Trading Carrots for Sticks

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy


The same day Massachusetts recorded its single largest daily COVID-19 case count since April, President Joe Biden stood in the State Dining Room of the White House and acknowledged the country was going through a “tough stretch.”

It was no longer enough, the president said, to just encourage the unvaccinated to take the shot. He would start requiring it of all federal government employees and contractors, of all health care workers, and of 80 million private sector employees working for companies with 100 or more workers.

The task of developing and implementing this new policy now falls to a familiar face – U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh – and takes some of the pressure off Gov. Charlie Baker, lawmakers and many employers who might have been wrestling with the decision.

And the Legislature doesn’t need any more decisions to make. With its fall agenda growing longer by the day, hearings resumed into how the Legislature should spend nearly $5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

At this point it’s clear the House and Senate are not going to move quickly to get that money out the door, but that didn’t stop Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides from trying to drive home the administration’s point about urgency.

The secretary testified from the banks of Merrimack River in Lawrence where she said Tropical Storm Ida caused 130 million gallons of untreated water and sewer overflow to spill into the river, and record rains this summer have led to more than 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage flowing into water bodies since May.

The capacity of water and sewer systems to handle increasingly severe weather and the need to upgrade that infrastructure commanded a lot of attention at the ARPA hearing, just as the need to shore up sensitive networks against increasingly severe cyberattacks had the attention of the new Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity at its first hearing a day earlier.

But just as Walsh found himself at the center of the biggest story in the country this week, back at home in Boston it was the competition among the candidates who want his old job taking center stage.

Voters will settle the preliminary election for mayor next Tuesday, whittling the field from five to two. But before those final votes are cast, the candidates got on stage for two evening debates this week as City Councilor Michelle Wu emerged the clear frontrunner in a number of new polls.

The battle for that second spot on the November ballot remains tightly contested and it showed as Acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Councilor Andrea Campbell traded jabs this week over outside super PAC spending and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George – the “moderate” in the race – tried to carve out her own lane, which includes being the pro-public safety (i.e. police) candidate.

At the State House, many of Rep. Jon Santiago’s colleagues had been willing to follow him as he made a bid of his own for mayor, but since he dropped out they are no longer taking their cues from the South End Democrat.

Santiago came out in support of Janey this week, commending the job she has done over the last few months in charge, but Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz announced he would ride out the race with Wu as his choice for mayor, assuming she makes it to the final.

The North End budget chieftain joined a pair of assistant majority leaders in the House and Senate – Rep. Michael Moran and Sen. Sal DiDomenico – on team Wu, as the leadership on Beacon Hill is no longer united behind a single candidate, and members of the Boston delegation are spread around, or taking pass on the race altogether.

Wu has another powerful Democrat in her corner – her former teacher U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren has been amping up her activity as election day draws near, helping to raise money and headlining a get-out-the-vote rally in Chinatown on Saturday for Wu.

Warren was also in Boston this week to endorse the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights in their effort to defeat a proposed ballot question that would allow rideshare and food delivery app companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to classify their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The ballot question, according to Warren and opponents, would allow these gig economy employers to skirt state labor and wage laws, and would hurt not just those who work for them, but employees in the hotel, grocery and retail industries as well.

Warren’s involvement in both campaigns will test her clout and ability to organize around local, and not just national, issues in Massachusetts ahead of a gubernatorial election cycle in 2022 when Democrats will be looking for a better showing than in 2018.

While Baker appears to be no closer to announcing his decision on 2022, Democrats in the race came out of the Labor Day holiday weekend ready to talk policy.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz on Tuesday rolled out an education plan that included publicly funded pre-school, a cap on family child-care spending and debt-free public higher education. The same day, former Sen. Ben Downing detailed a transportation agenda that included fare-free MBTA service, including commuter rail and ferries, by the end of his first term and East-West rail from Boston to Albany by 2030.

One thing the two plans had in common was that they were pricey. While Chang-Diaz suggested she would seek federal support and draw on the revenue expected from the “millionaires’ tax” to pay for her plan, Downing said he would do that and more.

The East Boston resident proposed congestion pricing in metro Boston, and said he would propose a gas tax increase of 10 to 15 cents to go along with a new sales tax on Uber and Lyft rides.

The third Democrat in the race, Danielle Allen, didn’t have a policy plan to release this week, but she did call on Baker to mandate that all public school students age 12 and older be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Baker has already mandated that all executive branch employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, and this week the Public Health Council approved his request to require vaccines for home care workers and rest home, assisted living, and hospice program staff. The governor previously mandated vaccines for workers in skilled nursing facilities.

But schools are where Baker has thrown up his hands.

Even with Biden urging states to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff and unions in Massachusetts saying they would support it, Baker has insisted that the decision rests with the local districts.

“The Baker-Polito Administration agrees that all teachers should be vaccinated and agrees with the President that the vaccines are the best possible tools to get life back to normal,” the governor’s press secretary Terry MacCormack said in a statement.

MacCormack said that Baker had “recently directed all cities and towns to require all municipal employees, including their school employees, to be vaccinated,” and would work with cities and towns to accomplish that goal.

Directed? Maybe “encouraged” would be more accurate. But potato, potahto. The point is Baker isn’t going there.

Nor is he going back to remote learning for K-12 students.

“I think our view at this point is in-person learning is where we should be and where we should stay…,” Baker said, when asked about an outbreak in the Melrose public schools.

The governor said that as long as people are unvaccinated, COVID-19 infections will be a part of life, but fewer people are being hospitalized or dying as a result.