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.”

NCMDC Loan Update

The Chamber’s economic development arm – the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation – has closed seven micro-loans for a total of $333,500 since October 1, 2020. The loans were made to a mix of existing and start-up businesses and ranged from $6,000 to $150,000. There are another three loans totaling $325,000 that have been approved but haven’t closed yet. We are also excited to share that the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized the Development Corporation in December for its success in providing micro-loans.=

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC) is a non-profit economic development corporation with the mission of creating jobs and improving the economy. NCMDC is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program. The NCMDC works in partnership with local banks, credit unions, chambers of commerce and area nonprofits to support emerging microenterprises, small businesses, and community projects in 76 communities in Worcester, Middlesex and Franklin Counties with loans and business assistance.  Since 1996, the NCMDC has granted over $8,000,000 in loans to small businesses to help grow jobs and the economy in the region.

The Weekly Download: 5 Management Keys for Effective Virtual Leadership

Managers and leaders have been forced to adapt to the rapid changes unraveling at the workplace. As the world races to stop the spread of Coronavirus, many companies have been left to rely on remote workers and flexible positions that combine in-person days with work from home schedules. For managers, the challenge is to find effective ways to motivate and lead their teams remotely in what is referred to as virtual leadership. The Chamber has put together these five management keys for effective virtual leadership:

Use Challenging Objectives

Leaders can often spot talent in their employees. The challenge is to find effective ways to nature and develop these skills, especially in a virtual workspace where traditional approaches are obsolete. However, thanks to modern technology, managers can develop strategies to ensure each employee gets their share of challenging objectives that propels them to the next level. The challenges should also focus on developing individual talents while fulfilling daily scoreboard expectations.

Constant Feedback and Virtual Meetings

Communication is vital for productivity and collaborations, which is why open office plans, shared time and breakrooms were workspace highlights pre-COVID. In the new virtual world, leaders must ensure adequate communication frameworks that allow for constant feedback and meetings. The continuous back-and-forth communications help to cultivate a direct approach where issues are aired and resolved quicker. Feedback also allows managers to clear confusions and rally the team towards common goals.

Attack Problems as They Emerge

Watching from afar is no longer an option in virtual workspaces. With no direct contact and analysis, leaders have found it harder to predict employee issues as we shift from a time of random crisis to long-term crises with varying impacts. For leaders, this means problems should be identified and resolved as soon as they emerge, and several issues may arise. Emotions, communication problems, breaking company culture and codes, poor judgment and wrong decisions must all be tackled early so the team can grow.

Personal and Professional Harmony

Leaders in the virtual world are facing a test to ensure personal and professional lives are in congruence. Employees working from home have no supervision present, which opens a window for distractions. Managers are responsible for leading by example, ensuring professional dress codes during virtual meetings and encouraging home setups that promote better focus. Balancing personal and professional life is the ultimate milestone of managing remote workers.

Encourage Self-Knowledge and Self-Motivation

Self-knowledge and self-motivation are vital for career success. During these COVID times, employees are expected to acquire more soft skills to perform better. Leaders must encourage employers to continue learning new skills, building confidence and shaping their careers. The leader should be outright decisive, respectful, kind, inclusive and reliable as employees can pick up on these traits for their motivation.

As a leadership organization, ourselves, we agree that the task at hand isn’t an easy one for leaders in the virtual environment. However, there are various changes and tools available for managers. Here at the Chamber, our goal is to be a catalyst for positive change, convene leaders and influencers, and be a champion for the community. Virtual leaders must adapt to the needs of their teams and customers while maintaining an increased level of communications for the foreseeable future.

What Is Your Marketing Value Proposition?

As a business owner, are you in touch with the needs of your target demographic group? Do you have an understanding of what they’re looking for and how your brand can meet their needs? Do you have a clear statement that outlines why the goods or services you offer are of better value and will solve your customers’ problems more effectively than a competitors’ offerings?

At its core, a marketing value proposition is a clear statement that explains how your product or service is relevant to your customers, how it will provide a specific benefit to them, and why they should buy from you and not your competitor. It should encompass three elements: your target buyer and their problem, how you solve their problem, and why you solve their problem better than anyone else.

The biggest mistake that businesses make when creating their marketing value proposition is that they are too vague. Here are a few questions to consider to find out if your marketing value proposition is working for your business.

