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 http://www.eliteconstructiondesign.net/. 

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 (northcentralmass.com) 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 northcentralmass.com 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 www.bankhometown.com 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 VisitNorthCentral.com 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.

 

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Claims Can Now Be Filed

Claimants are now able to file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

They can do so by applying at: www.mass.gov/pua

PUA is a program open to the following individuals:

  • Self-employed individuals, including gig workers, freelancers, and independent contractors
  • Those seeking part-time employment
  • Claimants that have an insufficient work history to qualify for benefits
  • And claimants that have been laid off from churches and religious institutions and are not eligible for benefits under state law

As PUA is a separate program from regular unemployment insurance, they ask that you send constituent inquiries to Jennifer Lavin at PUAconstituentservices@detma.org

The DUA constituent service team (like Mavis Smith, for example) does not have access to the PUA platform, so they will not be able to help you with these claims. If you have policy questions please do not hesitate to reach out to Jessica.muradian@mass.gov.

SBA To Provide Small Businesses Impacted by Coronavirus (COVID-19) Up to $2 Million in Disaster Assistance Loans

WASHINGTON – SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza issued the following statement today in response to the President’s address to the nation: 

“The President took bold, decisive action to make our 30 million small businesses more resilient to Coronavirus-related economic disruptions. Small businesses are vital economic engines in every community and state, and they have helped make our economy the strongest in the world. Our Agency will work directly with state Governors to provide targeted, low-interest disaster recovery loans to small businesses that have been severely impacted by the situation. Additionally, the SBA continues to assist small businesses with counseling and navigating their own preparedness plans through our network of 68 District Offices and numerous Resource Partners located around the country. The SBA will continue to provide every small business with the most effective and customer-focused response possible during these times of uncertainty.” 

Process for Accessing SBA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Disaster Relief Lending

  • The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering designated states and territories low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital to small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Upon a request received from a state’s or territory’s Governor, SBA will issue under its own authority, as provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act that was recently signed by the President, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan declaration.
  • Any such Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance declaration issued by the SBA makes loans available to small businesses and private, non-profit organizations in designated areas of a state or territory to help alleviate economic injury caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
  • SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance will coordinate with the state’s or territory’s Governor to submit the request for Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance. 
  • Once a declaration is made for designated areas within a state, the information on the application process for Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance will be made available to all affected communities.
  • SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans offer up to $2 million in assistance and can provide vital economic support to small businesses to help overcome the temporary loss of revenue they are experiencing. 
  • These loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact. The interest rate is 3.75% for small businesses without credit available elsewhere; businesses with credit available elsewhere are not eligible. The interest rate for non-profits is 2.75%. 
  • SBA offers loans with long-term repayments in order to keep payments affordable, up to a maximum of 30 years. Terms are determined on a case-by-case basis, based upon each borrower’s ability to repay. 
  • SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans are just one piece of the expanded focus of the federal government’s coordinated response, and the SBA is strongly committed to providing the most effective and customer-focused response possible.

For additional information, please contact the SBA disaster assistance customer service center. Call 1-800-659-2955 (TTY: 1-800-877-8339) or e-mail disastercustomerservice@sba.gov.

State Council formed to Investigate Merged Market & Small Business Premiums

Last Fall, Governor Charlie Baker established the Merged Market Advisory Council in an effort to examine the individual and small group insurance market, or “merged market,” and underlying trends that have driven insurance costs up for small and mid-size employers. This group is comprised of 13 appointed members and chaired by Gary Anderson, the Commissioner of Insurance. Its membership includes various experts with knowledge of the insurance industry, including actuaries, brokers, insurance carriers and representatives from employers and the small business community.

The creation of this market can be traced to the Commonwealth’s enactment of RomneyCare in 2006. The reforms included merging the “non-group” risk pool, comprised of individuals, with the “small group” risk pool, comprised of small business with 50 or less employees (including the self-employed). This was intended to reduce premiums for those in the non-group market- which faced elevated costs due to a higher utilization on services – by spreading the risk over a larger population. The Chamber and many business groups were opposed at the time, fearing that rates would increase for small businesses. Vermont is the only other state where the individual and small group risk pools were merged into a single merged market.

While it is true that the merged market has led to premium reductions for individuals, it has also resulted in dramatic increases for small businesses and their employees. According to the Center for Insurance Information and Analysis, Massachusetts has amongst the highest small business health care premiums in the country. Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise to the Chamber or our members who have struggled with increasing premiums for years.

The Governor’s Merged Market Advisory Council is expected to make recommendations to the Baker Administration, which may include separating the merged groups as a way to reduce costs for small businesses. Some have argued that since passage of the national Affordable Care Act, the merged market is no longer necessary due to the incentives and subsidies provided to individuals.

The Advisory Council has scheduled a series of sessions where the public may share their input and concerns. The closest session to North Central Massachusetts is scheduled for Wednesday, February 26, 2020 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Room S-1-123 at UMass Medical Center, 55 Lake Avenue North in Worcester. The Chamber will be in attendance and encourages its members to participate and share any concerns they have as well. If you are unable to attend, please consider submitting written comments to the Merged Market Advisory Council via email at mergedmarket@mass.gov.

For more information, please feel free to contact Christopher McDermott, Public Affairs Manager at 978.353.7600 ext. 224 or via email at cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com