State House News Service Weekly Roundup: A Strained Partnership

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


For years, with both Democrats and Republicans in the corner office, the leadership of the Legislature has basically been able to do what it wants.

Speakers and Senate presidents – always Democrats – have controlled enough votes to set the agenda, override vetoes and ignore or compromise with the governor as they see fit. The difference between then and now? They didn’t always talk about it.

Increasingly, however, House and Senate lawmakers are not only frustrated with Gov. Charlie Baker over the things they can’t control, but they’re willing to say it publicly. Lawmakers have been clashing with Baker and his administration on everything from the distribution of vaccines to climate legislation and the return to in-person learning for thousands of young students (though Baker has largely gotten his way on schools).

This week there was more tension over the administration’s urgent request made in February to quickly authorize $400 million in borrowing for the construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and the administration’s plans for billions in discretionary federal relief funding from the “American Rescue Plan.”

“I don’t want to feel like the red-headed stepchild as a member of the Legislature and being left out of this, and I’m sure my colleagues don’t want to feel [that way] about it. And I don’t think we’re going to anymore, hopefully,” said Rep. John Barrett, a former mayor who has been in the executive’s shoes.

Barrett’s commentary was directed at Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan at an oversight hearing where legislators were demanding to play more of a role in how the federal relief funding gets spent.

Heffernan wouldn’t say, exactly, whether Baker plans to file a budget bill proposing how to spend the relief money, but that’s one way the governor could give back a bit of agency to the Legislature.

Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka also came out jointly to say that they would insist municipal employees, including teachers, can take advantage of a proposed COVID-19 paid leave program that is still under negotiation.

The governor supports the creation of the new leave program, but Baker returned the bill last week with several amendments, including one supported by the Massachusetts Municipal Association to eliminate a mandate on cities and towns to offer their workers up to a week of paid-time off to recover from COVID-19, care for a family member or to get vaccinated.

The program, as recommended by Baker, would cover most other employers and state government, but the administration said municipal workforces tend to be “highly unionized” with strong leave benefits already in place.

Speaking of taking time during work hours to get vaccinated, Gov. Baker rolled up his right sleeve on Tuesday and got a dose of Pfizer at the Hynes Convention Center.

“I’m happy to report I feel good,” the 64-year-old said the next day from Revere, where he was touring a different vaccination clinic.

Massachusetts passed a milestone this week with more than 1.5 million people fully vaccinated with either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. By the end of the week, the total was actually up above 1.6 million.

But the spread of new variants continues to compete with the vaccine for control of the pandemic’s trajectory, and the number of communities in the high-risk category climbed by 22 this week to 77.

With so many people vaccinated and the general, healthy public a little over a week away from becoming eligible, Baker got asked about the concept of vaccine passes – a digital tool that New York launched and other states are considering to make business reopenings easier.

Madison Square Garden is among the early adopters, but Baker said, “No, no, no,” about plans for something similar in Massachusetts. It wasn’t a no, never. But more of a no, not now.

“I want to vaccinate people. Let’s get people vaccinated,” Baker said. “I think having a conversation about creating a barrier before people have even had an opportunity to be eligible to be vaccinated, let’s focus on getting people vaccinated.”

More than half of the 1.5 million residents who preregistered for a vaccine have been contacted already with a chance to book an appointment, but for the 700,000 people still waiting more locations are being added to the system.

Baker said that two regional collaboratives with vaccine sites in Northampton, Amherst and Marshfield were being added this week to the preregistration system that already connects people with seven mass vaccination sites, and more regional sites would be added this month.

With all the focus on the pandemic and figuring how to get shots in people’s arms, it’s easy to forget sometimes that next year is a gubernatorial election year and under different circumstances Baker might be getting asked daily about his plans.

Harvard professor and political theorist Danielle Allen seems to be inching closer to a run as she announced a beefed up staff with Liberty Square Group and media consultant Josh Wolf among those climbing on board. Wolf ran Steve Grossman’s 2014 campaign for governor.

Meanwhile, declared Democratic candidate Ben Downing overcame some technical glitches to roll out his climate agenda, which includes Massachusetts becoming a 100 percent clean energy state by 2040, or 10 years earlier than Baker and the Legislature set the goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

The jockeying comes as the Democratic Governors Association took an interest this week in Baker’s underwhelming fundraising in March, and really for the whole first quarter, suggesting the incumbent with enduring but diminished popularity may be vulnerable.

Baker raised just $25,456 in March and $102,687 over the first three months of the year, but Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito was more active on the fundraising front and most people assume that if he does decide to run Baker will be able to crank up the money operation quickly.

“The governor and lieutenant governor are focused on managing the pandemic response, not electoral politics,” Baker’s campaign committee spokesman Jim Conroy said.

Next week attention will also turn to managing the state’s finances when the House is expected to release its version of the fiscal 2022 budget. This week’s continuation of strong tax collections in March gave budget writers more reasons to be optimistic about the future.

One additional expense the Legislature will have to plan for, however, is added expenses in the MassHealth program. Over the past year, the MassHealth caseload has increased to more than 2 million individuals, and President Joe Biden’s decision to extend the COVID-19 emergency through 2021 means the state can’t comb its rolls and kick out people who might no longer be eligible.

Secretary Marylou Sudders told the Ways and Means Committees this week that MassHealth’s budget – already the largest slice of the overall pie – might end up being $1.4 billion higher than in the governor’s budget. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, however, predicted the increased expenses will be more than offset by the enhanced reimbursements the feds are making for Medicaid.

There will undoubtedly be more budgetary surprises in the months to come as the coronavirus and economy continue down their unpredictable paths, but Boston Mayor Kim Janey caught very few people, if anyone, off guard this week when she announced that she would, in fact, seek the job on a more permanent basis.

Janey entering the mayoral contest boosts the field to six serious contenders for City Hall, and the Roxbury resident used perhaps her biggest advantage in the race – the fact that people call her mayor right now – to get out into the city and sell an agenda that included using federal stimulus funding to make buses free in Boston.

Many state and local officials have warned about using relief funding for services that won’t be affordable once the federal aid dries up, but Janey said she was eyeing a pilot to start.

“I understand that there are challenges which is why I hope — at the state level as well as the city level — I am looking at that federal money and I hope our state partners are as well,” she said.