDC and Food and Drug Administration, like state officials and health care leaders, stressed that vaccines are effective and people should keep getting their shots. The pause, they said, indicates the vaccine monitoring process works and is taken seriously.

“I would take the J&J if it had been available, and I would still take it,” said Baker, who received his first Pfizer shot last week at the Hynes Convention Center.

That’s no surprise to anyone who’s heard him talk up the J&J shot over the past several months. Baker has often described the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which relies on a single dose and less stringent storage requirements, as a vehicle to boost capacity in Massachusetts, get shots to harder-to-reach populations and speed up the overall vaccination process.

“I feel like I’m waiting for Godot,” the governor said in February, as he kept vigil for the FDA’s eventual emergency use authorization of the J&J vaccine. And now it’s a waiting game again, to see what emerges from the CDC review.

The digital waiting room for the state’s vaccine-booking website — one of the improvements made after its February crash under high traffic — is likely to fill up again on Monday, as Massachusetts drops its eligibility restrictions and allows anyone age 16 and older who lives, works or studies here the chance to book an appointment. If they can find one.

If not, there’s always New Hampshire. The Granite State, no longer subject to a mask mandate after Friday, will on Monday allow out-of-staters to get vaccines there, too.

Baker indicated this week he’s not yet thinking about relaxing his mask order, saying the timing of such a move would ultimately depend on federal guidance (and so far, the feds have discouraged dropping mask orders), vaccination pace and the spread of coronavirus variants.

Dr. Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance in the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told lawmakers Tuesday that only about 1.4 percent of positive COVID-19 cases in the state undergo genetic sequencing to determine if they were caused by a viral variant, below the 5 percent she said should be sequenced to identify emerging threats.

The Broad Institute, which has also been a major player in COVID-19 testing efforts, aims to be sequencing 4,000 samples per week by the end of April, up from this week’s roughly 1,000.

By that point, state representatives should have wrapped up work on their version of the fiscal 2022 budget. In a return to the traditional budget-development timeline after the pandemic threw everything off-kilter last year, that $47.65 billion bill is set to hit the floor after next week’s school vacation.

“I think the timing might be the only normal thing,” Senate President Karen Spilka told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, in an event where she proposed a “moonshot” to create an intergenerational care system to support the family members, particularly women, who care for loved ones of all ages.

Speaking of school vacation, this year’s April break will come as more and more students and teachers are returning to the classrooms — and as the numbers of new COVID-19 cases districts report to the state each week are also elevated. Last week, 1,279 new cases were logged among students and staff, topping the previous record of 1,045 cases the final week in March.

Statewide, school enrollment numbers dipped significantly this pandemic-disrupted year, and the question of how many students will return to the rolls in the fall — and how that variable should be considered in per-student funding formulas — lingers over budget deliberations.

The House Ways and Means Committee’s plan, in keeping with an agreement with their Senate counterparts, proposes a $40 million reserve fund to offset adverse enrollment impacts.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center says that approach will create more work for administrators already stretched thin, and could disadvantage schools most in need of funding, depending on its criteria.

The House’s first budget draft under Speaker Ronald Mariano has a higher bottom line than Baker’s bill, boosting spending over this year by 2.6 percent instead of the cut the governor recommended. It also has a bigger draw from the state’s rainy-day fund, and accounts for large MassHealth obligations not captured in the governor’s budget.

Not featured in the House Ways and Means budget? The roughly $4.5 billion in state fiscal relief expected from the American Rescue Plan. With the state anticipating the rules for spending that money to land sometime next month, Mariano said the House would rather wait and handle that in a separate bill.

In the meantime, House lawmakers have more than a thousand ideas of how the fiscal 2022 budget could be improved.

Amendments filed ahead of Friday’s deadline range from policy matters (to name a couple: a proposal from Rep. Jay Livingstone that would allow MassHealth applicants to simultaneously apply for nutrition benefits, and one from Rep. Nicholas Boldyga that would limit the governor’s emergency powers, including capping emergency orders that “infringe constitutional rights” at 30 days’ length unless extended legislatively) to local earmarks (a new wooden shingle roof for Wakefield’s Hawthorne House, cleanup after a gypsy moth infestation in Hampden, a footbridge over Bedford’s Elm Brook….) to the Beacon Hill-centric (cost-of-living pay increases for legislative staffers and the return of Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek pitch to require an annual training for reps on how to properly mute their phone).

