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This Week in Massachusetts – August 30

Posted on August 30, 2022

Three Things to Know about the Stalled-Out, $4 Billion-Plus Economic-Development Bill

WGBH – Three weeks after formal legislative sessions ended for the year, state lawmakers remain at odds over a more than $4 billion economic development bill. House and Senate leaders say their teams are still negotiating on the wide-ranging bill, which was meant to change the state’s tax code, spur job creation and provide relief for people and sectors still reeling from the pandemic.

Gov. Charlie Baker said he’s still optimistic that some version of the bill will get to his desk. It’s unclear what the House and Senate will ultimately agree on, though, as they grapple with an unexpected $3 billion potentially being paid out by the state under an obscure law from the 1980s. It’s a steeper climb to advance a bill in the informal sessions that are held between August and January — any one lawmaker’s objection can derail a bill during those meetings.

Here are three things to know about the money and policies stuck in limbo.

There’s as much as $4.6 billion on the line.

The House and Senate each passed different versions of the bill, with the House approving one with a $4.2 billion price tag and the Senate’s clocking in at $4.6 billion. Each bill funded its investments with a mix of surplus state revenues, federal COVID-19 relief money and borrowing. They both authorized more than $1 billion in borrowing, and that money is not likely to be part of a final package because lawmakers can’t take the votes necessary for bond authorizations in informal sessions.

The money hung up in negotiations includes up to $400 million for cash-strapped hospitals, $400 million toward housing production, $300 million to rescue the COVID-battered Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, $150 million in stabilization grants for child-care providers and $75 million for hotels that took financial hits during the pandemic. There’s also money to support reproductive health, gun violence prevention and the state’s new climate law. Mayors are waiting on funds for local projects, and Baker has flagged the bill’s money for water and sewer work on Cape Cod as “a really big deal.”

Among the policy provisions tied up in the bill are steps to fight food insecurity on college campuses, measures to seal certain eviction records, authorization for online sales of lottery products and language that could bring happy hour drink specials back to some cities and towns.

Tax relief is the big sticking point.

Some version of the economic-development bill seemed destined for passage until late July, when an obscure 1980s law resurfaced. Passed under a binding question at the ballot box in 1986, the law caps how much state revenue can grow each year. It ties the figure to annual growth in wages and salaries, calls for excess revenue to be returned to taxpayers via a credit, and has been triggered only once before, in 1987. Baker and his budget office expect the law — Chapter 62F, in Beacon Hill jargon — to kick in again this year. It’s not yet clear exactly how much money would be going back, but the Baker administration estimates about $3 billion.

In their economic-development bills, the House and Senate had committed to a separate package of tax relief, worth about $1 billion. That included one-time rebates of $250 for individual taxpayers earning between $38,000 and $100,000, which were due to go out in September. It also featured a permanent increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit, estate tax reforms, and breaks for seniors, renters and people caring for children or other dependents.

Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka both maintain the state can afford both the credits called for under Chapter 62F and the broader tax relief plan. But House Speaker Ron Mariano wants to wait to know the full impact of the revenue-cap law before proceeding with other tax changes, to see what the state can afford.

While Spilka wants quick action on tax policy, it’s Mariano who holds the cards. Under the state Constitution, all money bills must originate in the House, so the Senate doesn’t have the option of putting forward its own separate tax reform bill to try to force action.

Don’t expect answers until the fall. 

Under Chapter 62F, state agencies have to submit revenue information to Auditor Suzanne Bump by Sept. 1. Bump has until Sept. 20 to analyze that data and file her own report indicating if the state collected more than the allowable revenue amount, and how much the excess is.

Mariano has said it would be premature to act on taxes before knowing exactly how much the state will already be returning to taxpayers, so tax policy probably won’t move in the Legislature before that report lands. Taxpayer groups, warning of “significant political pressure to delay the certification,” have organized in preparation to take the state to court if officials try to evade the law’s requirements.

Assuming Bump does identify excess revenue as expected, rebates or credits could be issued within a few months. Baker said earlier this month that the Department of Revenue had already started working to get money back to taxpayers quickly, suggesting the end of November into early December as a possible range for rebates.”

Omicron Booster Shots Could be Ready Next Month. Here’s What You Need to Know.