Is It Relevant and Easy to Understand?

Is your marketing value proposition relevant to the needs of your target market? Is it riddled with technical jargon that can’t be easily understood by someone who doesn’t have a background in the industry? Your value proposition should be in the language of your customer, reflecting the problems that they have and the solutions they need.

Is it Credible?

Even if your value proposition is compelling, if it sounds too good to be true or if you can’t point to real-life results that support it, you’ll undermine your own efforts. Your statement should be believable and credible.

Can It Adapt to Changes in Your Business or Industry?

Your marketing value proposition is far more than a friendly blurb that you post on your About Uspage. It creates a framework for not only how your customers think about your business but also how you and your employees think about your business. A value proposition that is too confining and doesn’t adapt to future growth and development will not work. As your business grows and changes and as your industry evolves, will your value proposition still hold true?

Does It Resonate with Your Audience?

Unless your value proposition elicits an emotional response, it will be quickly forgotten. Your value proposition should resonate with your audience by grabbing your customers’ attention and being memorable. They should see their own needs in it and feel an emotional connection with your mission.

Your business may be but one fish in a sea full of competitors that all offer essentially the same features. This is why an effective marketing value proposition is so important: it goes beyond dry, standard features to showcase the rich benefits that your business is in a unique position to provide. Your marketing value proposition sets your brand apart from your competitors, demonstrating to your target audience how you understand them and have oriented your business around their needs.

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

Chamber Member Spotlight: Elite Construction & Design, Inc.

Elite Construction & Design, Inc. believes in the future of downtown Fitchburg and recently made a move to be at the center of it.

Previously located in a former Crocker paper mill on Westminster Street in West Fitchburg, the construction company has moved to Sawyer Passway, where it hopes to play a key role in the city’s revitalization efforts, said President Matthew Fournier. 

“It’s already starting but we lost some momentum with the pandemic,’’ Fournier said. “The energy is still there with public and private development. There are projects that will bring quality housing and restaurants downtown and some amenities. It may have delayed us a year or two but at the same time, all the projects are still there and moving forward. People are feeling positive about it.’’

Wachusett Brew BarnWhile some projects downtown may have been delayed, business is strong overall at Elite, Fournier said. 

Between businesses looking to reconfigure their space or make improvements during some downtime, growth in the cannabis industry and homeowners investing in projects, Elite has kept busy.

“A lot of our clients are in different industries and are getting affected in different ways so we are there to help them adapt,’’ Fournier said. “Commercial construction is still going strong and residential has picked up. A lot of people are sitting at home and look at their yards and houses saying ‘We’re not going on vacation, how can we change our space?’’’

Fournier founded the company in 2004 after graduating from Wentworth Institute of Technology a year before with degrees in interior design and facilities management and planning. 

“I wanted to create a construction business from the ground up by focusing on long term relationships and servicing clients with an innovative hands-on approach, driven by small business values instilled in me by my family and other mentors,’’ Fournier said. “Our team is driven to be a recognized as one of the most responsive, innovative and customer-focused firms in Central Massachusetts.’’

Today, his company offers general contracting, design-build, pre-construction services, tenant fit-ups, rapid response facility services and insurance repairs/emergency services. 

Elite caters to a variety of industries including commercial, residential, health care, retail, hospitality, food service, cannabis, non-profit and municipal. Wachusett Brew

“At Elite Construction, we differentiate ourselves by providing our clients and partners with a high level of service from a project’s conceptual phase through the project closeout and beyond,’’ Fournier said. “Three values that lead our day to day are: Plan, execute and deliver.’’

Elite is a member of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, which Fournier said has helped on a business and personal level, with professional development, networking, visibility, credibility and a better understanding of the changing community and economic landscape of the region.

Elite Construction & Design, Inc. is located at 61 Sawyer Passway, Fitchburg and can be reached at 978-597-5071. For more information, visit 

Emerging leaders Participate in Community Leadership Institute

(Regional) – Fourteen men and women, sponsored by area companies as up and coming employees and future leaders in our community, have been accepted into the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leadership Institute (CLI).  CLI is dedicated to providing participants with individual leadership skills and a deep understanding of the region.  The nine-month program focuses on education, government, health care, social services, justice system, media, arts and culture, environment and history.  The Chamber created the Institute to inspire a new generation of men and women to enthusiastically assume important roles in their community.   The program challenges individuals from diverse backgrounds to be influential in our region’s future.