Seemingly without any muting/un-muting snafus, the 160 members of the House — back at full strength after Winthrop Rep. Jeffrey Turco’s swearing-in last week — convened over conference call and in the chamber on Wednesday to unanimously pass a $400 million borrowing bill for construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Working under a time crunch in hopes of securing a federal grant, the Senate intends to soon follow suit. A week ago, legislative leaders described that branch’s timeline for action as “in the coming weeks.”

Another issue that could be subject to legislative action in the short term is one that seemed like it’d been already handled: unemployment insurance relief for businesses.

A bill Baker signed on April 1 eased the UI rate hikes facing businesses, replacing a roughly 60 percent average increase with an 18.5 percent one. But costs spiked for many employers anyway, as one component of their UI payments, known as a solvency assessment, jumped from a rate of 0.58 percent in 2020 to 9.23 percent in 2021.

The National Federation of Independent Business said the higher solvency rate was enough to wipe out savings some of its members had expected from the new law, and joined with other business groups to ask the Baker administration to step in with federal stimulus funding.

On Thursday, the Department of Unemployment Assistance told employers that their first quarter payments would be due June 1 instead of April 30, promising more information later on the solvency rate. The delay will give Beacon Hill time to figure out how to respond to a situation that surprised some lawmakers as much as it did business owners.

The former Woburn City Clerk started a new job this week. William Campbell found himself face-to-face with Secretary of State William Galvin once again on Monday, when Galvin swore him in as the new director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Campbell challenged Galvin in 2010, taking in about half as many votes as the longtime incumbent.

Meanwhile, Cannabis Control Commission member Jennifer Flanagan, a former lawmaker, is leaving her state job behind, four months before her term is set to end. The CCC described Flanagan’s upcoming departure, planned for the end of this month, as “ending a 25-year career of public service.”

State House News: Top 10 Stories of 2020

BOSTON, DEC. 31, 2020…..Let’s face it. There’s not much suspense over this year’s top story.

Without officially giving it away, it arrived like an unwelcome visitor in early March and has refused to leave since, touching every part of daily life in Massachusetts, and overtaking its politics.

Given that fact, this year was certainly not the 2020 that was expected back in January when Beacon Hill seemed on the verge of its first major tax debate in years and the campaign trail was abuzz with the possibility that Massachusetts could send someone to the White House for the first time since 1960.

Gov. Charlie Baker pulled on a mask, branded with the state’s #MaskUpMA slogan, after announcing a series of reopening rollbacks and other measures like tightened facemask requirements on Dec. 8. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

As it turned out, a long streak involving the Kennedys did end in 2020, but it didn’t involve the unlocking of the doors to the White House residence.

The pandemic infused everything that happened over the past 10 months and it colored all of our top stories this year. COVID-19 also pushed some storylines off the front page, and off of this list.

Remember in January when Gov. Charlie Baker gave his State of the Commonwealth address, declaring that Massachusetts would go carbon neutral by 2050? It’s still the goal, but the energy future looks different now.

Rep. David Nangle’s pre-pandemic arrest on a raft of tax and bank fraud charges also faded from view as his federal case ran into delays, and the non-COVID-19 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg led to passage of a significant expansion of abortion access laws over the objection of Gov. Charlie Baker. The 2020 elections went forward,with voting by mail leading to record raw turnout in November, and the pandemic pushing campaigns even more so online.

But enough reminiscing about what’s not on the list. Here are the top 10 political stories of 2020, as voted on by many of the state political reporters who write and report daily on the people and issues that preoccupy state affairs, either over Zoom or in-person behind a mask on Beacon Hill. – Matt Murphy

1) COVID-19 and The State’s Response

More than 12,000 people dead. Three hundred and fifty-two thousand people and counting infected. Families separated. Businesses closed, many for good. Students learning remotely. Those who can, working from home. Tens of thousands more without a job to go to. And the list goes on. A deadly strain of coronavirus arrived in early March and began spreading at a Biogen conference at Long Wharf. It hasn’t stopped since. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everything from education and commerce to the mere act of getting together with one’s family to celebrate any occasion. On March 23, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order closing all non-essential businesses, one of the most significant of a series of actions taken by state government to try to slow the spread of the virus. It would be mid-May before businesses would begin to reopen in phases and under strict safety protocols. After a summer slowdown, a resurgence of the virus is again prompting governments to clamp down on business and social activity to keep hospitals from being overrun. From gathering size limits to mask advisories, Baker and the Legislature, with assistance from the federal government, spent the year reacting to the evolving public health circumstances and still are. On Beacon Hill, this has meant lawmakers adapting to remote voting and Zoom debates as everyone waits for vaccines to become widely available. Some of those vaccines have been developed and manufactured here in Massachusetts by Pfizer and Moderna, and the state’s plan calls for vaccines to be available to the general public by the spring, giving hope that 2021 could bring back some type of return to normal. – Matt Murphy

