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Road to Recovery – Tuesday April 19, 2022

Posted on April 19, 2022


Tuesday, April 19

Wednesday, April 20



Massachusetts COVID Cases Spike 68 Percent; Hospitalizations Rise

Boston Herald – State health officials on Thursday reported a continuing spike in new COVID-19 cases, while virus hospitalizations again increased.

The 2,962 daily virus cases in the state was a 68% jump from 1,760 reported cases last Thursday.

Also, a total of 5,363 staff and students tested positive in Bay State schools in the past week, significantly up from the previous week’s report.

The omicron BA.2 variant is spreading across the region. The Boston-area COVID wastewater data has been climbing in recent weeks.

The state’s daily average positive test rate had been plunging but is now increasing. The average positive test rate is now 3.66%, up from 1.6% a few weeks ago.

House Leaders Unveil $49.6 Billion Budget

State House News – Acknowledging that surplus tax collections and federal aid have kept Massachusetts afloat through the darkest days of the pandemic, House leadership on Wednesday unveiled a nearly $50 billion budget for fiscal year 2023 that Speaker Ron Mariano said will reinvest in the state’s lower- and middle-class residents and gird the post-COVID economy for “tough times” in the future.

The House Ways and Means Committee’s budget recommendation, which totals $49.629 billion and is expected to be debated the week of April 25, would increase spending by $2.015 billion, or 4.23 percent over the current year’s budget, and proposes to spend $1.398 billion, or 2.9 percent, more than Gov. Charlie Baker recommended in his January budget filing.

In addition to the early education and workforce development initiatives that Mariano and Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz rolled out Monday, the House budget would also boost local aid, fully fund the next year of the 2019 school finance reform law known as the Student Opportunity Act, eliminate communication costs for incarcerated people and their families, provide free school lunches for another year, and push the state’s stabilization fund to an estimated balance of $6.55 billion by the end of next June.

“We are on our way towards filling some of the holes that were created during the pandemic with a $49.6 billion spending package that we think addresses a lot of the needs, and it’s based on state tax collections that have been very strong [and] a lot of help from the federal government,” Mariano said Wednesday.

The budget includes $6 billion for Chapter 70 education aid (an increase of $485 million over the current budget), increases the minimum per-student aid amount from $30 to $60 (Mass. Municipal Association had requested $100), accelerates by one year the charter school reimbursement process, and increases higher education scholarship funding by more than $25 million.

There is also $853 million for housing initiatives, including $150 million for the rental voucher program (an increase of $20 million over Baker’s budget plan), $140 million for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program ($60 million more than the governor proposed), and $100 million for homeless shelters.

The budget would fully fund the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children program at $343 million and the Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children program at $137 million. Caseloads for those programs have persisted above pre-pandemic levels, with EAEDC at a record high.

The University of Massachusetts system would get $653 million under the House budget with another $326 million allotted to state universities and $337 million for community colleges. The House is proposing $156 million in scholarship funding, which would represent an increase of more than $25 million over the current year.

UMass President Marty Meehan said the House budget plan “makes critical investments in our 75,000 UMass students by funding increases in financial aid and support for behavioral health services while also investing in our workforce and partnering with the university to confront historic inflation.”

The $638.4 million for workforce development baked into the House budget includes $230 million for Chapter 257 rates for health and human service workers, $60 million for adult education, more than $28 million for youth-at-risk summer jobs, more than $20 million for career technical institutes, and $15 million for the state’s one-stop career centers.

Environmental services are funded at $349.7 million in the House budget plan, a slight increase of $7.8 million over what Baker proposed in January. Department of Conservation and Recreation state parks would see $78.7 million ($5.2 million more than Baker’s proposal) while $72.8 million would be directed towards environmental protection efforts, including for implementation of the 2021 climate roadmap law.

Mayor Wu Presents Budget, Pledging Transformative Change

Boston Globe – Sketching out her vision for a reshaped Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday presented the most detailed look yet at her plans for city spending, proposing to marry hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds with the city’s $3.99 billion operating budget for a multi-year financial plan that she said “sets the foundation for our future.”

Wednesday’s elaborate rollout of an operating budget that would grow $216 million over last fiscal year’s blueprint marked a milestone for Wu, who launches her first budget season as mayor operating under an entirely new process and enjoying a generous cushion of federal COVID relief funds.

“Transformational” was the word of the hour. As their fellow city officials enjoyed bacon and pastries at the traditional City Hall budget breakfast, Wu and her aides sketched broad plans to address the crisis in the city’s housing market and launch her municipal Green New Deal.

The most notable, and most novel, city spending plans appear not within Wu’s proposal for the operating budget, but atop it, in the various projects on which she proposed to spend the one-time influx of federal dollars the city received through the 2021 American Rescue Plan.