Professor Mike Greenwood, business professor at Fitchburg State University and chairman of the Institute steering committee, is enthusiastic about this year’s participants and the meaningful professional, personal and community development they will take part in.  “I have been with the class since it’s reintroduction in 2011.  Each year, I am amazed and impressed with the dedication of the participants.  Programs like this are an important asset within the community to ensure one that continues to thrive, even after our current leaders retire.”

Marty Connors, president of Rollstone Bank & Trust and past chairman of the Institute steering committee, led the Institute’s revival in 2010.  “I was in the 1991 class of the Institute and it was an integral part of my success in the community.  As Chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors in 2010, I felt we needed the program back to once again support our needs for leadership and succession planning. Rollstone Bank & Trust’s participants have enjoyed the program and become leaders here in their workplace and in the community.  We could not be prouder of the work they have done.”


Participants in the CLI Class of 2021 include:

Anna Wilkins, North County Land Trust

Ashley Kenney, Fitchburg Public Library

Cindy Dalton, City of Fitchburg, Community Development Department

Colby O’Brien, The Arc of Opportunity

Kelly Johnson, Digital Federal Credit Union

Kijah Gordon, Mount Wachusett Community College

Marcio Cirino, Jr, Rollstone Bank & Trust

Nancy De La Rosa, Primerica

Natalia Aguilar, Resource Management, Inc

Paul Chlebecek, Baystate Financial

Ryan, Murphy, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce

Sam Smith, Advent Financial

Scherrie Keating, Diabetes Kare Consultants

Ty Adorno, Leominster Credit Union

About Community Leadership Institute

The Community Leadership Institute began in 1988, known then as Leadership North Central.  Over the last 25 years, more than 250 participants have graduated from the Institute and become leaders in their communities, with over 100 in the last five years.  Participants for the Institute are sponsored by their business and are seen as leaders or potential leaders within that company.  Applications for each class are available in July & August of each year, sessions held once per month from October to June.

About the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce

The North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce ( is a business advocacy, economic development organization working to create and sustain relationships among businesses and between businesses and the community.  The Chamber works to foster economic opportunity in Fitchburg, Leominster and the twenty-five other communities that comprise North Central Massachusetts.  Find the Chamber online at or on Twitter at @NCMChamber. 

Building Businesses
Building Communities™

Chamber Member Spotlight: bankHometown rescues small businesses with PPP approvals

When the SBA launched the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), bankHometown sprang into action to assist local business owners access these funds and keep the community employed.

Their branches moved swiftly and quickly to transform the retail business so that their customers could count on them, and, in total, bankHometown approved almost 800 PPP loans totaling nearly $70 million, allowing local business to keep thousands of employees on payroll.

“Our focus was on small businesses who needed it most, with 90% of our PPP loans under $250,000. Through it all, we remain proactive, accessible, and responsive to help business owners weather the storm,” said Robert Morton, President and CEO.

“In fact, we recently contributed $5,000 to the North Central Massachusetts Economic Recovery Fund to help provide emergency support to small businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he continued. “The chamber’s outreach to local business owners has become even more critical in these times of hardship and economic downturn, and we continue to support the chamber so that their services can continue to support our local business community in these difficult times.”

For over 130 years, bankHometown has been assisting their customers make the most of their financial futures and has experienced significant growth, particularly through a series of mergers and acquisitions, including locally with Athol-Clinton Cooperative Bank in 2011. Today, bankHometown grew into a $1.2 billion community bank with sixteen branch locations across central Massachusetts – including offices in Athol, Leominster, and Lancaster – and northeastern Connecticut.

“We’re proud to deliver local, community banking services to our communities, reinvesting deposits in loans that support local economic growth and job creation and giving back generously to the many ‘hometowns’ we serve through charitable donations and other community support,” said Morton. “Customers looking for enhanced services, greater convenience, a continued commitment to hometown banking and to our neighborhoods, with local leadership and service from trusted employees should look to bankHometown!”

This year, they opened up a second Worcester, MA location in September.