Boston Globe – For the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine makers are getting ready to roll out updated versions of their shots. Earlier this week, Pfizer and Moderna asked regulators at the Food and Drug Administration to authorize their booster shots tailored to the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the coronavirus, which account for more than 90 percent of new cases nationally.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Biden administration plans to make the shots available soon after Labor Day.

The Globe talked to several infectious disease and vaccine experts about what to expect.

How are the new boosters different?

The existing vaccines and boosters are based on the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 from early 2020. The new boosters are “bivalent,” meaning they include the original formulation plus an updated version based on the genetic code of the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.

Dr. David Hamer, an infectious diseases doctor at Boston Medical Center, said the new boosters will “be great to have” to better combat the dominant variants. “The question is, will they continue [to circulate] or is something going to displace them over the next four to eight weeks?”

The hope is that the new boosters will provide better protection against the current strains, and maybe future ones as well, but it could take months to find out how well they work. Moderna just started a clinical trial of the vaccine and Pfizer said it will start one this month.

Massachusetts Reimbursed for PPE Provided to Child-Care Centers

WWLP – Massachusetts is being reimbursed for the costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies to clean and sanitize child-care centers during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a news release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a total of $60,066,850 was awarded to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to reimburse the Department of Early Childhood Education and Care for steps taken to keep child care centers open.

PPE such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, disinfecting wipes and bleach were provided to child-care centers, emergency child-care programs that were able to remain open between January and December 2021.

“FEMA is pleased to be able to assist the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with these costs,” said FEMA Region 1 Regional Administrator Lori Ehrlich. “Providing resources for our partners on the front lines of the pandemic fight is critical to their success, and our success as a nation.”

FEMA has reimbursed more than $1.2 billion in Public Assistance grants to Massachusetts for pandemic-related expenses.

State Reports 37 New Monkeypox Cases

Boston Herald – State health officials reported 37 new monkeypox cases on Thursday, as Boston public health officials urge eligible residents to get vaccinated to slow the virus’ spread.

The count of 37 new monkeypox cases in the Bay State is down from 41 cases during the previous week. The 37 new cases were diagnosed within the past week, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

It brings the total number of monkeypox cases in the state to 280 since the state’s first case was announced in mid-May. That first case was also the country’s first confirmed case. Massachusetts has reported the 14th most cases in the country, according to the CDC.

The Boston Public Health Commission is reminding eligible residents to get vaxxed after the state last week announced new protocols for administering the JYNNEOS vaccine that will expand the state’s supply, enabling more residents to get vaccinated.

The JYNNEOS vaccine is now being administered intradermally into the skin, as opposed to in the muscle, at a lower dose that still provides the same immune response.

“I’m optimistic that the new approach to monkeypox vaccination will allow us to vaccinate more people, help ensure vaccines are distributed equitably, and ultimately support our efforts to control this outbreak,” said Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “Getting vaccinated against monkeypox is an effective way to prevent disease. I strongly encourage all residents who are eligible for vaccination to schedule an appointment as soon as possible.”

There have been 16,603 reported cases of monkeypox virus in U.S. residents this year. That’s a jump of 3,086 cases since last week.

Monkeypox spreads primarily through close contact with infectious sores, scabs or body fluids. It can also be spread through touching objects that have been used by someone with monkeypox and respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact.

Massport Official Picked to Head New Bedford Port Authority

Commonwealth Magazine – Gordon Carr, the deputy director of real estate strategy and policy at the Massachusetts Port Authority, is going to work next month as the executive director of the New Bedford Port Authority.

New Bedford is already one of the nation’s top fishing ports and it is emerging as a hub for offshore wind development. Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind farm, is using the state-owned marine commerce terminal in New Bedford Harbor as the staging site for its project.

Several sections of the port are also being redeveloped  — Foss Maritime is opening a major terminal on the former Sprague/Eversource waterfront site and the port authority is redeveloping North Terminal, a section of the waterfront in the upper harbor to support the offshore wind and fishing industries.

New Bedford officials said a recent study indicated the port generates more than $11 billion in annual economic activity and supports more than 6,700 jobs.

Carr is taking over from Justin Poulsen, who left in April for family reasons after eight months on the job. Carr was offered the job on Tuesday by the Port Authority Commission, which is chaired by Mayor Jon Mitchell, who appoints the other members subject to the approval of the City Council.