The operating budget itself largely resembles those of years past, with the biggest chunks of money devoted to education, public safety, and fixed costs like pensions. It’s the separate pot of federal dollars that Wu would tap for major and perhaps legacy-building investments — hundreds of millions for affordable housing, $15 million for a new office of early childhood, $31.5 million on efforts to respond to the climate crisis.

Health Care

State Seeks $600 million in Robin Hood Medical Plan

Commonwealth Magazine – Even as debate continues in the Legislature over how best to help community hospitals in the long term, a technical provision included in Gov. Charlie Baker’s state budget proposal could result in a $600 million annual windfall to the state’s hospitals, with an emphasis on those that serve more low-income patients.

Baker officials wrote in a budget summary that the proposal would “significantly expand investments in acute care hospitals, preserve critical payments to safety net hospitals, and ensure ongoing sustainability for all hospitals.”

Massachusetts, like many states, uses a hospital assessment to draw down federal money to its hospitals. The way it works is all hospitals pay an assessment, or tax. Then the state distributes the money back to hospitals through the Medicaid program, which is accompanied with a federal match. So, as an example, for every $100 the hospitals pay the state, the state gets another $100 from the federal government and returns $200 to the hospitals.

The money is collected based on how many commercial payers a hospital serves, so higher-cost hospitals with more commercially insured patients pay the most. It is returned through Medicaid, which mostly helps the safety net hospitals, who have more patients with public insurance. In other words, wealthy hospitals are subsidizing poorer hospitals.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Bill Allowing Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented People Waits for Supportive Senate

Boston Globe – Chris Donelan was a freshman state representative in 2003 when, he said, a bill that would allow residents without legal immigration status to get a Massachusetts driver’s license first came to his attention. It would be nearly two decades, however, before the Massachusetts House passed it.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” Donelan, now Franklin County’s sheriff, told the bill’s backers in a briefing Thursday.

For supporters, the wait continues. Two months after the House approved the bill by a veto-proof margin, it’s yet to surface in the Senate despite its top leader backing it and more than half the chamber formally supporting similar language.

The current version, which requires that undocumented residents prove their identity with documents such as a foreign passport and birth certificate when applying for a license, is also backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police. It cleared the House, 120-36, in mid-February, giving it enough votes to overcome a potential veto from Governor Charlie Baker, who has repeatedly said he doesn’t support such an effort.

“Because of a potential veto, it’s important that we move this bill through the legislative process as quickly as possible,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano told advocates in late March.

When that may happen is unclear. Senate President Karen E. Spilka said at the same late-March event that she is “looking forward” to bringing the bill to the floor so “it can become law,” but her office has yet to provide a timeline.

State and Federal Updates

Is the Democratic National Committee about to Scrap the New Hampshire Primary?

Boston Globe – It has been a truism for the past half-century: the American presidential campaign begins in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Potential presidential candidates look for excuses to visit either state years in advance. Few serious political staffers have reached the heights of American politics without working either state. Political reporters know the route between Portsmouth and Nashua almost as well as they know the way to their Washington, D.C., supermarket.

But on Wednesday night a select group of Democratic National Committee members voted to potentially blow up the whole system. In the wake of the move, many are wondering what it means for the types of presidential candidates who will be nominated and the issues that will get highlighted in the national discussion. Here in New England, people are also wondering what the fate will be of the iconic New Hampshire contest

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

With Climate Bill, Senate Starts ‘Traveling Down the Road to Net-Zero’

State House News – Senators took a major step Thursday toward achieving the net-zero emissions target they already set for Massachusetts by approving a policy-heavy bill aimed at expanding the clean energy industry and reining in emissions from the transportation and building sectors.

Nearly 12 hours after they kicked off debate, senators voted 37-3 on legislation (S 2819) that faces an unclear future as negotiators prepare to reconcile it with a smaller-scope bill that cleared the House (H 4515). All three of the chamber’s Republicans, who unsuccessfully pushed an alternative proposal, voted against the final measure.

Along the way, the Senate adopted 45 amendments – including one that calls for attempting to nearly double the amount of offshore wind energy generated for Massachusetts over the next decade-plus – leading to what Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee Chair Sen. Michael Barrett called “a product here that is much better than when we started.”

The legislation, which comes on the heels of a 2021 law committing to reaching net-zero emissions statewide by 2050, would pump $250 million into clean energy expansion, electric vehicle incentives, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. It would also overhaul the offshore wind procurement process, require greater scrutiny on the future of natural gas, and allow some cities and towns to restrict the use of fossil fuels in new construction.

“Last year’s climate bill was about laying out a plan for tackling this formidable challenge of climate change. This year, in this legislation, we propose to begin to execute on the plan. If you like metaphors, last year was about laying out a roadmap, today we start traveling down the road.

