State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Hit Refresh

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


JAN. 29, 2021…..Sweet dreams are not made of weeks like these. In fact, for a technocrat like Gov. Charlie Baker, they can be the stuff of nightmares.

The logistics of trying to vaccinate at least 4 million people as fast as humanly possible is no easy feat. Layer on top of that the fact that there’s not nearly enough vaccine to go around, and it’s a recipe for restless nights.

But political leaders often deal with things out of their control by managing expectations. And this week, that’s where things started to break down.

That and the fact that the government told residents 75 and older to try to navigate an online registration site with not enough appointments to go around and no call-center where seniors and their families could get their questions answered. Let’s just say people were frustrated.

The COVID-19 vaccination program that had been plodding along since late December appeared to get its own shot in the arm when Baker announced Monday that by mid-February 165 new vaccination sites would be open with the capacity – key word being capacity – to administer 305,000 doses a week.

With the new sites coming online, including new mass vaccination sites in Springfield, Danvers and Boston, Baker said he would open the vaccine pool to people 75 and older beginning Feb. 1. The expansion and beefed up website where people could find a site close to home and sign up appeared designed to address growing concerns that the vaccination plan had become too confusing.

What got lost in that headline, however, was that the state has only been receiving about 80,000 doses a week. And even with President Joe Biden promising this week to juice the supply chain for the next three weeks, Massachusetts will only receive about 100,000 shots next week.

The result was that the website – got flooded on Wednesday with people trying to make appointments, and many found there were no appointments to be had. Sure, some got through. But Sen. Julian Cyr described it like trying to get tickets to a Beyonce concert through TicketMaster. Translation? Good luck.

By Thursday, Baker admitted that the state should have had a call center set up to help senior citizens and anyone without a computer navigate the system. The state is working to have that operational by next week.

But there are still no plans for a one-stop vaccine registration site, like other states have deployed. Sen. Eric Lesser filed a bill to force the administration to set up such a website, and it’s been co-sponsored by more than 57 Democrats and Republicans so far in the House and Senate.

Attorney General Maura Healey, who many are looking at as a possible gubernatorial candidate in two years, said people should be able to go online, sign up once and get notified when an appointment to be vaccinated is available.

“You can’t have seniors waking up at midnight to see what’s been refreshed on some of these systems,” Healey said during an interview on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”

Baker can’t afford many more weeks like this one.

The vaccination vexation largely overshadowed Baker’s filing of a $45.6 billion state budget proposal that relies on $1.6 billion in reserves and actually proposes to spend less money than in the current fiscal year, which has been floated with federal dollars.

He also refiled a sports betting proposal with his budget, and is proposing to move forward with the 2019 Student Opportunity Act by providing $246.3 million in new spending on public schools.

And to think the week started with so much promise.

Baker was gearing to deliver his fifth (plus two inaugurals) State of the Commonwealth address as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were declining. The White House promised governors in a call with the National Governors Association that more vaccines were on the way, and people were excited that vaccine eligibility was being expanded … except maybe teachers who didn’t like being bumped down the priority list behind 65-year-olds.

Recently, Baker had said “when I really want to get depressed” he would go back and read his speech from last year, before COVID-19 checked in to the Marriott Long Wharf. We’re not sure why the governor has moments when he really feels like getting depressed, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The bottom line is he likely didn’t have the same problem with this year’s speech. Because he didn’t promise or set out to do much of anything over the next year, at least nothing specific or written down on paper.

The speech was largely an exercise in trying to lift up a weary state, almost like a timeout pep talk designed to give the players on the field that boost of adrenaline they need to finish the game. Actor Jason Sudeikis featured far more prominently than anyone could have ever guessed. And the most tangible policy goal he laid out was the need to rethink “the future of work.”

“Know this – we will beat this virus. And life will begin to return to normal,” Baker assured.

One of the goals he laid out in last year’s State of the Commonwealth was to go carbon neutral by 2050. He’ll get a second chance to sign a bill that would require just that, though it’s unlikely to be that simple.

The House and Senate, as promised by Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka, sent the same climate and emissions reduction bill that Baker vetoed a couple weeks ago back to his desk Thursday.

Despite Baker laying out his objections in a lengthy veto letter, the Legislature incorporated none of those changes. Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides described it as a “rather one-sided conversation” with the Legislature.

Baker has been accused by Democrats of creating a false choice between the economy and the environment, while Theoharides said, ” … I’m not sure the Legislature has any cost estimates for what their bill would cost or the benefits that would provide.”

The difference between this climate bill and the end-of-session bill that the governor vetoed is Baker has time to return the bill with amendments. And if the Legislature says no to those amendments and Baker vetoes the bill again, the Legislature can and almost certainly will override.

The early showdown between the Legislature and governor in the new session is unusual in that the House and Senate haven’t even set up a full committee structure yet. And Mariano efficiently punted what could have been a contentious rules debate for the new speaker until the summer by asking House lawmakers to extend the existing emergency pandemic rules.

The extra time, Mariano said, will give the Rules Committee time to study new transparency measures, and also look at best practices for dealing with what the speaker described as “unregistered, or vaguely-affiliated, advocates and coalitions.”

The unusual request of the Rules Committee was interpreted on Beacon Hill as a shot across the bow of rules reform advocates like Act on Mass and amorphous groups like Raise Up Massachusetts and MassFiscal, which have been growing in influence on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Speaking of influence, Joe Kennedy announced that he’s going to try to hang on to some in the post-Congress chapter of his career by creating a new political action committee, the Groundwork Project, to invest in grassroots organizing efforts in Massachusetts and non-traditional battleground states around the country to lay the foundation for an expanding Democratic map.

There’s not much fear that Democrats will lose a legislative seat in Revere and Winthrop, but it won’t be Marc Silvestri filling former Speaker Robert DeLeo’s seat. The Revere Democrat filed a lawsuit in the state’s top court this week after he failed to gather the necessary 150 signatures.

Silvestri was hoping the Supreme Judicial Court would cut down on the signatures required to qualify for the ballot, as it did last year as the pandemic raged, but he struck out with Justice Elspeth Cypher who promptly dismissed the case.

The Commonwealth Dispensary Association didn’t even wait for a judge to rule in its lawsuit challenging marijuana home delivery rules in Massachusetts, dropping its lawsuit filed just earlier this month as member retailers pulled out of the effort.