2) Reckoning on Race Leads to Police Reform

When George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, died on Memorial Day under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, not even a global pandemic could keep people from the streets. That included the streets of Boston and cities and towns around Massachusetts where protesters demonstrated against police brutality and demanded a response to the racial inequities that have gone unaddressed in society for so long. In the halls of the State House, the response to that reckoning on race took the form of legislation to restrict the use of certain types of force by law enforcement, including chokeholds and tear gas, and to make sure police officers could and would be held accountable for their actions. Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill to create a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which would begin licensing law enforcement officers and have the power to decertify police for misconduct. The Senate and House followed with their own versions, and within two months, by the end of July, the legislation was before a conference committee. It would take another five months, however, before legislators and Baker could find common ground as they wrestled with issues like who should sit on the POST Commission, should police have access to facial recognition software and under what circumstances should a police officer lose their qualified immunity from civil prosecution. Lobbying was intense on both sides, with the powerful police unions opposing some of the key changes reformers were insisting upon, and there were times when the bill’s biggest champions thought Beacon Hill might lose the momentum and miss the moment. But in the end, compromise on all sides produced a landmark bill Baker has said he’s proud to sign. – Matt Murphy

3) DeLeo Leaves Beacon Hill

The rumors were bound to be true one of these years. When the buzz picked up in early December that the longest-serving House speaker in Massachusetts history, Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, was planning to step aside and retire from State House life, it somehow felt different from the rumors that would pop up and circulate around the speaker from time to time over the years. Just a month after his reelection, DeLeo, 70, decided to call it a career on Beacon Hill — after 30 years in the House and 12 at its helm, guiding the legalization of casino gambling and passage of landmark health care, gun control, and criminal justice reform laws. “I felt that we accomplished quite a bit. I think when you feel it’s the right time, you sort of know it’s the right time,” he told the News Service as he left the State House for the last time as an elected official on Dec. 29. DeLeo left the House for a temporary limbo: he is still in the midst of conversations about his exact role at Northeastern University, but it beats how his predecessors went out — DeLeo is the first in a line of four speakers to not leave under a cloud of suspicion or legal trouble. Over three decades in the House, DeLeo became known as a moderate and a consensus builder who shielded his caucus from politically-sensitive or risky votes. Many saw DeLeo as a jovial and approachable leader who was just as interested in talking sports as he was politics. To others, he was a vindictive speaker who used the power of the gavel to punish representatives who crossed him, support loyalists, and to keep the business of the House behind closed doors. The new year will begin with a new speaker atop the House rostrum: Quincy Democrat Ron Mariano, who served as majority leader and led some of the most significant negotiations for the House over the last decade, ascended to the speakership just before 2020 came to a close. — Colin A. Young

4) Markey Puts JKIII Into Early Retirement

This one lived up to its billing. The looming contest between U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III came in at number six on the 2019 Top 10 list and, after an eventful campaign, culminated with Markey handily fending off the challenge and cruising to another six years in the U.S. Senate. Kennedy began with an edge in the polls and fundraising but the pandemic changed the contours of the campaign and it was Markey’s team that capitalized. Despite being 74 and having spent more than four decades in Congress, Markey (and his digital team) presented himself as something of a hipster — the senator’s love of ice cream and the vintage Nike basketball sneakers he wore became points of fascination online — and he leaned on endorsements from people like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal to frame himself as a progressive champion to young, liberal voters. At the same time, Kennedy was never really able to develop a cogent case for why Markey needed to be retired from the U.S. Senate and his argument for a new voice and fresh leadership did not resonate with voters the same way it did when Ayanna Pressley successfully challenged Michael Capuano for a U.S. House seat in 2018. Markey won about 55 percent of the Democratic primary votes and then rolled over Republican Kevin O’Connor with nearly 65 percent of the general election vote en route to a second full term in the U.S. Senate. Kennedy, who gave up his seat in the U.S. House to challenge Markey for his Senate seat and reported in October that his campaign violated campaign finance laws by spending $1.5 million raised for the general election on the primary contest, has not announced what he intends to do next. — Colin A. Young

5) Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Mismanagement and Tragedy

The story of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities has often been a tragic one, and the deadly outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was a particularly grim tale of the pandemic’s devastation, costing at least 76 veterans their lives, prompting the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Francisco Urena and leading to felony charges against two former officials at the home. Attorney General Maura Healey brought charges in September against former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton, alleging they put residents’ lives at risk by combining two dementia care units and housing some veterans who were COVID-positive and others who did not display any symptoms in a confined area. A report by former assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Pearlstein quoted staff describing that move as “total pandemonium” and “when all hell broke loose,” with one recreational therapist saying she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] to their death.” Healey described the criminal case against Walsh and Clinton — who have pleaded not guilty — as the first in the country relating to COVID-19 nursing home deaths, and the fallout could spill into 2021 as other probes into the Holyoke outbreak continue. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling also opened an investigation and a special legislative oversight committee has a March deadline for its report. Families of Holyoke home residents shared heartbreaking stories with lawmakers, telling them about wondering if their loved ones were alive or dead. Though Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill seeking to change the way the Holyoke superintendent is appointed and require the Department of Public Health to annually inspect the facility, legislators have indicated they want to complete their own investigation before acting. Three new trustees now sit on the Holyoke board, and a new chapter began for soldiers’ home’s residents this week as COVID-19 vaccinations began. – Katie Lannan

6) Warren Runs for President

She had a plan for that. Critics and opponents of Sen. Elizabeth Warren had been saying for years that the Cambridge Democrat was angling for a White House run while serving in the Senate, and whenever her campaign dreams did begin, they officially came to an end two days after Super Tuesday. One of four Massachusetts pols to run for president this cycle, Warren had seemed to have the best shot, and her campaign — featuring a pile of policy plans pledging structural change, cameos from her dog Bailey, pinkie-promises to little girls and hours-long “selfie lines” that became such a phenomenon they earned their own interactive breakdown in the New York Times — was at various points considered among the top tier in a crowded Democratic field. Contrasting her presidential bid to her pre-political life when “tens of people” heard her ideas for helping working families, Warren said after casting her ballot that the run gave her a chance to “talk about real solutions” and elevate ideas around universal health and child care, a wealth tax and canceling student loan debt. But as Democrats began to coalesce around Joe Biden — erstwhile candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar endorsed the former vice president the day before he’d win Massachusetts — Warren came in third place at home (not to spoil another item on this list), and did not win in any other states. She suspended her campaign on March 5, saying she’d been told when she first entered the race that there were “two lanes” — a progressive one led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden’s moderate one — and “no room for anyone else in this.” “I thought that wasn’t right, but evidently I was wrong,” she said. Speculation about Warren’s future — her Senate term runs through 2024 but there was lots of talk about whether she’d leave for a spot on Biden’s ticket or in his administration — has continued past the end of her campaign and will likely keep going. – Katie Lannan

7) Baker Remakes the SJC After Gants’s Death

Gov. Charlie Baker knew he would have to nominate a new justice to the Supreme Judicial Court this year as Justice Barbara Lenk in December approached her 70th birthday, the mandatory retirement age. But the sudden death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants in September following a heart attack upended the process, suddenly requiring additional action to restore the state’s highest court to its full membership of seven. Baker tapped SJC Justice Kimberly Budd to step into the court’s top role, in turn opening up her associate justice seat as another for the governor to fill in a flurry of action. Both of his new picks to join the state’s highest court, former Appeals Court Judge Dalila Argaez Wendlandt and former Boston Municipal Court Judge Serge Georges Jr., cruised through the nomination process this fall and earned unanimous confirmations from the Governor’s Council, as did Budd. Now that the latest members have all taken the oath of office, Baker has accomplished a nearly unprecedented — and often unattainable — feat in Massachusetts history: he nominated each of the seven judges currently sitting on the SJC, successfully putting them up for decades-long appointments deciding the most high-profile cases about state law. The flurry of activity also transformed the court’s makeup: Budd is the first Black woman to serve as chief justice. She, Wendlandt and Georges also ensure that three out of seven justices on the highest court are people of color. – Chris Lisinski

