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The Week in Massachusetts – August 3, 2022

Posted on August 3, 2022

Baker Says Taxpayers Could Receive ‘North of $2.5 Billion’ in Tax Relief

Boston Globe – With state coffers overflowing, Massachusetts taxpayers could receive nearly $3 billion in tax relief under an obscure 36-year-old law, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration said, surprising lawmakers just as separate tax relief talks seemed to be reaching a crescendo.

The likelihood of a decades-old law forcing the state to give back billions to taxpayers quickly shook Beacon Hill on the same day data showed the economy had edged closer to, if not officially in, a recession.

How much the state could ultimately hand back to taxpayers is unclear. But Baker said Thursday that the state appears poised to trigger a 1986 voter-passed law that seeks to limit state tax revenue growth to the growth of total wages and salaries in the state.

Should revenue exceed that “allowable” amount, taxpayers are then due a credit equal to the excess amount. The state auditor is tasked with determining the final amount from the previous fiscal year each September.

The state has yet to release its final revenue numbers for the fiscal year that ended June 30, though officials said they could come as early as next week. Still, with collections running more than 21 percent above projections through the end of May — prompting one estimate of a $3.6 billion budget surplus — Baker said that his administration believes the excess amount is “probably north of $2.5 billion.”

Lawmakers Retreat on Economic Development Bill

State House News – House and Senate negotiators struck early morning agreements Monday on sports betting and mental-health access but will keep a significant economic development bill in conference committee as they continue to wrestle with an existing law that could trigger nearly $3 billion in tax relief this year.

The deals on sports betting and mental-health access were announced at about 5:15 a.m., more than five hours after the legislative rules called for the formal sessions to end for the year. The deals represent victories for both House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who has been a strong advocate for sports betting, and Senate President Karen Spilka, who prioritized the mental health bill.

The sports betting bill (H 5164) will legalize wagering on professional and some collegiate contests, though betting on Massachusetts colleges and universities will not be allowed unless they are playing in a tournament like March Madness, lead Senate conferee Sen. Michael Rodrigues said.

“The Senate bill came out with no college at all. The House had full college and we compromised on just no in-state college,” he said. “And that’s how you get things done, is reach compromise.”

Mariano told reporters as the sun was rising Monday that Massachusetts bettors will “still be allowed to bet on just about everything else.”

Democrats Climate Deal Isn’t Done Yet. Here are the Remaining Hurdles

New York Times – When Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a key centrist holdout, announced a surprise deal last week with Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, on a climate, energy and tax package, Democrats exulted that a significant piece of their domestic policy agenda had been saved.

But the agreement is anything but a done deal.

Now Democrats are racing to muscle the package — packed with hundreds of billions of dollars in climate and energy proposals, a major drug price reduction initiative, tax increases and health care subsidies — through the evenly divided Senate over united Republican opposition. They are doing so under a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows certain tax and spending bills to move quickly and avoid a filibuster but also is subject to strict rules that limit what can be included.

“Our timeline has not changed, and I expect to bring this legislation to the Senate floor to begin voting this week,” Mr. Schumer said on Monday, speaking on the Senate floor.

Biden Administration Plans to Offer Updated Booster Shots in September

Boston Globe – The Biden administration now expects to begin a COVID-19 booster campaign with retooled vaccines in September because Pfizer and Moderna have promised that they can deliver doses by then, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

With updated formulations apparently close at hand, federal officials have decided against expanding eligibility for second boosters of the existing vaccines this summer. The new versions are expected to perform better against the now-dominant omicron subvariant BA.5, although the data available so far is still preliminary.

So far, only Americans over 50 and those over 12 with certain immune deficiencies have been eligible for second booster doses. Although some federal officials pressed to bolster the protection of younger Americans now, officials agreed on the goal of strengthening everyone’s immunity in the fall with what is hoped to be a more effective booster, ahead of a possible winter surge of the virus.

In internal deliberations, some senior health officials argued that eligibility for a second booster should be broadened before the reformulated version is ready because coronavirus infections are on the rise again. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, and Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic response coordinator, both advocated that position.