“Gordon’s extensive experience in maritime and economic development issues make him an ideal fit for this position,” Mitchell said. “Gordon’s deep familiarity with New Bedford will enable him to help continue the port’s momentum right from the start.”

Amazon to Close Five Delivery Warehouses in Massachusetts

Boston Globe – Amazon plans to close five warehouses in Massachusetts — in Milford, Dedham, Everett, Randolph, and Mansfield — as part of a larger effort to compensate for overgrowth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokesperson for Amazon, did not provide a timeline for the closures or indicate how many employees would be affected by the decision. She said workers have the option to transfer to nearby Amazon delivery warehouses that feature “upgraded amenities,” such as on-site parking and better break rooms.

Though Amazon’s real estate footprint grew during the pandemic, the e-commerce giant is now in the process of trimming back. In an earnings call with investors in April, Amazon’s chief financial officer said that “capacity decisions are made years in advance.”

“We made conscious decisions in 2020 and early 2021 to not let space be a constraint on our business,” Brian Olsavsky said. “Now that demand patterns have stabilized, we see an opportunity to better match our capacity to demand.”

The Government will no longer be sending Free COVID-19 Tests to Americans

WBUR – The federal government is putting a pause on sending free COVID-19 testing kits to Americans starting in September, due to a lack of funding.

“Ordering through this program will be suspended on Friday, September 2 because Congress hasn’t provided additional funding to replenish the nation’s stockpile of tests,” the ordering website says.

However, the program is still accepting orders before Sep. 2.

The White House first began sending out the kits in January. By last May, the White House said 350 million tests had been given away to 70 million households, more than half of the households in the U.S.

Senator Elizabeth Warren Says Fed Policies Could Tip US Economy into Recession

Boston Globe – Senator Elizabeth Warren took aim at the Federal Reserve’s inflation-fighting game plan on Sunday, saying she was worried the central bank will tip the US economy into a recession.

“Do you know what’s worse than high prices and a strong economy?” the Massachusetts Democrat asked on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s high prices and millions of people out of work. I’m very worried that the Fed is going to tip the economy into recession.”

Warren renewed her criticism of Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s monetary tightening policies, saying she doesn’t believe increasing interest rates can contain current inflationary pressures.

“Things like the fact that Covid is still shutting down parts of the economy around the world, that we still have supply chain kinks, that we still have a war going on in Ukraine that drives up the cost of energy,” Warren said. “There is nothing in raising interest rates, nothing in Jerome Powell’s toolbag, that deals directly with those.”

Powell, in a highly anticipated speech from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Friday, signaled the Fed was going to continue its aggressive series of interest rate hikes, and keep rates elevated for a time, to try to tamp down demand and get inflation under control. He warned of slowing growth and “some pain” to households and businesses to get there.

Warren said his comments indicate that jobs will be lost and small businesses hurt.

Taxation and Budget

New Polls Shows Support for 1986 Tax Rebate Law

Boston Herald – Taxpayers want their money back, according to a new poll conducted by the Fiscal Alliance Foundation.

“It’s not very often that any one policy can unite Republican and Democratic primary voters, but support for the 1986 voter-approved tax rebate law seems to bring them together,” Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the Fiscal Alliance Foundation, said Thursday.

According to the poll 63% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats want the state to honor a law passed in 1986 designed to send excess tax takings back to taxpayers.

The law was only used once, in 1987, when taxpayers received a 14-cent credit on their tax returns. This year, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has estimated taxpayers are looking at around $3 billion in excess payments and potentially hundreds of dollars to be returned to each payer.

“Republican and Democratic primary voters are united in supporting the 1986 voter approved tax law set to rebate $3 billion back to the taxpayers,” Mass Fiscal said in a release.

The poll surveyed 750 primary voters ahead of the September contest and carries a margin of error of 3.6 points and a 95% confidence level, according to pollsters.

The poll also asked voters how they regarded a November ballot question which will add a 4% surtax to incomes over $1 million. That question showed higher support among Democrats than Republicans, but the alliance says most voters, 46%, disapprove, with only 35% in support. The question was worded in such a way so as to claim the tax represented as a raise in the “income tax” when in fact is it is a raise only on specific incomes and only on income over $1 million.

