Weekly Roundup – There’s More Of Us

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Katie Lannan


Last August, Gov. Charlie Baker’s test-or-quarantine travel restrictions meant many people were sticking close to home for their summer trips, or left trying to discern the protocols they’d need to follow for, say, a quick border-crossing jaunt to Narragansett Beach.

This year, things are different. Vacation season is back in earnest on Beacon Hill and elsewhere, complete with a heatwave, quiet halls at the State House (that is, even quieter than still-closed building has been for months) and, for much of last weekend, Acting Governor Bill Galvin.

Baker’s weeklong family trip to California overlapped with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito’s own weekend visit to Pennsylvania, leaving the secretary of state officially running the show for a couple days until Polito returned.

Before the week was out, Galvin would have the chance to deploy one of his duties that’s even rarer than stepping into the acting governor role — unveiling the state’s updated population numbers post-Census.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Thursday release of data from its 2020 count tracked a 7.4 percent population increase in both Massachusetts and the country as a whole over the decade. Galvin, the state’s Census overseer, said dramatic growth in cities and other changes means significant adjustments lie ahead for Congressional and state legislative districts.

The exact shapes and boundaries of those districts will be left in the hands of lawmakers, but uneven growth points to the possibility of larger districts out west, where Berkshire and Franklin counties lost residents, and more compact or shifted districts in the eastern part of the state, where large cities got bigger.

Boston, Galvin forecast, could gain another seat in the state House of Representatives.

Before that can happen, though, the city’s voters will choose their next mayor. With about a month to go before the preliminary election, endorsement announcements have been swirling as new ads hit screens and candidates direct their jabs at City Hall.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey instituted a new policy that will require the city’s 18,000 workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing, gradually phasing in the mandate by mid-October.

Though she’s panned the idea of vaccine passports like New York City is pursuing, Janey’s been hinting for a few weeks that this move was coming, and other mayoral candidates were quick to knock its pace.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell called it “the type of decision that should take hours or days – not weeks,” and John Barros labeled it “overdue,” saying Janey should have put the rule in place when City Hall employees returned to in-person work. Councilor Michelle Wu said the city needs “more than half measures,” calling for vaccine regulations for spaces like gyms, salons and restaurants.

No one knows what COVID-19 dynamics will look like in 2022, but the virus and state government’s handling of it is also an issue on the winding campaign trail to next year’s governor’s race.

Two Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls are pushing for changes in how the state communicates information about the pandemic.

Danielle Allen wants to see Baker create an alert system modeled after weather advisories that would monitor risk levels, triggering changes like more testing or mask mandates in schools if infections hit certain levels in a particular area. Former state Sen. Ben Downing called for “Beacon Hill to begin the process of auditing the Baker Administration’s Department of Public Health for their omissions in reporting on hospitalization data by age, race, and other demographics.”

The third Democrat in the field so far, Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, collected endorsements from eight of her colleagues in the Legislature and four progressive municipal officials from Boston, Worcester and Lawrence.

While lawmakers take their own version of a summer break this month, several still have their eyes on the looming back-to-school season — and on the Baker administration’s decision to recommend, but not require, in-classroom masking for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, unvaccinated older students and unvaccinated adults in schools.

Public Health Committee co-chairs Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Jo Comerford, who have custody of a bill that would require universal masking in schools, wrote in The Boston Globe this week that Baker should put a stronger school mask mandate in place. And the sponsor of that bill, Sen. Becca Rausch, has been collecting comments from parents and others who want to see students and their teachers mask up this fall.

As various school committees and boards of health vote on their own policies, it’s becoming clear that — at least for now — mask and vaccine rules will be the domain of individual municipalities and employers.

“I think communities are doing exactly what we hoped and anticipated that they would do, which is making the decision that makes the most sense for them,” Baker said Thursday, visiting digital learning company Cengage in his first public event since before his California trip.

The governor touted the state’s high vaccination rates and forthcoming clinics set up with school departments, saying he expects some communities will likely have “north of 80 percent of their kids at the seven to 12 grade level” vaccinated by the time school starts.

For younger students who still aren’t vaccine-eligible, Baker said he anticipates an emergency-use authorization for a vaccine at some point in the fall. The administration’s “strong recommendation” that kids in grades K-6 wear masks reflects the fact that the shots aren’t available to them, he said.

“We’ve also made our pool testing program available, which was a big success last spring — about 1,000 schools participated in it — we’re making that program available to any school district, and any school in Massachusetts, public school, that wants to participate,” he said. “And I think you put all those things together, and we are perfectly positioned to make sure that kids and adults will be safe when they go back to school, and we fully expect everybody to be in person.”

The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on face coverings would now have everybody in Massachusetts — vaccinated and unvaccinated — wear masks in indoor public places. That recommendation, issued late last month, applies to counties experiencing “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission — now the whole of Massachusetts.

The federal eviction moratorium is also linked to those transmission levels, so it applies across each of the state’s 14 counties.

That hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from wanting to put their own state-level ban in place. Eighty-two of 200 lawmakers signed on to a moratorium bill that was the subject of this week’s sole committee hearing.

Holding a hearing in the middle of the traditional August recess is atypical, and could mean the bill or related policies might get pencilled in to the post-Labor Day agenda.

When the fall term arrives at New England Law Boston, it’ll happen without Scott Brown at the school’s helm. The former senator and ambassador to New Zealand resigned after about seven months as president and dean of the faculty, saying it’s time for him to re-enter the political arena.

The former Wrentham Republican now calls New Hampshire home. Even if it’s not the Bay State political arena he’s seeking, he nonetheless might have sights on its regular arenas, bandstands, bars and theaters — his rock cover band, Scott Brown and the Diplomats, has a show planned at Salisbury Beach on Saturday, and is set to hit the Wrentham Town Common later this month.

Deal-seeking shoppers might opt for Wrentham this weekend instead, hitting the outlets there to take advantage of the two-day break from the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

Baker had sought to turn the annual sales tax-holiday into a two-month vacation, filing a bill in June that would have extended the tax-free period throughout all of August and September.

Legislative leaders and several other Democrats panned the idea, leaving the bill on ice throughout the dog days of summer. It’s been before the Revenue Committee since July 1, with a hearing not yet scheduled.

A different type of tax may be top of mind for Rep. David Linsky. The Natick Democrat told the News Service this week that he’s on a payment plan with the Internal Revenue Service to pay back “every dime” of his $154,000 owed in unpaid federal income taxes and has already started to chip away at that balance.

State House staffer income is the subject of a trio of new bills from Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven and Sen. Diana DiZoglio. The lawmakers’ package proposes setting a minimum salary of $55,000 for full-time legislative staffers, providing them with yearly cost-of-living adjustments and offering retroactive bonuses to offset pandemic-related work costs.

That proposed wage floor would represent a raise for many staffers. As far as windfalls go, though, it would be fairly modest compared to the influx of federal dollars the state and cities will amass from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Mayor Janey this week announced a listening campaign to help Boston plan how to spend about $400 million in ARPA money, similar to the hearing process legislative budget writers are undertaking to determine how to allocate the state’s billions.

The Ways and Means Committee’s hearings started in July and are on hold for the month, with plans to pick back up after Labor Day. Like so much else, those spending questions will still be there on the other side of August.

STORY OF THE WEEK: School mask debates continue to simmer as summer vacations wind down.

SONG OF THE WEEK: Crumple that outdated map in your pocket; the Census numbers are here and it’s time to draw some new districts.