“We’re excited about the future and how we can continue to partner with our customers. We continue to develop new ways to provide customized financial solutions that create a successful tomorrow for our customers, and to add to our suite of smart banking technology that makes banking convenient and accessible—wherever our customers are and how they live,” Morton said.

bankHometown continues to play a critical role in the local community’s well-being during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and continue to work with their customers facing financial stress and hardship during this crisis.

Morton states, “We helped our customers embrace the convenience and capabilities of bank-at-home services, many for the first time, so that they experience the peace of mind that comes with remaining connected. When we ultimately reopened our branch lobbies to customers, we implemented a wide range of personal protection measures that are in place today to ensure our locations are safe to do business.”

Morton also said that bankHometown is on a mission to deliver individualized financial support that ensures their customers can build a successful future – one that harnesses their financial power, fulfills their hope, dreams, and aspirations, and lets them live life to its fullest.

“We feel so strongly and passionately about that mission, that this fall we took the opportunity to evolve our bank’s brand to better communicate it,” he said.

‘Unlock Your Potential’ is more than just our new tagline. It’s our commitment to making a meaningful difference in our customers’ lives—to helping them through the most important financial decisions they face with confidence and assurance, and to unlocking the power of their own financial potential for themselves, their families, and their businesses.”

That promise is highlighted with a new logo that puts the customer at the epicenter, along with looking forward to new communications, branch signage, advertising, and introducing new television commercials that showcase how bankHometown can be a part of the financial milestones in customers’ lives.

bankHometown has sixteen locations and can be reached at 1-888-307-5887, or visit their website at to find out more information. 

Need health insurance for your small business?

Health Insurance

Need health insurance for your small business? The North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce remains committed to helping our members to access the best health insurance plans available and to make sure that your health insurance needs are met. As always, we are just a phone call or email or visit to our office away from being able to help you decide what health insurance plan best meets your needs. Contact the Chamber at 978.353.7600 ext. 227 for information on available plans and to receive a quote.

Tourism Update

The Chamber’s tourism arm, Visit North Central Massachusetts (VNCM), has developed its annual marketing plan to promote the region. As a result of the pandemic, VNCM plans to strategically shift its marketing resources in FY2021 to focus on helping our regional economy recover quickly and effectively from the disruption. The restaurants, retailers, hoteliers, farms and attractions that comprise our local visitor industry have been among the hardest hit by the disruption caused by this health crisis and will take the longest to recover. Marketing strategies in FY2021 will focus on Shop/Eat/Stay/Explore Local promotional efforts that encourage companies and residents to support local businesses during the recovery.  Marketing efforts will also target the regional drive market within a 250-mile radius, including key markets like Boston, Southern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island highlighting our advantages and safety.  Data and research from our economic development planning process suggests that we are well positioned to potentially benefit from the new environment and changing consumer demands, given our rural character, affordability and agricultural heritage. The plan was approved by the Board of Directors and submitted to the Mass Office of Travel and Tourism as part of our annual tourism grant submission. We also presented it to members during the Summer to gather input. It was well received by both MOTT and our members, however we are still waiting on state tourism funding in the state budget.


As part of this marketing/recovery plan, we focused our efforts in Q1 with updating our website and social media platforms for the “new normal” including developing new locally focused content, developing new messaging, optimizing our site for new searches and utilizing digital and social media channels to promote, connect and engage with consumers. Messaging and themes have been centered around re-opening and supporting our businesses. “When it Matters Most” is being utilized as an overarching theme. It is important that our target audience understands why “spending local” is now more important than ever. Member-focused contests and promotions have also been utilized to drive engagement with messaging focused on the attributes of the region that appeal most to visitors, such as our safety as rural region and abundance of family-oriented activities. As we move into the traditionally busy Fall season and Q2, we plan to ramp up our paid digital advertising to promote the region and local businesses. We plan to focus primarily on digital media for now as it provides the greatest flexibility and allows us to adapt quickly if needed.  As we move into the Spring, we will start to leverage some print advertising. Our media buys will be dependent on the final receipt of our grant funding from the state.


Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis, VNCM’s participation in several travel shows were cancelled including the Discover New England Summit in Maine, the Dream Destinations Showcase in Western Mass, and a major bridal expo in September.  We will resume these business development activities that play an important role in promoting the region to groups once it is safe to do so.