Bringing Happy Hour Back? A Skeptical Charlie Baker Is ‘A Hard Sell’

Boston Globe – Happy-hour drink specials, long banned in Massachusetts, seem unlikely to be coming back this year if Governor Charlie Baker has the final say on it — and he probably does.

The Republican governor told reporters that he is “definitely a hard sell” on allowing the practice in Massachusetts, which the state Senate wants to resurrect after a nearly 40-year hiatus.

Senators passed a bill last week that would reverse the ban on happy hour drink promotions, approving late-night language to give municipalities the option to let restaurants serve up discounted drinks, such as two-for-the price-of-one beers, or half off shots between 4 and 6 p.m. That legislation is being reconciled with a House version, which didn’t include a return-of-happy-hour provision.

“They were the precursor of a lot of traffic accidents and, in some cases, fatalities, which is why they were eliminated in the first place,” said Baker, who noted that he was “around” when the state had happy hours. “I am definitely a hard sell on going back to them.”

The state’s prohibition on happy hours date back to the 1980s, when Governor Michael S. Dukakis approved a proposal by alcohol regulators to outlaw happy hour after a 20-year-old woman was killed in the parking lot of a Braintree bar after being dragged under a car driven by an intoxicated friend, according to a 1983 Patriot Ledger article about the incident. Newspapers at the time reported that the driver and her friend had left a trivia game at Ground Round in Braintree, where they received several free mugs of beers as prizes.

US Economy’s Decline Stokes Recession Fears

Boston Globe – With inflation soaring and consumer confidence in the gutter, the U.S. economy slumped further in the last quarter, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s preliminary estimates released Thursday, stoking fears of a recession.

Gross domestic product fell at a 0.9% annualized rate, following a 1.6% decline in the first quarter, the estimates showed.

A common rule of thumb is that two consecutive quarterly declines in GDP indicate a recession. However, economists have said, this may not be true in this case.

“The concept of recession really means there’s been a general decline in economic activity, broadly based over a number of indicators,” Northeastern University economics professor Alan Clayton-Matthews said. “But one of the most important indicators is jobs. And jobs actually grew at a pretty brisk pace during this quarter. On that score, it’s unlikely we’re in a recession now.”

The U.S. currently has 11 million job openings and a 3.6% unemployment rate. With GDP contracting and continued job growth, the economy is in a highly unusual position.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, which officially determines the duration of business cycle the U.S., has not yet indicated the economy is in a recession.

The group is likely to conclude a recession has begun, Clayton-Matthews said, once employment begins to fall or if employment growth slows as spending and output decline further.

The Fed raised interest rates by a highly unusual three-quarters of a percent for the second time this year Wednesday in an attempt to control skyrocketing inflation.

The higher interest rates contributed to a steep slowdown in the housing market in the April-June quarter, shown in report Thursday. Declining business investment, inventories and government spending also contributed to the economy’s shrinkage.

Berkshire County Residents Cope with High Inflation

Berkshire Eagle – Patty Goodwin and her little dog Rocky are a bit worse off due to the higher costs of, well, almost everything.

Even with a slight increase in her Social Security disability payments, she’s had to scramble to make ends meet in North Adams.

“I don’t have enough to eat,” said Goodwin, 58. “It’s just not enough food. I’ve had to sign up at local food pantries — it’s been very difficult.”

The rising cost of goods, particularly energy and food, is pinching households across Berkshire County, and beyond.

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released this week found that 80 percent of those surveyed in Massachusetts are feeling the effects of inflation. Half said they are concerned about their financial well-being.

Meat, poultry, eggs and fish prices are up 11.7 percent over their costs in June 2021 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index. Dairy products are up 13.5 percent.

Baker Says He’s Leaving State in Good Shape Financially

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER Commonwealth Magazine – Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday signed into law a $52.7 billion state budget for fiscal 2023, representing an unusually high 9.3 percent growth in spending over the prior year.

The high growth was fueled by tax revenues coming in higher than expected and an influx in federal COVID recovery money. The budget includes higher spending in areas like local aid, housing, and education. It sets aside $315 million for tax breaks.

