Legislative Recap | Aug. 3 – 7

Article Source: The Statehouse News Service
Article Author: Matt Murphy

AUG. 7, 2020…..As the summer heated up and infection rates went down, Massachusetts got footloose before it was COVID free. And now the state could be on the verge of paying for it.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in his most scolding tone yet, rolled back outdoor gathering size limits from 100 people to 50, and said he was giving state and local police the authority to enforce those limits on public and private property. Indoors limits will remain at 25.

“Hugs, handshakes, high-fives, dancing, who knows?” Baker said about what’s been going on at these backyard parties and events that the governor blames for an uptick in COVID-19 cases and a rise in the state’s positive test rate to 2.1 percent.

Gov. Charlie Baker observed a dummy laying on a gurney during a tour of the Boston MedFlight headquarters at Hanscom Field on Tuesday to learn about their ongoing work to transport COVID-19 patients from community hospitals to larger Boston hospitals. [David L. Ryan/Boston Globe/Pool]

The virus might not be out of the barn yet, but it’s getting close to the door. And Baker said people have no one to blame but themselves for getting lax about the distancing and mask-wearing precautions they took seriously for months in order to be able to leave their homes this summer.

“The biggest issue we have is people who are familiar with people being familiar with them, in big groups,” Baker said.

That’s not the only problem though. The governor said he’s not ready, as some have suggested he should be, to step back a phase in the reopening schedule. But he said bars “masquerading” as restaurants by selling potato chips and pretzels in order to open need to stop what they’re doing.

The state getting serious about enforcement is all so Massachusetts can avoid a repeat of this spring and becoming the next kid in the New England neighborhood to not get invited to the pool party. That distinction went this week to Rhode Island, where Gov. Gina Raimondo is battling her state’s own resurgence because of too much partying.

The Ocean State found itself added to the quarantine lists of not just Massachusetts, but also states like New York and New Jersey who want Rhode Islanders to quarantine if they leave their waterfront enclave.

This precursor to a fall resurgence couldn’t come at a worse time as schools are finalizing their plans to bring students back to classrooms and campuses around the state, or not. Business confidence also slipped in July, according to Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and enhanced unemployment benefits from the federal government have expired, eliminating a safety net as the recovery appears to be slowing.

UMass Amherst reversed its plans to welcome students back to campus this month even if all their classes were going to be taught online, and some districts like Somerville are ignoring the administration’s pleas to at least give in-person learning a chance.

The Legislature has employed a hydrid model of in-person and remote participation during the pandemic, but in what was supposed to be the first full week of a five-month recess there wasn’t much of either going on.

Last week, the House and Senate made sure to give their negotiators every second available before the faux midnight deadline to strike a deal on police reform, transportation spending, telehealth or economic development. They did this knowing they had already extended the session, giving themselves ample more time.

Seven days later and the Legislature is in the same place it was last Friday night – waiting.

“We will let the conferees do their magic and hopefully get something done and pass it,” Senate President Karen Spilka said at the start of the week. “If it’s done next week, two weeks, that’s when we will come back to do it.”

Instead of shrinking, the number of conference committees actually grew with a fifth piece of legislation dealing with climate change moving into talks between the branches.

Sen. Michael Barrett and Rep. Thomas Golden, the co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, are leading those talks, with support from Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, House Minority Leader Brad Jones and Sen. Patrick O’Connor.

It’s the same group that negotiated a significant renewable energy bill two years ago, minus Sen. Marc Pacheco, who still chairs the Senate’s Global Warming Committee, but has fallen out of the new leadership hierarchy and was replaced by Creem.

Instead, Pacheco was relegated last week to cheering the House on from the sidelines of Twitter as that branch worked through and passed its version of the net-zero emissions bill that is now in final negotiations.

The administration this week also did its part for global warming by rolling out a new clean peak standard that aims to encourage a reliance on renewable power sources to meet energy demand during peak hours, instead of falling back on dirtier fossil fuels like oil.

Even though negotiations this week didn’t yield any deals, those talks have to be going better than the discussions between Congressional Democrats and the White House over a new COVID-19 relief package.

For starters, they’re still going on, which can no longer be assured in Washington. But Democrats and Republicans can’t get on the same page for an extension of enhanced unemployment benefits or the $500 billion in unrestricted relief money governors are requesting.

The House passed a total package of $3 trillion already, while Republican leaders would reportedly like to get that down to $1 trillion. With the state budget’s outlook riding in part on relief funds, the impasse makes Beacon Hill look somewhat prescient in pushing off its budgeting decisions for longer than just August.

Baker finally put his signature on a three-month, $16.5 billion interim budget that leaders say will carry state government through October, but the governor rejected an Oct. 31 sunset on the authorization, and said the Legislature’s attempts to impose minimum spending thresholds stepped on his toes at a time when he needed flexibility to manage through a pandemic and fiscal crisis.

The bill sought to restrict Baker from spending less on any line item than either the fiscal 2020 budget or what the governor proposed in January in his House 2 budget.

Leaders, however, have been silent since Baker sent that proposal back with an amendment in which he pledged to report to them if he finds ways to accomplish the same goals while spending less.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Testing the limits of reopening

SONG OF THE WEEK: We were given a little rope, but did we do too much?