State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Blood in the Water

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


The Democratic sharks are circling, sensing vulnerability in a Republican governor with few teammates to protect his flank. But even if Gov. Charlie Baker looks like easy prey to some in a state like Massachusetts, Democrats on Beacon Hill are unpracticed hunters.

“We know he’s a RINO anyway,” joked Sen. Nick Collins during his resurrection of the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast last Sunday, alluding to the fact that Baker is actually more popular with Democratic voters than Republicans.

Collins brought back the breakfast after a one-year COVID-19 hiatus at a time when his own political ambitions for City Hall, still shrouded in mystery, were ripe for roasting. And while it may have been even less clear if the attempts at jokes landed in the virtual realm, the live-streamed, green-themed breakfast jump-started a week during which good-natured ribbing would quickly give way to intentional and, at times, pointed jabs.

The Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management held its second oversight hearing on Tuesday with a clear objective — challenge Baker’s decision not to rely more on local boards of health for vaccination distribution.

Even as Massachusetts has climbed the state rankings for shots administered, the choice to administer many of those shots at mass vaccination sites instead of through local clinics and municipal public health infrastructure is the hill some in the legislature have chosen to plant their flag.

Democrats accused him of throwing out the playbook right before the big game, and spending millions on private-run facilities when that money could have been used to scale up locally-run clinics.

Baker stood his ground, suggesting he is acting off the same script being used by the BIden administration and pointing out how privately operated mass vaccination sites aren’t even the largest distributors of vaccines in Massachusetts. Hospitals are.

The governor said local disaster plans weren’t developed to deliver a vaccine of limited quantity with very specific cold-storage requirements and a short shelf life. And he and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that while some local health agencies, like the ones invited to testify, may have been equipped to administer COVID-19 shots, hundreds of other boards of health were not and made that clear when they didn’t raise their hands to help vaccinate their own first responders or the 75+ population.

The defense didn’t sit well with Baker’s critics on the committee: “What we’re getting from you is, ‘You’re all wrong, we’re doing great, please, we don’t want to hear it anymore.’ And I find that hard to take,” said an exasperated Sen. Cindy Friedman.

For much of the hour, lawmakers monologued and Baker scribbled notes off screen. Some shots landed and others missed the mark, like when Baker had to explain that he didn’t control how many doses go to retail pharmacies.

And at the end of a long day, it was unclear if any progress had been made: “The stark differences between the testimony received demands that we dig deeper and understand better why decades of public investment in emergency preparedness have been shelved in favor of another approach, hastily constructed during a global pandemic,” Driscoll and Comerford said in a post-hearing statement.

While the theme of the hearing was to dunk on mass vaccination sites, the idea of a federally supported site, and the thousands of extra does that come with it, was one that seemed to hold some interest for Democrats.

Rep. William Driscoll appeared very curious to know when exactly the state had applied for one of these FEMA run sites, which was announced in February when the delegation sent a letter of support to the Biden administration.

On Friday, the White House and Baker announced that the newest state-run mass vaccination site at the Hynes Convention Center would be supported with an additional 6,000 doses a day from the federal government, raising the daily capacity of the site to 7,000.

The FEMA sponsorship of the Hynes was one of several good-news announcements about supply this week that also brought word of 40,000 additional doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The J&J increase prompted Baker to launch a locally-supported vaccination program to reach homebound residents.

Everyone agrees the faster the vaccine arrives and gets put into arms, the sooner the state can emerge from the year-long pandemic. That’s why Baker’s hiring of McKinsey & Co. to write a report about the “future-of-work” has generated so much interest.

But Attorney General Maura Healey’s interest in the report this week had nothing to do with her curiosity to learn what the global consulting firm recommends. Healey, who is being watched like a hawk for hints at her political future, went after Baker for hiring McKinsey after her office and others around the country reached a settlement with the firm last month for $573 million over its role in helping Purdue Pharma “turbocharge” opioid sales to turn a profit.

The “future-of-work” contract is one of many the firm holds with the state, and Healey called it “outrageous” that Massachusetts would continue to give them business. One of her opening salvos in the 2022 gubernatorial campaign? Maybe. But even a visit by the attorney general to a picket line in Worcester these days is cause for speculation.

Before Boston voters even get to 2022, they will have to choose a new mayor in the fall and it won’t be Marty Walsh … Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Wheeling his suitcase through Logan Airport and clutching a cup of Doughboy Donuts coffee, Walsh left Boston for Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, the morning after the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination to lead the Labor Department. He officially resigned as mayor at 9 p.m. on March 22, handing the reins of the city over to Kim Janey, the former City Council president who became the first woman and Black resident of Boston to be able to call themselves mayor.

Whether Janey will seek extend her historic elevation as mayor beyond the next eight months remains to be seen, but given the current field it would appear the long-running hold on the office by Irish and Italian men will soon be broken.

Janey takes over a city where the school department was granted a waiver by Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to delay its return to in-person learning for K-8 students until April 26. Boston was one of at least 60 districts given a reprieve from the April 5 deadline to bring elementary students back to the classroom.

House Speaker Ron Mariano told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that the waiver process was important because ultimately it should be the local districts deciding when it’s safe to return to school.

The speaker has largely sided with the teachers’ unions in their dispute with Baker over classroom safety. But overall, Mariano said the governor has worked “very effectively” with the Legislature through the pandemic, and used his executive powers “extremely well” apart from some well documented “hiccups” with the vaccine rollout.

Baker even put his name this week on a game-changing climate bill that will put Massachusetts on the path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 after working with lawmakers to make small but important adjustments.

The new climate law also directs another massive 2,400-megawatt procurement of offshore wind power. And that was actually what Mariano wanted to talk to the GBCC about.

The speaker announced that the forthcoming House budget proposal would direct $10 million through the Clean Energy Center to train workers for careers in offshore wind, and he promised to pursue a “large-scale” bonding effort to secure the South Coast’s position as the regional hub of the offshore wind industry.

Mariano also said he wasn’t in any rush to return to debate over raising taxes to pay for transportation, at least not until the pandemic aftershocks subside and leaders can take stock of the MBTA and its new needs.

Besides, he said, there’s $1 billion coming to Massachusetts from the “American Rescue Plan” for public transit and $4.5 billion more in direct aid for state government that changes the calculations.

Walsh’s Dorchester successor in the House, Rep. Dan Hunt, will lead a hearing next week to dive into the pot of gold that is the latest stimulus package, and already Baker has committed $100 million to Chelsea, Everett, Randolph and Methuen where leaders have said federal funding formulas shortchanged those hard-hit cities because of their size.

House and Senate leaders have said they want to exert more control over how this newest round of stimulus gets spent, but Mariano said he agrees that those communities should be supported, and believes there may be more cities and towns deserving.

With unemployment ticking down to 7.1 percent, the House and Senate also agreed that workers unemployed over the last year are deserving of a new tax deduction on their first $10,200 in unemployment benefits.

The more expensive Senate version of the tax break was part of a bill that will limit the hit to businesses of unemployment insurance rate hikes this year and extend additional COVID-19 sick leave to Massachusetts workers.

The legislation was enacted Thursday, along with a piece of the joint rules setting up committees like the Joint Bonding Committee so that a $400 million borrowing bill to rebuild the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home can be advanced.

And while there were few objections to substance, Sen. Diana DiZoglio and Sen. John Keenan again had a few concerns with process.

“State House News knew before the members of this body knew what we were going to be doing,” said a miffed Sen. DiZoglio.