Baker, at a signing ceremony in his State House office, touted the fiscal progress the state has made since he took office in 2015. This is Baker’s last budget before he leaves office in January. “The past seven years, we’ve always spent less than we raised in taxes,” Baker said. “That’s made a big difference in getting our budget structurally balanced.”

Baker touted the strong fiscal situation he is leaving for his successor. Baker said the state has moved “out of a structural deficit and with a very small rainy day fund” to “the point where we’re very structurally balanced, we have a very significant rainy day fund, and based on the performance of the economy and tax collections, we do believe there will be a significant return to the taxpayers…sometime later this year.” Under the fiscal 2023 budget, the rainy day fund would reach a record $8.4 billion by the end of the fiscal year.

Make Remote Access to Public Meetings Permanent

Boston Globe (Opinion) – Since the COVID-19 pandemic first sent millions of Americans to work from home, people found that some things were easier to do remotely than others. Holding team meetings over Zoom? Simple enough. Online schooling? A struggle. Participating in democracy? Easier than ever.

Across the country, people no longer had to clear their evening schedules to schlep all the way to the other end of town if they wanted to attend a public board meeting in their cities, towns, or neighborhoods. So long as they had a computer and Internet access, they could simply Zoom into a public meeting from just about anywhere and listen in on or even partake in debates about, say, a new plan for bike lanes or a housing development in their community. The days of seeing unrepresentative samples of residents at town halls seemed to finally be ending.

But as more and more employers demand a return to the office, some municipalities are trying to make their constituents return to in-person meetings too. There is no doubt that doing so — without keeping an option for residents to attend remotely — would only make those meetings less accessible, and, as a result, less democratic. That’s why hybrid public meetings, where people can attend either in-person or online, should be made permanent.

Early on in the pandemic, Massachusetts changed its Open Meeting Law and lifted its requirement that public meetings be held in person. And residents across the state have since enjoyed the benefits of being able to voice their thoughts to their representatives from the comfort of their own homes. When there was a proposal for a gun store in Newton, for example, more than 500 people showed up to the city council hearing to make their feelings about it known — all over Zoom. That’s good, and important, public participation.

Will the Cost of Housing Tank the Massachusetts Economy?

Boston Globe – Sometimes, perfect jobs slip away. Which is what happened to Suzanne Scallion.

Scallion had a job she loved, in a town she loved. But it wasn’t enough. She needed somewhere to live. In April, Scallion announced she would step down as superintendent of Provincetown Schools, after nearly three years in the role.

Scallion rented for two of the winters that she worked in Provincetown and lived in her RV for two summers. The rest of the time, she commuted from Yarmouth, more than an hour’s drive each way.

“My dream was that I would one day live in Provincetown,” Scallion said, “but clearly there’s a crisis in the community around housing and I was impacted by it.”

And she’s got lots of company. In communities across the state, there are tens of thousands of stories that echo Scallion’s — from teachers, firefighters, lab managers, engineers, nurses, and pretty much every other profession you can imagine.

Boston University political science professor Katherine Einstein said that when her department searches for a new professor, house prices always come up. “And for folks who make very good — but not biotech executive — salaries at Boston University, they can’t afford to buy what they could in Nashville or in Pittsburgh or in some other cities that are attractive places to live that do not have quite as hot a housing market.”

Health Care

Baker Signs Abortion Rights Expansion Bill into Law

Boston Globe – Governor Charlie Baker on Friday signed a bill that broadens access to abortion in Massachusetts and helps shield providers from out-of-state prosecution, putting on the books an expansion of the state’s already extensive reproductive rights statute.

A month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the law marked Massachusetts policymakers’ most substantial effort at transmuting residents’ fury over the court ending the constitutional right to an abortion into new protections here.

Baker’s office announced he had approved the legislation just days after the Legislature sent it to him, releasing a picture of him signing it in a closed ceremony alongside Senate President Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat.

The second-term Republican supports abortion rights and has sought to protect providers through an executive order he signed last month in the wake of the Supreme Court decision — elements of which were included in the legislation he signed Friday.

But he had been noncommittal on how he would approach the bill after lawmakers reached a deal on language expanding when an abortion can performed after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The measure was viewed as a potential hurdle given Baker’s past opposition to expanding the availability of later-term abortions as part of an abortion rights bill that passed in 2020.

