State House

State House News Service Weekly Roundup

Article Source: State House News Service
Article By: Matt Murphy

The First One Can Be the Hardest


DEC. 4, 2020…..The lame duck logjam broke open this week, and from it spilled the possibility that compromise, in these blustery days of December, might be at least a fraction as contagious as COVID-19.

With daily cases of the deadly coronavirus reaching new heights and hospital beds getting filled at a troubling pace, the Legislature began to showcase why it was, exactly, that they voted back in July to ignore decades of precedent and extend its session by not one or two but more than five months.

The first domino to fall was perhaps the hardest to tip over, despite all the wind at its back in July. As real gusts whipped up and down the coast on Monday, House and Senate Democrats struck a deal to reform how police in Massachusetts must conduct themselves on the job, and how the police will be policed moving forward.

The compromise bill, sparked by the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests over police violence against Black people, would create a new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to certify all law enforcement in Massachusetts, and to decertify police that violate their duty to serve and protect.

The bill would limit the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and strip police officers of their qualified immunity protection from civil lawsuits if their certification gets revoked for misconduct.

But this bill was no slam dunk with lawmakers, and Gov. Charlie Baker remains a powerful wildcard. Not a single Republican backed the policing reform bill, and Speaker Robert DeLeo could not whip a veto-proof majority, with the 92-67 vote in the House a nailbiter by Beacon Hill standards.

The margins put Baker in the unusual position of actually having considerable leverage as he weighs how to approach the issue over the coming days and weeks. On the one hand, Baker wants a new POST Commission with the authority to certify and decertify police, and legislative leaders know that.

But because of the complexity of the legislation and its attempts to take on issues like qualified immunity, Democratic leaders may be forced to negotiate amendments with the governor unless they’re willing to risk a veto that would push off action to next year.

The annual state budget is a different breed of bill, and was the second box to get checked this week.

Unlike the more than four months it took to negotiate a compromise policing bill, it took almost a month to the day for the House and Senate to move the fiscal 2021 from a House Ways and Means draft, released two days after the election, to a final budget on its way to the governor’s desk.

Of course, that budget is still five months late by non-pandemic standards. But who’s counting anymore, except maybe the bond rating agencies.

The final budget now in Baker’s hands for review proposes to spend more than $46.2 billion in a year during which lawmakers have been girding for the financial worst, but not yet seeing it. Revenues continue to outperform 2019 in spite of the pandemic, and rather than make real tough choices about where to spend, the conference committee simply upped its draw on reserves by $200 million to $1.7 billion, using about 48 percent of the “rainy day” account.

How that will be received by Baker, who recommended using considerably less in reserves, remains to be seen, as does his reaction to a controversial expansion of abortion access that would make abortions after 24 weeks legal in cases of diagnosed fatal fetal anomalies.

Other policy changes included in the budget include an acceleration of sales tax collections opposed by retailers and other small businesses and the authorized use of ignition interlock devices for first-time drunk driving offenders.

But along with developments on the legislative front, there was also “light at the end of the tunnel” in the fight against COVID-19 as Gov. Baker said he expects the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to begin arriving in Massachusetts by mid-December.

The state expects 300,000 doses to arrive by the end of the year, with health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities and seniors or those with underlying health conditions expected to be among the first to get access.

The full plan for vaccine distribution is expected to be detailed by the administration next week after it was submitted to the Centers for Disease Control this week for review, but Baker said it could be April before the general public can start rolling up their sleeves for the shot.

“It would probably be Q2 before just Joe Q or Jane Q Citizen would have access to a vaccine,” Baker said.

But the vaccine can’t arrive fast enough. The second surge is worsening, and there are signs that the fears harbored by public health officials over Thanksgiving travel and gatherings may be coming to life.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had thought the infection rate in his city might be trending in the right direction until early this week when the data began to point to a surge within the surge.

“It could be the first signs of what the Thanksgiving holiday brought,” Walsh said Tuesday, detailing how Boston had clocked 407 new cases on the day, or more than twice the daily average.

Statewide records would also continue to fall throughout the week, with Thursday’s 6,477 new reported cases the most of any time during the pandemic, and statewide hospital capacity dipping below 25 percent. Baker went to Worcester to mark the readiness of the first field hospital to open since the spring at the DCU Center, and said another one is being prepped for Lowell. The state is also thinking about how to fortify outdoor testing sites against a New England winter.

But despite the gathering storm, Baker dismissed as “rumor mongering” another statewide lockdown and he said at this point he has no plans for further restrictions or forced business closures.

In fact, the Cannabis Control Commission greenlighted a completely new business this week – recreational marijuana home delivery. The CCC risked a lawsuit by saying yes to two new types of licenses for either dispensaries to deliver their product, or for independent business owners to buy direct from wholesalers and venture out on their own.

The one service that likely won’t be able to escape shutdowns is public transit.

The MassINC Polling Institute released the findings of a new poll Thursday showing, unsurprisingly, that people don’t like the idea of drastic service reductions to balance the transit agency’s books.

Rep. Carlos Gonzalez reviewed the official copy of the compromise policing reform bill, joined by fellow conferees Sen. Will Brownsberger and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, before filing the legislation in the Senate clerk’s office Monday afternoon. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

The survey also found people don’t believe the T will ever restore the cuts if and when its finances improve. Well, that got under the skin of the Baker administration, which criticized the pollster for not asking people how they would propose to pay for transit that’s not being used, and insisted the cuts were temporary.

But the 66 percent of people saying the state should just tap its budget for more money weren’t alone in thinking the MBTA should reconsider its plan. The MBTA Advisory Board said the agency was being unnecessarily cautious in its budget projections for next year, and could eliminate the need for widespread service cuts with just a little positive thinking.

The advisory board’s own budget analysis suggested the financial hole facing the T could be 20 percent smaller than the worst-case scenario being planned for, negating the need to end weekend commuter rail service or cut 25 bus routes and all ferry services.

“The Advisory Board’s view is that risk of permanent loss of ridership, increased congestion, and other negative effects of service cuts to people and communities is too high a price to pay right now, just as a vaccine is on the horizon,” the board wrote.

MBTA officials, however, are forging ahead with their plan and a vote on Dec. 14, and alternatives don’t seem to be in their line of vision.

“The vast majority of MBTA service will continue, the proposed service changes are not permanent, and the MBTA will periodically realign service as feasible to match current and future ridership patterns when durable revenue is available for pay for such service,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a statement.

Whether people believe him is another question.