That’s why this is all about implementation,” Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “I am happy beyond measure, I am so happy, that this Senate has the courage to move beyond roadmapping and beyond laying out a template and is in favor of getting to the question of implementation and execution.”

The bill focuses on three main areas: electricity, transportation and buildings, all of which play major roles in existing greenhouse gas emissions.

Employment Law and Workforce Development

Waivers, Write-Offs Planned to Relieve Unemployment Insurance Overpayments

The state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance will be in touch with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Unemployment Insurance claimants in the coming days to detail state and federal relief options that the Baker administration said Thursday would resolve about $1.6 billion or roughly 71 percent of overpayments.

There are about 353,000 outstanding cases of workers who received more money in joblessness aid than they should have between March 8, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2022, to the tune of a cumulative $2.225 billion, according to the Baker administration, which has been working for months to untangle the convoluted situation.

Between two new state efforts announced Thursday and a partial waiver from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said 287,656 of the 353,000 outstanding overpayment claims can be resolved. That would leave 65,344 claimants with a total of $649 million worth of overpayments still to be ironed out.

The U.S. Department of Labor has partially approved a request from Massachusetts to provide relief for claimants with overpayments related to a new employment substantiation requirement that was created midway through the program. But rather than signing off on the blanket waiver the state requested, the Labor Department approved relief for only certain weeks of overpaid benefits.

“The practical effect of USDOL’s decision is that most claimants with employment substantiation overpayments will receive partial relief because some weeks of overpayments will be waived. However, very few claimants will receive complete relief, as Massachusetts had requested,” EOLWD wrote in a press release. “The blanket waiver approved by USDOL covers approximately $349 million and provides partial relief to 53,487 claimants with outstanding overpayments.”

The partial waiver forgives 41 percent of applicable overpayment dollars but resolves only 656 claims in full, the administration said.

“Because Massachusetts advocated for complete relief for these claimants, it has also prepared new solutions to provide additional relief, with the goal of making it as easy as possible for claimants to be relieved of non-fraudulent overpayment obligations, in both the PUA and UI programs,” EOLWD said.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance said it will soon file emergency regulations to expand the grounds for a state-issued overpayment waiver for both PUA and UI overpayments to address claims not resolved by the partial federal waiver. The department said it will pre-qualify eligible claimants for an overpayment waiver and provide a “one-click” option for a person to be granted a waiver.

The expanded state-issued waivers are expected to resolve 154,000 claims worth a total of $782 million. DUA said it will contact eligible claimants directly via email and letters.

For another 133,000 claims worth a cumulative $475 million, DUA said it will “set aside overpayments involving fraudulent claims for eventual write off as provided by statute.”

“A significant portion of these overpayments are uncollectible, as they are likely connected to a nationwide fraud scheme involving stolen identities,” EOLWD said. “Claimants nominally connected to these overpayments likely did not actually receive benefits because their identities were stolen and used by criminal actors to obtain benefits illegally.”

For both state-level relief valves, EOLWD said the Baker administration plans to file for funding necessary to offset the impact of state-issued UI waivers on the UI Trust Fund and to ensure employers are not adversely impacted by the state’s approach.

State Jobless Rate Improves, but Remains Higher than National Figure

State House News – Massachusetts businesses added 21,000 jobs in March, inching the Bay State closer to pre-pandemic employment levels while the unemployment rate remained above the national average despite improvement.

The statewide unemployment rate fell from 4.7 percent in February to 4.3 percent in March, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Friday. That March level remained 0.7 percentage points above the national rate for the same span.

Financial activities and other services were the only two sectors that reported job losses in March. The other eight industry groups outlined by EOLWD all added positions, led by 7,200 new jobs in professional and business services and 6,900 new jobs in education and health services.

The Baker administration said the Massachusetts labor force grew by 2,700 from February to March while the labor force participation rate ticked up one-tenth of a percentage point to 66 percent.

Overall, 3,651,100 Bay Staters were employed in March, according to labor officials. Massachusetts has added 600,000 jobs since the pandemic-era low point in April 2020, though that growth has only clawed back roughly 87 percent of the positions lost between February 2020 and April 2020.

Education and Budget

Boston City Council Pushes Ahead with Plan for Elected School Committee

Boston Globe – A voter-backed push for an elected School Committee moved Thursday into its next phase, as City Council members discussed a detailed plan for what the transition might look like and how long it should take, the final stage before they vote on the measure and seek approval from the mayor, state Legislature, and governor.

Five months after 99,000 city residents endorsed the proposal in a nonbinding referendum, it appears likely that the City Council will approve it and advance it to Mayor Michelle Wu and state legislators for consideration. Under the draft plan discussed this week, the switch to an elected committee would occur in stages and would not be complete until 2026.

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who drafted the home rule petition along with Councilor Julia Mejia, said he plans to hold no more than two additional working sessions on the measure and stressed the need for input to come now, not later.