Health-Care Subsidy Expansion Gets New Life

Axios – Massachusetts Democrats might have saved a plan to use part of the state’s overwhelming budget surplus to expand health-care subsidies for middle-class residents, despite Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s efforts to kill the proposal.

Baker blocked an expansion of ConnectorCare, which subsidizes health-care costs, in an amendment to the state’s $52.7 billion budget.

Baker says he wants to study the program before expanding it.

Lawmakers rejected Baker’s amendment and resurrected the expansion, which would take effect in June 2023.

Massachusetts residents see costs rising on every corner, from the gas pump to grocery stores to utility bills.

Advocates say the program would offer lower premiums and deductibles, as well as other subsidies to families who are struggling but make slightly too much to get health care assistance under the current rules.

Details: The program would change eligibility to cover a person making up to $68,000 a year or a family of four making $139,000 a year — an estimated 37,000 Massachusetts residents.

ConnectorCare members are more likely to seek health care if their costs are subsidized, according to a 2021 Massachusetts Health Connector report.

Gorman Associates, which was contracted by the advocacy group Health Care for All to provide a cost analysis, projects the expansion would cost $75 million a year.

Massachusetts has billions to spend from surplus tax revenue, enhanced federal Medicaid reimbursements and aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.

So much tax revenue was collected in the fiscal year 2022 that it triggered a 1980s law requiring the state to return a percentage of the extra funds to taxpayers, with those making more money getting more tax relief.

Baker said in his letter to lawmakers rejecting the program that he’d prefer a study, and that he believes the state should focus on enrolling people who are currently eligible but haven’t signed up.

Meanwhile, the Baker administration told legislative leaders it plans to remove $225 million from ConnectorCare’s fund to close the books on fiscal 2022.

Stamp-Size Ultrasound Patch Could Be A Diagnostic Game-Changer

Boston Globe – A team of MIT engineers has created a medical ultrasound system that uses a postage stamp-sized patch glued to the patient’s skin. The sensor could someday give doctors the ability to view a patient’s vital organs constantly, in real time.

“The potential is beyond imagining,” said Xuanhe Zhao, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor who led the project. Details of the research were published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Allan Hoffman, president of Commonwealth Radiology Associates of Andover, said the MIT system “would be a paradigm shift in how ultrasound exams are administered.”

Ultrasound systems, first developed in the early 1940s, beam high-frequency sound waves into a body. The sound that bounces back is converted into video images of a patient’s organs and bones. Such scans are routinely used to monitor pregnancies, and to examine organs, bones, and blood vessels. Unlike X-rays or CT scans, ultrasound systems don’t use hazardous radiation, and unlike MRI scans, they don’t require massive magnets and a lot of electric power. They are also relatively small and portable.

Still, the machines require a skilled technician to manually aim the ultrasound probe at the correct part of the patient’s body. Also, the technician must apply a gel to the area being monitored, to ensure the sound travels properly through the body. This gel must be reapplied before each ultrasound scan. Robots are sometimes used to hold the ultrasound probe in place for extended periods, but it’s a costly and uncomfortable process.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Boston Construction Sites Still Have Few Black Workers. Who’s to Blame?

WGBH – When Jamie Wallace became an industrial glass worker in 1995, he says he was one of six Black members of a 300-person local union.

Now, the 50-year-old veteran glazier from Roslindale estimates he’s one of about 30 Black members in the Boston-area union that has nearly doubled in size — an increase of less than one Black member a year. Wallace says the lack of diversity is a sign of a wider problem in the trades: Boston-area unions are not doing enough to bring in workers of color.

“It’s the good old boys club,” he said. “They know they are falling short. … Of course, they know.”

The union declined to comment on Wallace’s concerns, and would neither confirm nor dispute his numbers.

In May, after years of organizing, Wallace was granted a charter to relaunch the Boston chapter of the national Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The original chapter petered out about 15 years ago. The chapter’s goal, Wallace says, “is to see that Black men and women get gainful employment through their prospective local unions in the building trades.” But that mission is rife with challenges.

