State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Crashed and Burning

Article source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


FEB. 19, 2021…..A four-legged octopus with a question mark hanging over its head is certainly not the image you want to see when you log on to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

But after months of waiting for protection from the deadly coronavirus, that’s exactly what Baby Boomers found Thursday morning — a quizzical cephalopod and a message that read, “This application crashed.”

Gov. Charlie Baker had announced just a day earlier that people 65 and older, or with two or more underlying health conditions, including asthma, could begin booking appointments. The signups would start at 8 o’clock in the morning, he said. No need to stay up all night.

It felt hopeful. And then …

“My hair’s on fire about the whole thing,” Baker told GBH’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan.

Within a few hours, the site was back up and running, and though still frustrating to users, 60,000 people were able to book new appointments, the administration said Friday. But not even his singed follicles and a mea culpa from the state’s Maryland technology vendor PrepMod could clean up the fallout the governor was left with after another hiccup in the state’s rollercoaster rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The concept of a politically damaging website failure is one Baker should be familiar with since he campaigned against Democrats on it in 2014 after the state botched its Health Connector launch. This newest technology setback also came at a time when the administration was in need of a win and trying to push the narrative that its vaccine distribution performance had been improving vis-a-vis other states.

Massachusetts now ranks sixth in the country for first doses administered per capita, according to the CDC. But that was cold comfort to many lawmakers fielding calls from frustrated constituents desperate to get an appointment for themselves, their parents or a loved one.

“We need the next few months to go a lot smoother,” Rep. William Driscoll said.

Driscoll, of Milton, and Sen. Jo Comerford, of Northampton, were recently appointed by Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka to chair the new Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness. The oversight committee didn’t have to look far or wait long to find its first subject.

Driscoll and Comerford will convene a hearing next Thursday to explore what’s gone right and wrong with the state’s vaccination program, and they’ve invited Baker himself to take the hot seat.

The oversight role is not one the Legislature tries to play often, and when it does it can sometimes be an uncomfortable fit. But Baker is not the only one whose hair has been on fire lately, and Mariano may have helped set the tone as he went on the Sunday show circuit last weekend criticizing Baker’s vaccine program.

Not only did Mariano say he thought the companion policy made little sense, but the former public school teacher said teachers should be moved up the priority ladder. Teachers happen to be in the next grouping.

The governor’s office has not said if he will accept the invitation to testify, but the committee has also asked Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and top public health officials to appear.

Driscoll was in the spotlight for the role he will play next week in holding the Baker administration accountable, but he also generated headlines by filing a climate change mitigation bill that would invest $10 billion in infrastructure by 2030.

With former House Speaker Robert DeLeo and his $1.3 billion “Green Works” bill seemingly gone from the discussion, Driscoll is looking to fill that void with a new plan that would extend carbon pricing to emissions not currently taxed, such as those from heating, and authorize $500 million in annual borrowing.

The Senate refused to consider DeLeo’s borrowing plan last session, and Senate Democrats also ignored Gov. Baker’s similar $1 billion bill paid for with real estate transfer taxes. But the lack of investment in climate resiliency was an issue Baker flagged in his letter to the Legislature vetoing the climate emission bill in January, and 2021 is a new year.

Speaking of the climate bill, the Legislature has yet to take up the governor’s amendments, though Baker told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that he was hopeful about the direction his dialogue with the House and Senate was moving.

And while he waits, his administration announced it would use $10 million to expand the state’s  electric vehicle rebate program to cover pickups and other large trucks and vans. Putting more electric vehicles on the road is a big part of Baker’s roadmap to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

Baker also told the Chamber that he thought it was “appropriate” and “absolutely necessary” that MCAS exams, even modified tests, be given to students this spring.

The governor’s comments came as a collection of education and civil rights groups, including the two major teachers unions, wrote to lawmakers pleading for them to push the Department of Education to seek a federal waiver to cancel the tests this spring.

Baker didn’t seem at all open to the idea, describing the exams as necessary to get a sense of if and how far students had fallen behind over the last year.

Pointing to the substantial amount of money for K-12 education that would be headed to Massachusetts if President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan passed, Baker said he’d like some of that money to be put toward summer school and programs to help students make up for lost school time. And that would be harder to do if educators don’t know where students must catch up.

As for that stimulus plan. U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan’s office said this week that Massachusetts stands to receive $8.275 billion in direct state and local relief funding from the White House package, including $4.5 billion for state government and the balance going to cities and towns.