Article Source: State House News Service
Article By: Matt Murphy
The Beginning of the End
DEC. 18, 2020…..One step forward, two steps back.
Or in the case of Speaker Bob DeLeo, one foot out the door.
The week before Christmas began with a COVID-19 vaccine arriving at Massachusetts hospitals in a cloud of dry ice and 96-year-old World War II veteran Margaret Klessens becoming the first resident of a Veterans Affairs facility in the country to roll up her sweater and get the shot.
And it will end with House speeding toward an historic transition of power, as the longest serving speaker in that institution’s history prepares to depart for what he hopes will be a job at his alma mater, Northeastern University.
If and when DeLeo ends his 30-year legislative career, Majority Leader Ron Mariano appears poised to walk through the door and claim the speaker’s chair. But Rep. Russell Holmes made clear Friday he will have his say before that happens.
The first recipients of the Pfizer vaccine – in keeping with Gov. Charlie Baker’s vaccination plan — were mostly frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, like the VA community living center in Bedford where Klessens resides. That included Rep. Jon Santiago, an ER doctor just back from a military deployment to the Middle East.
But even as the vaccine seemed to put the end of the pandemic within sight, COVID-19 cases continued to pile up at an average rate of roughly 4,500 a day and the new business restrictions put in place by Baker weren’t enough for some cities and towns.
Baker last week announced that beginning this past Sunday the state would take a step backward in its reopening, meaning indoor entertainment venues, roller rinks and some other types of businesses would have to close and all others would face tighter capacity limits.
That didn’t go far enough for some, however, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh got the ball rolling on a more regional lockdown by announcing that in the state’s largest city gyms, movie theaters, museums and other large indoor gathering spaces would also be forced to close again.
Boston’s lead was quickly followed by Brockton, Lynn, Newton, Somerville and Arlington. Instead of Phase 3, Step 1, the mayors were taking their cities to Phase 2, Step 2 and in doing so created a patchwork of rules and restrictions in Greater Boston as the pandemic worsens before it gets better.
The severity of the public health crisis was not lost on Baker, despite critics faulting the governor for not taking the state into a broader economic lockdown in order to try to get control of the virus.
Baker on Tuesday pleaded with residents to sacrifice one Christmas with their families this year so that more families will be together next year.
Baker made a similar request before Thanksgiving, asking people to confine their festivities to individual households, but based on the sobering statistics he rattled off at a State House press conference it appears not enough people listened.
The average number of daily cases nearly doubled to 4,800 in the 10- to 14-day window after Thanksgiving, according to the Baker administration, and hospitalizations were up 93 percent.
Since the holiday, 830 people in Massachusetts have died of COVID-19.
The pandemic may be raging, but economists saw reasons to be optimistic.
Gathered by the Legislature and Executive Office of Administration and Finance to help predict what the next fiscal year will bring, most of the panelists agreed that fiscal year 2022, which begins on July 1, has the potential to be a big rebound year for the economy.
On the most optimistic end of the spectrum, Evan Horowitz told state budget writers that they could have up to $3.46 billion more in tax revenue next year to play with than they did when constructing the most recent budget.
Not everyone shared Horowitz’s level of enthusiasm for where the economy was headed, but most agreed that if Congress delivered another round of stimulus and the vaccine proves effective and easily distributable to the general public by the spring, sales and lodging taxes could surge and income taxes will climb as the number of unemployed workers recedes.
Revenue Commissioner Geoff Snyder predicted growth as high as 8.8 percent in fiscal year 2022, and Congressional leaders were closing in on a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package as the weekend loomed, albeit one that was unlikely to include direct aid for state and municipal governments.
If those predictions come true, writing next year’s budget will be a lot easier for legislators than many had feared when they wrestled with how much to take from the state’s $3.5 billion “rainy day” fund this year.
But for the first time since 2005 when he became Ways and Means chairman, it appears Bob DeLeo’s fingerprints will not be all over the annual state budget.
The cyclical rumors about DeLeo’s future, or lack thereof, in the House kicked up fresh on Wednesday as the Legislature approached the start of a new session. But this time something felt different. And it turned out something was different.
DeLeo’s office refused to push back Wednesday against rumors that he was preparing to exit the State House once and for all, and it took NBC 10 reporting that DeLeo was headed for Northeastern to prompt any sort of response from his office.
That response was a carefully worded denial that DeLeo had an agreement in place to join the university, but nothing that would cause anyone to believe he had plans to stick around.
The Thursday snowstorm gave DeLeo a bit of space to calculate his next move, and on Friday he filed an ethics disclosure indicating that he intended to enter into negotiations with Northeastern for future employment.
With DeLeo all but announcing a date for his resignation, Mariano and his team moved quickly to position the leader as the speaker-in-waiting, but Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and critic of DeLeo’s leadership, said he wouldn’t let the speakership go without a fight.
“At least we won’t just roll over and hand over the speakership in another backroom deal like they did 12 years ago,” Holmes told the News Service, describing the orchestrated hand-off of power from one white man to another as “structural racism personified.”
But even Holmes acknowledged that it will be difficult for him to overcome the support Mariano’s been building within the institution for years, mentoring younger lawmakers like Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who is expected to stay where he is, and representatives like Claire Cronin and Michael Moran, who could be in line for promotions.
But as the House waits for DeLeo’s departure schedule, Mariano urged legislators not to lose focus on the business in front of them. This week that included rejecting Baker’s proposed amendment to an abortion measure that would expand access to the procedure.
The House and Senate voted to stick with provisions that would lower the age for an abortion without parental or judicial consent from 18 to 16 and make clear that abortions after 24 weeks can be allowed to “preserve” a patient’s physical or mental health.
Baker will now have to decide whether to sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.
Mariano also said the House must not allow Baker to “dilute our police reform legislation,” potentially foreshadowing votes on the governor’s amendments to the police accountability bill in the coming weeks.