The Boston population has grown increasingly diverse over the past few decades, with people of color accounting for more than half of the city’s current residents and Black people making up 24% of all residents. But the city’s construction workforce has not kept pace, according to Boston city data compiled and analyzed by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting.

The workforce on major construction projects was about 63% white in 2021, according to data collected by the city’s Boston Residents Jobs Policy office. While this is lower than ten years ago — when white workers accounted for 72% of the workforce — almost all of the change has been made up by a growth in Hispanic workers. The Black workforce on major construction projects has hovered between 12% and 14% every year since 2012, according to city data.

The data also shows a kind of caste system in construction. The higher up you go in a building under construction, the less likely you are to find workers of color.

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

Legislature Amends Climate Bill, Leaving its Fate in Governor Baker’s Hands

Boston Globe – The Massachusetts Legislature sent a major climate bill back to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk as the session wound down, incorporating some, but not all, of his proposed amendments. The fate of the legislation is now in Baker’s hands.

On the House floor Sunday, Representative Jeff Roy, who negotiated the bill in the Legislature along with Senator Michael Barrett, read a passage from Baker’s recent book about the importance of political compromise.

Roy said the bill gives Baker, who isn’t seeking reelection this fall, a chance to secure his climate legacy. “He indeed has an incredible choice to make and we certainly hope that he embraces the compromises in this bill like all of us have already done,” he said on Monday. “Otherwise, he will be remembered as the one who pulled the plug on electrification and took the breeze out of offshore wind.”

Here are a few things to know about the state of the legislation.

Woody biomass

The Legislature didn’t capitulate to Baker’s suggested amendment on power generated by burning wood.

In their original bill, lawmakers sought to remove wood-burning power plants from the state’s renewable portfolio standard, meaning they would no longer count toward renewable energy goals in Massachusetts or be eligible for state clean-energy subsidies. The Legislature would have grandfathered in two long-standing small facilities that are currently in the program.

Baker filed an amendment that would have exempted all wood-burning power plants that began commercial operation before 2022.

Environmental advocates say that would have gutted the provision and praised the Legislature for standing its ground. Wood-burning plants produce harmful pollutants like carbon monoxide, and research shows they can emit even more carbon at the smokestack than coal-fired plants.

Ditching the Car and Enjoying the View on a Trip to the Berkshires

Evan Gottesman and his fiancée, Gabrielle Kleyner, were meeting friends in the Berkshires one weekend in early July. The couple, who live in Brooklyn, were trying to figure out how they would get to the rural region of western Massachusetts, which annually draws thousands of hikers, theater lovers and music aficionados with its mountains, lakes and myriad cultural centers.

A friend told them about the Berkshire Flyer, a new Amtrak train between New York City and Pittsfield. The couple quickly booked tickets and jumped on the 3:15 p.m. sold-out train from the Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan on July 8.

Without realizing it, they had stepped onto the Flyer’s maiden voyage, a milestone at least four years in the making and the result of countless emails, meetings and phone calls between Amtrak and state legislators and transportation officials, who have been eager for more direct rail lines between New York and Massachusetts.

When Mr. Gottesman and Ms. Kleyner arrived in Pittsfield that evening, they saw dozens of people on the platform, cheering wildly and snapping pictures. State and city officials held a triumphant news conference. Someone popped a bottle of champagne.

“It was the nicest welcome I’d ever gotten stepping off an Amtrak train,” Mr. Gottesman, 27, said.

For the first time in 50 years, a passenger train from New York had arrived in Pittsfield, a city of more than 40,000 people that is often overlooked by tourists going to better-known parts of the county like Tanglewood in Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

More than 60 people arrived that evening on the Berkshire Flyer, which runs only once on Friday and returns Sunday afternoon. The number of passengers was modest but it still encouraged business owners and state officials who are closely watching the pilot program, which will run through Labor Day.

Also encouraging: the number of sold-out trains. After the inaugural journey, trains to Pittsfield continued to fill up regularly, and while northern-bound seats remain available in August, but trains back to New York have completely sold out through Labor Day weekend, according to Amtrak.

