State House News Service Weekly Round-up: The Old Normal

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


A quiet settled over Beacon Hill and the State House this week. And for a change, it was supposed to be that way.

The rhythms of the State House, and the bars, restaurants and lunch counters that cater to the capitol crowd, have been off beat for more than a year. The building itself is still closed to the public.

But as another Patriots’ Day came and went without marathon runners to cheer up Heartbreak Hill and to cheer to the Boylston Street finish line, at least the school-vacation lull felt familiar.

The House on Thursday literally gaveled into session, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and adjourned, the branch’s leaders busy preparing, as they would have been prior to the pandemic, for their annual budget debate.

More than 1,150 amendments have been proposed to the $47.6 billion spending plan that will hit the floor Monday, and aside from encouraging remote participation, House Speaker Ron Mariano’s office is preparing for a typical multi-day affair.

With the Legislature abiding by the school calendar, Gov. Charlie Baker hit the road toward the end of the week after welcoming the national champion UMass Amherst men’s hockey team to the State House on Tuesday for an outdoor celebration of their first title.

There would be more celebrating in some corners later in the day, but it could have easily gone in a different direction. A jury in Minnesota delivered a verdict of guilty on all charges against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. With people on edge over the case from coast to coast, Baker called on the National Guard to be ready should unrest follow. But not one city or town wound up asking for their help.

As Boston Mayor Kim Janey addressed the historic verdict that night, she also found herself becoming a target for her handling of a police scandal involving the former head of the police union, Patrick Rose. Rose had climbed the union ranks during his career despite being investigated for the alleged sexual abuse of a child.

Hours before Chauvin’s fate was decided, Janey released 13 pages of Rose’s redacted internal affairs file concerning his case. While it was a step further than the previous administration was willing to go, some at City Hall, including councilor and mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell, said Janey did not go far enough and should hand the investigation over to the U.S. Attorney.

Policing promises to be a major issue in the Boston mayoral race in the months to come, just as climate change figures to factor heavily into next year’s gubernatorial race.

Baker spent Earth Day burning fuel to the western part of the state where he visited MGM Springfield to recognize the casino’s green building certificate, and then it was on to Pittsfield to tour one of the Berkshire Regional Collaborative vaccination sites.

Last weekend, Massachusetts passed the milestone of 2 million residents fully vaccinated, and unlike some other states that have begun to show signs of hitting a wall, Baker said demand for shots continues to greatly outpace supply.

The imbalance is so much that Baker said he has asked the Biden administration and will talk with the Massachusetts congressional delegation next week about convincing the federal government to begin diverting vaccine supply away from states that can’t use their full allotment to states like Massachusetts.

Baker said a recent Centers for Disease Control analysis showed Massachusetts to have the lowest rate of vaccine hesitancy in the country, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito demonstrated she is not one of those people. Not that there was any doubt.

The Shrewsbury Republican on Friday became one of the more than 1.24 million people who have received the first of a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine when she got her shot in Worcester. Massachusetts is one of eight states with at least 60 percent of its adult population single dosed, and has begun to see a tapering of cases and, perhaps more importantly, hospitalizations.

White House senior advisor Andy Slavitt called attention on Friday to the list, which includes every New England state except Rhode Island, along with New Jersey, New Mexico and Hawaii.

“All of them have turned the corner on the number of cases & hospitalizations. Well done. Let’s all get there,” Slavitt tweeted.

Incidentally, it was Rhode Island that was also getting picked on a day earlier by the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance as part of the group’s efforts to urge Baker to lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, such as capacity limits.

New Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee had just announced that, like some other states in the region, the Ocean State would gradually remove all capacity limits on businesses by Memorial Day and eliminate the outdoor mask mandate.

“Even Rhode Island gets it. Their state is just a beach with two US Senators,” said Mass Fiscal spokesman Paul Craney.

Baker hinted that he would have more to say next week about the next steps in the state’s reopening strategy, but said he wanted to be careful that whatever he orders next doesn’t “create a bounce in the wrong direction.”

“I expect we’ll have some stuff to say before the end of April, but at this point in time … People need to continue to follow the rules and the guidance,” Baker said.

By his own admission, Baker said he and his COVID-19 team usually wait about two or three weeks after taking a step forward with reopening to see what the impact might be before considering the next move. The last opening up of the economy and relaxation of gathering limits came in March (large venues opened March 22) in the midst of what some worried might be a new surge.

The seven-day average of daily new cases had climbed to over 2,000 on April 1, and some legislative Democrats said at the time that Baker had made a huge mistake in pushing forward. But hospitalizations and new cases have been brought under control according to some metrics. Daily new cases are back around 1,000, hospitalizations have flattened, confirmed daily deaths from COVID-19 are way down and tens of thousands of people are getting vaccinated every day.

“You have to wait and see,” Baker teased.

As for new rules the governor was ready to lay out, Baker commemorated Earth Day by signing an executive order requiring, among other things, that all state fleets buy zero-emission vehicles beginning next year and pledging to double the number of electric vehicle charging stations at state facilities by 2030.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education also approved a graduation rule change that will allow the current crop of high school juniors to graduate in 2022 without passing the MCAS exam if they show core competency in English and math by completing a relevant course instead.

The change didn’t go as far as some may have wanted. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and others have been clamoring for the MCAS to be canceled altogether this year. But some on the board hope it ends the debate.

“I think we’re as far as we need to go, and I hope this is the end of the modifications to MCAS,” said Matt Hills, a member of the education board.

It may be the end for now, but a Senate committee focused on how Massachusetts will emerge from this pandemic heard this week from education advocates at all levels of the system that Beacon Hill may have a short and closing window to reform schooling from pre-school to post-graduate.

The committee led by Sen. Adam Hinds was told it will require quick and decisive action in the next few years to take advantage of opportunities created by COVID-19, and should include major new investments in school buildings and teaching, changed funding models for child care, and expanded online learning.

More immediately, the Boston City Council was told by city election officials they should act now to change the state of the city’s preliminary election in September and bump it up a week earlier to ensure enough time to process mail-in ballots, should the Legislature permanently adopt voting by mail this year.

The last change to the election process the City Council adopted – to cancel a special election – proved to be unnecessary because Labor Secretary Marty Walsh ended up resigning after March 5, taking the special election off the table.

This could also wind up being for naught if the Legislature doesn’t take up an election reform bill in the next few months, but it’s unclear if the council wants to take that chance.