Democratic voters don’t have much choice to make when it comes to the governor’s race, where Attorney General Maura Healey is running all but unopposed. Voters aren’t sure about who the lieutenant governor should be, though Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll leads 13% to state Sen. Eric Lesser’s 9% and state Rep. Tami Gouveia’s 6%, with the vast majority of voters — 72% — still undecided.

Republicans, according to the poll, prefer former State Rep. Geoff Diehl 42% against his primary opponent, Wrentham businessman Chris Doughty, who shows 27% support, though 31% of voters haven’t decided.

Health Care

Is State Aid Really Helping the Neediest Hospitals?

Commonwealth Magazine (Opinion) – As legislators ponder whether to resurrect a $350 million “relief” fund for Massachusetts hospitals, we suggest that they first step up the state’s informational capacity to better assure that they are allocating funding to institutions truly in financial need.

We worry that the proposed allocations in the 2022 relief package, as well as unanticipated and abrupt facility and service closures over the last decade or so, raise the concern that policymakers do not have clear criteria for determining which of our state’s hospitals are truly in need and deserving of additional state support.

Ideally, “distress” funding should go to hospitals whose primary cause of poor financial performance is due to a disproportionate commitment to serving low-income (high Medicaid) and/or underserved (behavioral health) populations, and not, for instance, due to over-expansion funded by excessive amounts of debt, or the strategic and financial priorities of out-of-state owners.  Poor financial performance needs to be defined more broadly than simple operational measures of profitability.

While the state collects and publishes a lot of financial data, primarily through the Center for Health Information and Analysis and, to a more limited extent, the attorney general’s public charities division, improvements are needed to address important shortcomings of the state’s financial oversight and monitoring approach.

Health-Care Deal Could Surface in September

State House News August is coming to a close without a deal on a more than $4 billion economic-development bill, but an even pricier piece of unfinished state business is set to bump up against an extended deadline in September.

The state’s Medicaid 1115 Demonstration Waiver, which allows the state to tailor its programs by waiving some Medicaid law provisions, was approved by the former Obama administration in November 2016 and is set to expire June 30, 2022. The $52.5 billion waiver facilitated a $1.8 billion effort to transition toward accountable care organization models of care and make investments in behavioral health and long-term care services.

The Baker administration submitted a five-year waiver extension proposal in December 2021, and in June 2022, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved a temporary extension that runs until Sept. 30, 2022. That means the Biden administration could tip its hand in the coming weeks on its level of cooperation with Bay State health-care reforms, and the waiver represents a big piece of final health care business for Gov. Charlie Baker, who is not seeking reelection is and set to leave office in early January.

In a June 9 letter, Judith Cash, director of the State Demonstrations Group at CMS, said the federal agency “strongly supports the goals set forth in the state’s extension proposal,” including continued restructuring and the shift toward “accountable, value-based care,” investing in primary care, behavioral health, and pediatric care, advancing health equity and addressing health-related social needs and disparities, supporting the state’s “safety net,” and maintaining near-universal health insurance coverage.

The MassHealth program, also commonly referred to as Medicaid, is the largest single program and cost center in the annual state budget. MassHealth, which is funded by the state and federal governments, accounted for nearly $19.5 billion in spending in the $52.7 billion fiscal 2023 budget that Gov. Baker signed in late July.

The waiver, which has evolved through governorships and presidencies, has long been central to the program’s administration, with the Baker administration saying that since 1997 it “has been a critical tool in enabling Massachusetts to achieve and maintain near-universal coverage, sustain the Commonwealth’s safety net, expand critical behavioral health services, and implement reforms in the way that care is delivered.”

Last Thursday, U.S Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure issued a letter to governors inviting them to work with CMS and apply for Medicaid 1115 waivers “to provide increased access to care for women from states where reproductive rights are under attack and women may be denied medical care.”

Four More GOP-Led States to Enact Abortion ‘Trigger Laws’

Boston Globe – Four more Republican-led states will ban almost all abortions this week as yet another slate of laws severely limiting the procedure takes effect following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

To date, 13 states have passed so-called trigger laws that were designed to outlaw most abortions if the high court threw out the constitutional right to end a pregnancy. The majority of those states began enforcing their bans soon after the June 24 decision, but Idaho, Tennessee, and Texas had to wait 30 days beyond when the justices formally entered the judgment, which happened several weeks after the ruling was announced.