“It’s in the beginning stages,” said Lindsey Tuller, 42, a co-owner of the Berkshire General Store in Pittsfield, about two blocks from the train station. “But I think it could be a big deal.”

The Flyer is one of many new services and restored rail lines that Amtrak has announced in recent months.

On July 29, the Ethan Allen Express, a rail line from New York to Rutland, Vt., will be extended 66 miles northwest to the city of Burlington as part of another new program.

In Virginia, Amtrak has added more daily rides from Roanoke and Norfolk to Washington.

International routes that were shut down because of the pandemic are humming again, including the Maple Leaf train between New York and Toronto and the Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver, which resumes in September.

In Jacksonville, N.C., a $10 million bus depot opened in June to take passengers about 84 miles north to an Amtrak station in Wilson..

The project, which Jacksonville officials have been planning since 2010, was funded by the Federal Transit Administration, said Anthony Prinz, the city’s transportation services director.

Similar projects would be funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law last year, particularly in states and communities that have begun planning already, said Roger Harris, the president of Amtrak.

“It really starts with local interest,” Mr. Harris said. “That’s why it’s important for local communities to get on their game and say, ‘Yes, please, we want to get in on this.’”

Amtrak has created an expansive map that lays out a vision for how it could bring dozens more routes to more than 160 cities and towns across the country.

The new law, which sets aside $66 billion for rail, comes at a time when travelers are looking for ways to save on fuel costs and get around the country more sustainably.

The funding also comes as Amtrak continues to recover from a decline in ridership caused by the pandemic. The rail service recorded nearly 16 million rides between October 2021 and June 2022, compared with about 24 million during the same time period in 2019, according to Amtrak.

Nearly 20 percent, or $12 billion, of the total rail funding is set aside for service outside of the Northeast, giving cities and towns that want to be part of the proposed expansion a big boost, according to Amtrak officials.

North Carolina already has plans in place.

Its goal over the next decade is to work with Virginia to build a new 110-mile, one-hour train route, and draw millions of people away from congested highways, said Jason Orthner, the rail division director in North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

“It’s definitely a different picture of life from the train than it is looking at it through the windshield on a multilane freeway,” Mr. Orthner said.

The Berkshire Flyer did not need new infrastructure, only an Amtrak train that would roll from Albany to Pittsfield (typically about a one-hour ride) and an agreement with CSX, the freight operator that owns the rail lines.

These tracks from New York to Pittsfield have existed since the 1880s, when passenger and freight trains were operated by private companies, said Jay Green, a former Amtrak official who is now the town administrator in Adams, Mass.

But as cars and planes took over as the country’s preferred modes of transportation, trains became less profitable.

Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger train system, was created in 1971.

“That was the end of passenger traffic to Pittsfield, along with many other cities across the country,” Mr. Green said.

The sight of people spilling onto the Pittsfield platform on July 8, many of them in their 20s and 30s, prompted Adam G. Hinds, a state senator from Pittsfield, to imagine the Flyer becoming a year-round service.

One of those young people, Kareem Wedderburn, a regional planning student at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and self-described transit nerd, had taken an early morning train from Springfield, Mass., to New York on Friday morning to ensure he would be on the first Berkshire Flyer train.

“I wanted to be part of history,” said Mr. Wedderburn, 20, adding that he marveled at the scenery along the way: the Hudson River, the rolling hills, the expansive homes.

“It really is as beautiful as I expected,” he said, recalling that other passengers opened chilled bottles of white wine in the business-class car while others were reading or working on their computers.

Some stared out at the window at the drivers inching along the highway.

“People were like, ‘Look at all that traffic you can avoid now,’” Mr. Wedderburn said.

John Riley, the manager of Mission, a restaurant and bar in Pittsfield, said a steady flow of tourists would be a boon to the city’s eclectic mix of antique shops, coffee shops and restaurants.

“The biggest thing the Flyer could do, not just for us, but anybody, is more foot traffic and more people to downtown North Street,” Mr. Riley, 29, said. “I want to see more younger people, more people using the bike path.”

Ms. Tuller, the co-owner of the Berkshire General Store, said the train could help other parts of the local economy.

“I know people who have tried to be Uber drivers in the area but there weren’t enough calls to make it worthwhile,” she said.

