State House News Service Weekly Roundup: One and Done?

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Katie Lannan


MARCH 12, 2021….Yesterday was March 11, the first day mass vaccination site signups opened to Massachusetts teachers, the last day — before a pre-registration system went live Friday — that thousands of appointments at those sites would be released all at once and swiftly snatched up in a stressful scramble, and the day President Biden said there’d be enough COVID-19 vaccine doses for all American adults by the end of May.

Here in the infinite time loop that is daily life in a yearlong (so far) global pandemic, where the length of days and months can seem completely arbitrary and divorced from any traditional structure, yesterday also feels like it could have been March 11, 2020, the day President Trump restricted travel from Europe, the World Health Organization officially called it a pandemic, the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they’d contracted the coronavirus.

It was a day earlier that, in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker declared the state of emergency that still influences most activity.

“I have to say — well, first of all, I wasn’t expecting this,” an emotional Baker said, marking the order’s anniversary during a press conference Wednesday at an N-95 mask manufacturing facility.

Reflections on the past year pervaded the week for many who recalled their pre-pandemic “last” — day in the office or at school, night out with friends, live concert, restaurant meal, trip on an airplane or public transit.

Despite the disorienting feeling of living in two years at once, in some ways, the month is marching on in a modified version of normal. Baker is sporting his annual charity buzz cut, part of Granite Telecommunications’ “Saving by Shaving” fundraiser, and Sen. Nick Collins is still planning to host Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast next weekend, albeit virtually.

And as the sun comes out and temperatures rise, there’s also been a springtime stirring in the Legislature.

The House and Senate on Thursday sent Baker a bill that would allow the more than 200 towns with municipal elections this spring to again offer the early mail-in and in-person voting options adopted last year.

As Biden signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus-and-more spending bill into law, the Massachusetts House approved a state-level relief package that aims to buoy businesses, workers and the state’s strained unemployment trust fund all.

Top House and Senate Democrats announced that plan together. Quick passage is expected in the Senate, where Republicans say exempting forgiven Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses from state taxes — one component of the bill — should be the body’s top priority as a March 15 tax-filing deadline looms.

After sending Senate President Karen Spilka a note Thursday morning saying he and the other two members of his caucus would be ready to block any legislation that wasn’t PPP tax-related, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr did just that, using a parliamentary move to keep the Senate from taking up a climate policy bill that would lock the state into its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

It’s just the latest roadblock for the so-called climate roadmap bill, which has been floating around the Legislature in various forms since the pre-COVID days of February 2020.

Tarr objected to the fact that the latest version of the bill, a redraft by the Senate’s Committee on Bills in Third Reading that incorporates some of the amendments Baker wanted, emerged for review after 10 p.m. Wednesday ahead of an expected Thursday vote.

Baker’s amendments had been sitting before the committee for a month before suddenly reaching the floor, and senators said there have been talks underway with environmental advocates and the business communities. None of those discussions have been in the form of a public hearing.

Democrats said the bill’s provisions had been vetted — and in many cases, already voted upon — over the course of the past year.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, among the senators to voice dismay at the delay and to describe an urgent need for action, also brought up what he said was some exciting news on the renewable energy front: a completed federal review of the Vineyard Wind I offshore wind farm.

While the Biden-era Department of Interior made quick work of its Vineyard Wind analysis, the Department of Labor is still waiting for a confirmation vote on its new secretary, more than two months after Biden nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for the post.

Two weeks ago, Baker signed a new law canceling the special mayoral election that Boston would have been required to hold if Walsh resigned before March 5. That law is now moot, with Walsh still on the job and future acting Mayor Kim Janey waiting in the wings of the Eagle Room.

If the secretary-designee were looking for labor pools close to home to dip a toe in while waiting to join his already-migrated chief of staff in Washington, there’s no shortage of issues on that front to wade into.

Nurses at Worcester’s St. Vincent Hospital, still at odds with Tenet Healthcare over staffing levels, launched a strike on Monday. While state officials are considering what work might look like post-COVID, they’re also estimating that about 250,000 of the jobs lost here will stay gone, permanently. Behind in their road-maintenance efforts after one pandemic spring, municipal officials (who would still like to see the state pass a multi-year road repair funding bill, with more money) are facing high labor costs as they compete with housing developers for contractors.

Then there’s the teachers unions.

Baker and teachers unions have been at odds for a while, disagreeing on the best approach to school reopenings, educator vaccinations and this year’s MCAS exams, to name a few.

The latest spark ignited Tuesday when Education Commissioner Jeff Riley exercised his new authority to decide when schools and districts can no longer teach students through hybrid or remote instruction, setting an April 5 deadline to have elementary schoolers back in classrooms full-time, followed by an April 28 return for middle schoolers.

The state has set aside four days when its seven mass-vaccination sites will only offer first doses appointments for K-12 and early educators and school staff — March 27, April 3, April 10 and April 11.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy called the plans for repopulating classrooms “poorly timed,” saying many educators would not be vaccinated by April 5. She reiterated her union’s call for the administration to support local vaccine clinics over the mass sites and to allow first responders to immunize teachers in schools.

A rebuke followed from Baker senior advisor Tim Buckley, who accused the teachers unions of demanding the state “take hundreds of thousands of vaccines away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts and divert them to the unions’ members, 95% of which are under age 65.”

Najimy and fellow union heads Beth Kontos and Jessica Tang fired back, calling it “sad, and frankly, reckless that on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down our state, Governor Charlie Baker is pitting one vulnerable group against another.”

The rising tensions come as legislative budget writers are gearing up to delve into the education spending proposals contained in Baker’s $45.6 billion budget for fiscal 2022 at a Tuesday hearing. On that front, the teachers unions and administration don’t even agree what year it is — Baker’s plan would implement the first year of the school finance law known as the Student Opportunity Act, but groups like the MTA argue that after putting the reforms on hold in fiscal 2021, next year’s budget should have two years’ worth of phased-in new funding to stay on the law’s seven-year schedule.

How the House and Senate will handle school aid in their budgets remains to be seen. In the vaccine spat at least, House Speaker Ronald Mariano — who, by the way, has gotten his first dose, as has Spilka, because both are age-eligible — sided with the teachers.

“If the goal is to have our kids back in public school, a time certain should have been picked at the very beginning and we should work toward that,” the former teacher and one-time Quincy School Committee member said on Bloomberg radio. “The administration, in its wisdom, decided to come up with a date certain and then has done little to meet that deadline.”

Wherever teachers ultimately get their shots, once they’ve received both Pfizer or Moderna doses or the one-and-done Johnson & Johnson version, new doors will open up for them 14 days later, as they will for all who are fully vaccinated.

While the virus and its variants are still spreading, new CDC guidance this week said it’s OK for fully vaccinated individuals to gather indoors, without masks or distancing, and for them to similarly visit indoors with unvaccinated members of one other household who are at low risk for COVID-19. And an update to the state’s travel order allows fully vaccinated travelers to skip the quarantine-or-test-negative requirements.

After a very long year, those revisions — combined with a string of sunny days and Biden’s Thursday night forecast that if everyone keeps up their precautions and gets vaccinated when they can, this Fourth of July could “begin to mark our independence from this virus” — are enough to have visions of backyard barbecues dancing in your head.