Governor Baker in classroom

State House News Service Weekly Roundup – Assigned Seating

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


Nine Congressional seats. Nine thousand four hundred seats for fans at Fenway Park. Two hundred seats at an indoor wedding. Zero masks when alone outdoors.

The last week of April, which also happened to be House budget debate week, was all about counting. Whether it was to add up the spending on a priority line-item, calculate capacity limits under Gov. Charlie Baker’s new reopening schedule or just plain count people, it seemed everyone had their abacus out.

The U.S. Census Bureau said it had counted 7,029,917 people living in Massachusetts last year, amounting to a growth rate of 7.4 percent over the last decade that mirrored the national average and eclipsed even the rosiest of projections for the Bay State.

The total ensured that unlike 10 years ago the state would keep its full slate of representation in Congress, and the Senate’s top redistricting Democrat said it should also mean no incumbent-against-incumbent “drama” this time around.

Of course, the extent of the drama to come with the decennial redrawing of the state and national political boundaries won’t be fully understood until later this summer when the Census shares actual town-by-town and precinct-by-precinct data.

But for now it’s fun to speculate. Like will U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s 7th Congressional District shed the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton to meet the new size requirement and stay majority-minority? Will Fall River stay divided between the 9th Congressional District and the 4th Congressional District?

There was less guess work involved in following the House budget debate, which showcased lawmakers engaging in the methodical, if at times boring, process of sifting through over 1,150 amendments to add close to $60 million in spending to what became a $47.7 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2022.

There was very, very little drama involved in this week’s deliberation as the House used seven bulk amendments to categorize and dispense with hundreds of amendments at a time, mostly with unanimous agreement. At least publicly.

Earmarks made a big comeback after being curtailed in the fiscal 2021 pandemic budget, with the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation counting 590 spending earmarks that accounted for the bulk of the added spending. There was money added for UMass Boston to study anti-Asian racism and for colleges and high schools to let students get a jump start on earning university credits. There were pay raises for sheriffs and the House moved to protect the controversial film tax credit by eliminating its 2022 sunset clause.

The film tax credit is one new House Speaker Ron Mariano has defended at every turn over the years, and creates an element of conflict to watch between the House and the Senate, where Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues is on record as not being the biggest fan of the program that he views as too expensive.

Rodrigues, it turns out, is also not a champion for project labor agreements on public construction projects, which require union and non-union contracts to have collectively bargained labor agreements in place for all workers.

The Westport Democrat said he believes the contract clauses, known as PLAs, stifle competition, but he was overruled by his Senate colleagues who put a PLA back into the $400 million bond bill to finance the construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. To address other critics worried a PLA would freeze out minority- and women-owned construction and design firms that may not be unionized, the Senate’s bill would create a committee to enforce diversity goals on the project.

The bill now goes back to the House and the Legislature is on the clock to get the financing in place so that the state can complete design work and meet the application deadline for federal funding of Aug. 1, which also happens to be the date Baker has circled on the calendar for the full reopening of the economy.

Baker on Tuesday laid out his full timeline to lift all remaining business restrictions, starting May 10 when he said large venues like Fenway and the TD Garden can increase their capacity from 12 percent to 25 percent. In keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, he also said masks will no longer be required outdoors beginning Friday, today, unless you are in a crowd or can’t social distance from others.

Memorial Day will bring more relaxed rules when gathering limits will increase to 200 people indoors and 250 outdoors, street festivals, parades and agricultural festivals will be allowed at half capacity and bars, beer gardens and wineries can reopen under restaurant rules.

Adhering to the schedule will require the continued reduction of new cases and hospitalizations, and more people getting vaccinated, Baker said. And the state on Friday surpassed 6 million doses administered and 2.5 million people fully vaccinated.

Baker said he did not envision requiring state employees to be vaccinated to return to work and would leave it to individual businesses to decide how to approach vaccinations with their own employees, but many colleges, including the University of Massachusetts, are making a shot mandatory to return to campus in the fall.

The timeline was welcome news for many eager to put pandemic life behind them, but it was still not fast enough for some in the business lobby, who have watched neighbors like Rhode Island, Connecticut and even New York City set more aggressive reopening schedules based on the positive infection trends.

“The real-world impact of waiting until the end of the summer for a full reopening will mean job loss and a slower recovery for many small businesses,” said NFIB State Director Christopher Carlozzi.

Baker said there’s a possibility he will move faster to lift restrictions if the public health data allows, but some Democrats like Rep. William Driscoll, the co-chair of the COVID-19 oversight committee, expressed frustration that Baker won’t be more clear about the data points he uses to make decisions like that.

All-in-all, however, Democrats on Beacon Hill were willing to give Baker’s late-stage reopening plan a chance.

“I can say that we are at a point now where I want to be cautiously optimistic — but at the same time we must continue to remain diligent, and we must take further action to address all the systemic issues that made the pandemic so bad in the first place,” Rep. Mike Connolly, of Cambridge, said.

The reopening plan was paired on Tuesday with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s decision to require all high schools to return to full-time, in-person learning by May 17.

And then Baker went to get his second vaccine dose.

The shot left Baker feeling “crummy” the next day, as he experienced some of the side effects many have had with their second dose, but he returned to action Thursday and Friday with two public appearances and a plan to spend $70 million on summer school to help students catch up on learning they missed during pandemic.

“By the end of the day, I felt better, and now, two weeks from now, I will be part of the fully vaccinated part of the commonwealth and I urge everybody in Massachusetts to go get vaccinated,” Baker said.