The Flyer may encourage New Yorkers who can work remotely to move to western Massachusetts, said Eric Lesser, a state senator who represents the neighboring Hampden and Hampshire counties.

Its success could also invigorate plans for a train between Boston and Pittsfield known as the East-West line, which would stop along other postindustrial, walkable towns in western Massachusetts that were once passenger railway stops and are hungry for tourist dollars.

“They’re ripe for a renaissance,” Mr. Lesser said. “There is immense potential.”

Severe Drought Expands in Massachusetts

Boston Globe – The rain has been a no-show and the parching persists. The area of Massachusetts experiencing severe drought conditions has expanded south from the northeastern corner of the state, according to the latest report from the US Drought Monitor.

The monitor released the data Thursday on its website, which said the readings were valid as of Tuesday morning.

Areas experiencing severe drought now include all of Essex, Middlesex, Suffolk, and Norfolk counties as well as parts of Worcester, Bristol, and Plymouth counties.

The rest of the state was under moderate drought conditions, except for the westernmost part of Berkshire County, which was just abnormally dry, the monitor says.

Under severe drought conditions, crops are impacted in both yield and fruit size, hay prices spike, outdoor burn warnings are issued, air quality is poor, trees are brittle and susceptible to insects, water quality is poor, and outdoor water restrictions are implemented, according to the monitor.

Taxation and Budget

Baker Getting $11Billion Infrastructure Bill with MBTA Focus

WWLP – The House and Senate are sending Gov. Charlie Baker a bill to borrow and spend more than $11 billion to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure and Rep. William Straus told his colleagues that the bill addresses some of the “disturbing” things that his Transportation Committee has learned during its oversight investigation of the MBTA.

Baker, who has said recent T incidents are unacceptable but disagreed that the transit agency is a total mess, will have 10 days to act on the bill once the House and Senate take final procedural votes. Baker took office in early 2015 as the MBTA was crushed by a series of blizzards and the Republican governor has made the T a major focus of his time in office.

Both branches included $400 million in the $11.3 billion infrastructure bond bill (H 5151) that the MBTA can use to perform work required by a nearly unprecedented federal investigation that identified major safety lapses at the agency, and the House Transportation Committee chairman said Sunday that it also includes requirements intended to make the T more transparent about safety issues.

One provision of the bill requires that any safety-related report the MBTA has to make to federal authorities like the Federal Transit Administration or U.S. Coast Guard also be sent to the state inspector general’s office, and that the reports be made publicly accessible on the IG’s website. Another would step up the frequency of certain MBTA safety reports, Straus said.

He said the provisions are meant to address some of what the Transportation Committee has already learned as it has dug into safety at the T. Just days after the committee held its first (and so far only) oversight hearing, an Orange Line train caught fire on a bridge over the Mystic River during a morning commute, leading one rider to leap into the river below.

“There will be more as the committee continues, but as a result of the oversight process initiated by the speaker and Senate president, there are important changes in this bill already and no doubt there will be

US Senate Deal Should Make it Easier to Buy Electric Vehicles

Boston Globe – The surprise deal by Senate Democrats on a slimmed-down bill to support families, boost infrastructure and fight climate change also is likely to jump-start sales of electric vehicles.

The measure agreed to by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and holdout Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia would give EV buyers a $7,500 tax credit starting next year, through the end of 2032. There’s also a new $4,000 credit for those buying used EVs, a move to help the middle class go electric.

But as things often go in Washington, there are a bunch of strings and asterisks.

To be eligible, the electric vehicle has to be assembled in North America, and there are limits on annual income for buyers. There also are caps on the sticker prices of new EVs — $80,000 for pickups, SUVs and vans, and $55,000 for other vehicles — and a $25,000 limit on the price of used electric vehicles.

Still, even with the restrictions, the credits should help stimulate electric vehicle sales, which already are rising as automakers introduce more models in different sizes and price ranges, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for

“The tax credis for electric vehicles in the bill will benefit consumers and cut costs for low- and middle-income families,” the Sierra Club said of the measure, which still must be approved by both chambers. “We’re hoping for swift adoption.”