Weekly Roundup – Permission Granted

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy

The winds of science and change are blowing, generating momentum behind the state’s rush to go green and accelerating a recovery from COVID-19 that has the state hurtling toward whatever life will look like on the other side of the pandemic.

Ready or not, get used to seeing people’s full faces again.

Massachusetts, both its leaders and its people, has been intensely focused on getting vaccinated. The state crossed the 3-million-fully-vaccinated mark this week and enjoyed a rare day of zero new reported deaths from COVID-19. But in the hunt for appointments and the tracking of doses administered, it became almost easy to forget why people were so happy to get the shot in the first place.

Sure, there have been family reunions and unmasked walks through the park. But there is still a pandemic raging. Isn’t there?

The progress toward normalcy has been achieved mostly through tentative baby steps. That is until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped up on Thursday to remind people why they’ve been sacrificing for more than a year.

“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you have stopped doing because of the pandemic,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, rolling out the health agency’s newest guidance that says vaccinated Americans can safely drop the masks, indoors and outdoors, in crowds or small gatherings.

Wait, are you sure?

What that means exactly for Massachusetts remains to be seen. Gov. Charlie Baker was in Washington on Friday for meetings with the delegation, the Army Corps. Of Engineers, senior Air Force brass and the White House’s COVID-19 czar Jeff Zients.

The governor said he’d have more to say next week about the state’s reopening plans, but for now the state’s mask order, including the requirement that masks be worn in all indoor public spaces, remains in effect.

Even before the CDC’s unmasking of America, this was already going to be a big week on the timeline of the pandemic. Businesses like amusement parks were allowed to reopen on Monday, more fans were streaming through the turnstiles at Fenway Park and walk-ins were being welcomed at all seven mass vaccination sites.

Massachusetts was basking in its vaccine successes. Gov. Baker joined five other governors to virtually share effective strategies with President Joe Biden, and the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration gave the all clear for the Pfizer vaccine to be used in adolescents aged 12 to 15. Suddenly, 400,000 young residents were newly eligible Thursday to get vaccinated and there were appointments to go around.

While people wait to see whether Baker will follow the CDC’s mask guidance or accelerate the business reopening plan for the summer, the New Civil Liberties Alliance announced this week that it was taking its failed lawsuit against the governor challenging his emergency executive orders to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The organization, which sued on behalf of a small group of businesses and religious and educational institutions, lost in December in front of the Supreme Judicial Court, but is asking the top federal court to take another look.

“Legislatures are there. They’re capable of taking on hearings, taking on information and deciding what sort of remedial measures the community should take at large, instead of having governors make law by executive decree,” said Mike DeGrandis, the NCLA’s attorney.

One law the governor can’t make by decree, whether there’s a public health emergency or not, is the annual state budget.

It’s about to be the Senate’s turn to debate how to spend $47.6 billion, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee put forward its recommendations Tuesday. The budget bill, which senators spent the week reviewing and drafting amendments to, calls for spending to climb by a modest 2.6 percent.

With tax collections pouring in and easily outpacing expectations this fiscal year, Senate budget chief Michael Rodrigues said it’s possible that when the budget gets to conference with the House the two branches could agree then on a higher revenue estimate that would, in turn, allow for more spending and less reliance on the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund.

That could be the easy part of the negotiations between the branches. Rodrigues’ budget also recommends an overhaul of the film tax credit program that would require productions to spend more of their budgets or filming time in Massachusetts, cap eligible salaries at $1 million and eliminate the transferability of credits, which is highly valued by the industry.

The modifications put the Senate on a collision course with House Speaker Ron Mariano, who has been a forceful defender of the program and the jobs it creates since long before he climbed into the big chair.

But defender of Hollywood is not the title Mariano has been seeking since becoming speaker. Instead, the Quincy Democrat has talked a lot about wind, and the industry in Massachusetts got a huge push forward from the Biden administration this week with final federal approval of the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project.

Stalled under President Donald Trump, Vineyard Wind is the first commercial-scale offshore wind project to win federal approval in the country, and by 2023 when the 62 turbines planned for waters off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are turning they are expected to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes.

“What a difference six months makes,” said U.S. Rep. William Keating, who represents the Cape and islands, referring to the hurdles the project tripped over during the Trump years.

Of course, the former president was not pleased with the news. He said the Vineyard and its picturesque views would “never be the same,” and falsely claimed that the turbines would be built in China, when, in fact, the company says they’re being built in France.

But the green revolution is coming, in more ways than one.

The Cannabis Control Commission this week issued its first marijuana courier license to a company called We Can Deliver Boston. Courier licenses allow owners to deliver products from licensed pot retailers and dispensaries to consumers’ homes.

The commission is also working to finalize the licensing process for businesses that want to wholesale their own products and deliver direct to consumers. Chairman Steve Hoffman said the expansion of the industry into delivery services will greatly enhance equity in the industry as regulators look for ways to encourage and foster minority business owners.

And it hasn’t been easy for those applicants to break into the business.

Hoffman said the commission is increasingly concerned about investors squeezing social equity applicants for marijuana business licenses by demanding unfavorable terms to the entrepreneurs that put them at risk of losing control of their businesses over time.

The Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy also heard this week from lawmakers, advocates and former regulators about ways cities and towns can exploit applicants during negotiations over legally required host community agreements by demanding payments in excess of what is allowed under state law.

This, according to former commission Shaleen Title, advantages large marijuana companies that can afford to pay, at the expense of entrepreneurs trying to break into the business. The House tried to address this through legislation last year before the pandemic struck, and it could come back around this session.

Incidentally, it was extortion of a marijuana license application in Fall River that contributed to the downfall of former Mayor Jasiel Correia, who was found guilty in federal court Friday on 21 counts of extortion, fraud and filing false tax returns.

STORY OF THE WEEK: We can do what now? CDC says it’s safe for those vaccinated against COVID-19 to be amongst the people.

SONG OF THE WEEK: SONG OF THE WEEK: On the cusp of getting back to “normal,” a song to help you think about the old days, and what we’ve been through to survive.