State House Weekly Roundup – Achievement Unlocked

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


Vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population with at least one dose by July 4? No sweat. Already done. What’s next?

President Joe Biden set a new vaccination goal for the country this week as Americans seek their independence from the COVID-19 pandemic, but with Massachusetts already there what’s next is a new, more targeted phase in the state’s vaccine campaign.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he would begin to phase out mass vaccinations sites, with four of the seven slated to close by the end of the June. As Gillette Stadium, the Danvers DoubleTree Hotel, the Hynes Convention Center and the Natick Mall end their runs as vaccine centers, the administration plans to divert more of its vaccine supply to regional sites, mobile clinics and primary care doctors.

The administration hopes this will help reach some of the people who have been harder to coax into getting a shot, particularly in communities of color.

The state had its own goal when it started putting vaccine in arms in December: to fully vaccinate 4.1 million Bay State residents. It’s on track to reach that milestone by early June, as supply seems to have finally caught up to demand.

“This represents an incredible achievement. The people of Massachusetts are outperforming the rest of the country by leaps and bounds,” Baker told reporters at a State House press conference.

The vaccine program in Massachusetts was once a political soft spot for Baker, but rather quickly it has hardened into something the governor boasts about quite often. That warrants watching as Baker considers whether to seek a third a term and Democrats size up the once untouchable Republican.

Baker raised just $9,429 in April, fueling chatter on social media about his future, and Attorney General Maura Healey is reportedly message testing for a potential run for governor. But whether she takes the plunge or not, the state’s vaccination campaign and where it goes next figures to feature prominently in next year’s gubernatorial contest.

Healey spoke to the New England Council this week where she defended her stance that public employees should be vaccinated in order to return to work, although she specified that she really means state workers who interface with the public regularly. Even with that caveat, she is at odds with Baker, who prefers persuasion over mandates for state employees when it comes to the vaccine.

As an employer getting ready to welcome its workforce back, the state has not had the cash-flow problems that many small businesses have had over the last year – small businesses like Vivian and Juan Acevedo’s Panela Restaurant in Lowell.

Panela was a recipient this year of one of the more than 15,000 relief grants handed out by the Baker administration to help companies weather the pandemic, but just as the federal Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money this week, the administration’s $687 million business relief program also ran dry. Baker was in Lowell to hand out the final $5 million.

The grants may have helped some employers keep their workers on the payroll, but many business still face steep bills for unemployment insurance after layoffs and furloughs depleted that state’s UI fund.

Business owners have been given an extension on their first quarter bills while lawmakers and the administration try to figure out what to do, but the policymakers are not closer to a solution as they wait to hear from the federal government whether they can use some of the billions of dollars from the American Rescue Act to shore up the fund.

Despite a weak national jobs reports that showed hiring slowing with 266,000 jobs added in April, Bay State businesses remain bullish on the recovery. Associated Industries of Massachusetts’s business confidence index dipped ever so slightly in April, but employers are still expecting a solid rebound this summer, and that is evident in place like Cape Cod.

“Everyone has got the help wanted sign out,” said Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “It’s actually a good time to be a prospective employee, and you’re sort of in the driver’s seat now.”

Sen. Julian Cyr, of Truro, said the problem could now become a shortage of workers, citing the lack of affordable workforce housing as a growing problem, as well as the region’s reliance on foreign workers for the summer months.

With the summer tourism season around the corner, the Department of Revenue announced that it would be returning to its regular schedule for the payment and remittance of sales, meals and lodging taxes to the state on June 30.

Not that the state needs an advance on cash.

The April revenue report from DOR showed that the state is way ahead of where it was last year through 10 months of the fiscal year and well ahead of collecting what lawmakers budgeted. So far, collections have exceeded projections by $1.83 billion for the year, and that’s with a delayed tax filing deadline to May 17.

The $3.86 billion in taxes collected in April exceeded the total from last April by 95 percent, for obvious reasons. Less obvious, is how the Legislature and Baker will attempt to spend what increasingly looks to be a surplus amassing for the end of the fiscal year on top of the billions in federal relief money that must be allocated.

The windfall might not end there, though.

When federal stimulus funding runs out and the economy stabilizes, wealth tax advocates say the state will still need the estimated $2 billion that could come from a proposed surtax on millionaires to invest in education and transportation.

The 4 percent surtax, which would be tacked on to household earnings above $1 million, requires a second affirmative vote of the Legislature to reach the 2022 ballot, and advocates launched a campaign this week to remind lawmakers why they supported the so-called “millionaires’ tax ” in the first place.

Rep. Jim O’Day, the sponsor of the Constitutional amendment, said it’s likely the Legislature will wait on the “Fair Share Amendment” until maybe the fall rather than vote next week when a joint session of the Legislature will convene to consider amendments to the constitution.

But O’Day thinks the proposal will get its vote, in spite of renewed pushback from some business-backed think tanks who are trying to slow it down.

“If you look at what’s going on on Wall Street, you’ll know that Wall Street is doing just as well. Main Street, maybe not quite as well as we need for Main Street to be doing. So, for me, the excuse of the pandemic somehow raising additional concerns, additional issues, with whether or not this particular piece of legislation should not continue to go forward is really a red herring,” O’Day said.