8) Pandemic Leads to Historically Late Budget

Better late. The $45.9 billion fiscal 2021 state budget was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 11, the latest of the modern era. But in another nod to the weight of the pandemic, no one really had much of a beef with the timing because there were more important things happening. When tax revenues and jobs tanked early in the pandemic, lawmakers seemed paralyzed by the depth of change, and uncertain about when and how to proceed. But as jobs and tax receipts started to come back in the warmer weather, top Democrats in the Legislature and Gov. Baker made an important decision – they would not rush a budget merely to have one in place for the July 1 start of the fiscal year. They’d wait. And wait and wait and wait. For five months, and under three bare bones interim budgets, Baker alone called the shots on state spending. Beacon Hill leaders announced in the summertime that they would hold local aid harmless from cuts, and even bump it up a bit. And as the months went by, the state’s fiscal picture leveled out. Initial forecasts of a revenue implosion of more than $6 billion didn’t materialize and tax collections, so far, have not declined at all in fiscal 2021. By late December, the House and Senate were feeling good enough about the situation to close out the year with a succession of veto override votes to restore spending over Gov. Baker’s objections. But there’s a wildcard in all of this. To avoid cutting programs and services or raising taxes, lawmakers built this year’s budget on more than $3 billion in non-recurring revenues, from federal aid and the state’s rainy day fund – which will force tougher budget calls in early 2021 unless economic growth or more federal help can backfill the disappearing one-time revenues. – Michael P. Norton

9) Biden Wins Massachusetts, Presidency

When Joe Biden jetted out of New Hampshire after a dismal fifth place finish in that state’s primary, his presidential hopes seemed on the rocks. President Trump was trying to deride the Delaware Democrat as “Sleepy Joe” and progressives were feeling good about their chances of electing one of their preferred candidates to the nation’s highest office. Finishing behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, Biden headed to South Carolina seemingly unfazed by his performances in the Granite State and Iowa, and looking ahead to Super Tuesday. Four months later, as Newsweek pointed out, Biden would prove it was possible to win his party’s nomination for president after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. Massachusetts played a role in his turnaround. In 2008 Biden barely registered in Massachusetts among the Democrats seeking the presidency that year, finishing behind Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and even John Edwards. Biden headed into the March 3 presidential primary here, after losing Nevada but posting a big win in South Carolina, and with the vice presidential credentials he’d earned while serving two terms with Obama he claimed a convincing win, with his nearly 474,000 votes topping his nearest competitor, Bernie Sanders, by nearly 97,000 votes. His Super Tuesday performance left Warren’s candidacy reeling from a loss in her home state. While many electeds here backed Warren, a few were with Biden, including former U.S. Sen. Kerry, former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, former U.S. Sen. Paul Kirk, former Democratic National Convention CEO Steve Kerrigan, state Sen. Marc Pacheco, and Reps. Claire Cronin, Angelo Scaccia and Paul Tucker. In November, Biden topped Trump in Massachusetts by a more than two-to-one margin and mail-in votes helped Biden capture crucial swing states. Ultimately, he defeated the president by winning the big portion of the electorate that lives in the middle, outside the politics of the left and right. – Michael P. Norton

10) MBTA Finances Again in Shambles and Services Cut

It comes as no surprise that the MBTA once again faces a budget shortfall after years of structural deficits, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the T into an unprecedented challenge. Ridership dropped precipitously this spring when the state went into near-lockdown, and as is the case at many transit agencies across the country, it has remained at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels — roughly 30 percent on average, with variations between lines and modes — more than nine months into the crisis. Because the MBTA generates about a third of its budget from fare revenue, the drop punched a massive hole — forecast at more than $500 million in fiscal year 2022 — into its already-shaky financial outlook starting in fiscal year 2022. Lawmakers showed little interest in hiking taxes or redirecting funding to help the MBTA, and Baker administration officials opted to include a package of significant service cuts in their plan to rein in spending and realign schedules during this period of low ridership. After months of deliberations and mixed signals, the longevity of the cuts approved this month remains unclear: MBTA officials had indicated changes would be difficult to reverse and last for years, but recently have hinted they could either reverse some cuts or expand them in February and March when they determine the agency’s FY22 spending plan. Another $52 million in projected state tax revenue and at least $250 million in additional federal support in the latest stimulus bill will factor into the budget, but T officials have been mostly mum on how those injections will affect service levels. And a year that began with an expectation that a revenue debate would lead to ways to address overcrowded trains ended with no clarity over when or even whether many riders will return to the T. – Chris Lisinski