That deadline was up Thursday. North Dakota’s trigger law is scheduled to take effect Friday.

The change will not be dramatic. All of these states except North Dakota already had anti-abortion laws in place that largely blocked patients from accessing the procedure. And the majority of the clinics that provided abortions in those areas have either stopped offering those services or moved to other states where abortion remains legal.

Texas, the country’s second-largest state, has banned most abortions once fetal cardiac activity has been detected, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant. The ban has been in place for almost a year since courts refused to stop the law last September.

While clinics were severely limited in the services they could provide during that time, they officially stopped offering abortions on the day of the Supreme Court ruling. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that state laws that banned abortion before Roe v. Wade could be enforced ahead of the implementation of the trigger law.


Massachusetts Likely to Ban New Gas-Powered Cars, Thanks to California

Boston Globe – California’s newly announced ban on sales of fossil-fuel-burning cars and small trucks starting in 2035 has cleared the way for a similar ban in Massachusetts. That’s because of a provision in Massachusetts’s new climate-change law, as well as a unique feature in federal law that lets California set environmental standards for other US states.

In late 2020, Governor Charlie Baker endorsed a ban on fossil-fuel vehicles by 2035, and language to that effect was included in the climate bill he signed earlier this month. But Massachusetts couldn’t enforce the requirement unless California went first.

“The carmakers of course did not want 50 states setting up all different rules,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance in Boston.

However, some states still wanted the right to impose even tougher anti-pollution rules. In the end, Congress came up with a compromise. California, the most populous US state, and one with severe air pollution problems, could apply to the federal government for permission to impose stricter standards. No other state is permitted to do this.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Mass Cultural Council Poised to Distribute Nearly $75 million

Boston Globe – The Mass Cultural Council is poised to disburse nearly $75 million to the state’s cultural sector this year, a historic investment in a field still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cash infusion comes courtesy of two sources: More than $51 million in one-time cultural sector recovery funds and the council’s annual appropriation, which at more than $23 million represents the agency’s biggest allotment since the late 1980s.

MCC chair Nina Fialkow said in a statement that the funds, part of a larger $85 million spending plan approved Thursday by the MCC’s governing council, would support a sector that has shown “incredible resilience and incredible need over the past two years.”

“Through this Plan,” she added, “we will see public dollars directed further and more broadly and equitably than ever.”

The one-time relief funds come from a bill approved by Governor Charlie Baker in December that assigned $60 million to the MCC for grant-making. The council has already used some of the money to bolster its Cultural Facilities Fund, and it is also directing funding to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities for disbursement.

State Rep. Carlos González Will Host Massachusetts ID and License Workshop for Puerto Rican Residents of MA

MassLive – Some longstanding difficulties Puerto Rican residents of Massachusetts have faced acquiring state licensing or identification may get easier.

Residents can register for a workshop that will provide technical assistance on navigating through documentation issues.

The workshop will be held on Sept. 16, at 11 a.m. at the offices of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts at 1441 Main St.

Hosted by state Rep. Carlos González, D-Springfield, the state Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Hampden Probate & Family Court, the goal of the session is to provide impacted residents with information they need to obtain license renewals.

“Residents that have lived in Massachusetts most of their lives are experiencing difficulty getting their licenses renewed, despite the fact that many of them have already had licenses for years,” González said.

Puerto Rican residents are in a catch-22, as proving identity is more difficult for those who were born on the island for a variety of reasons.

“About 50% of our Hispanic-born residents are born in Puerto Rico. (The licensing process) has become a burden to them,” he said.


Mass. Officials Unveil $40 million Proposal to Make Classrooms Safer

MassLive – Massachusetts officials, bracing for unthinkable school shootings that could roil communities across the commonwealth much in the mold of the Uvalde tragedy, unveiled a $40 million plan Thursday to bolster safety and training initiatives with scant days remaining until students return to the classroom following summer break.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced he’ll soon file the spending package that encompasses matching grants for “security and communication upgrades” for K-12 public schools, as well as at colleges and universities.

Baker, without delineating individual funding allocations, said the package would also award grant funding to child-care providers, help school districts create anonymous tip lines for reporting possible threats, support a statewide “Say Something” campaign, and create a comprehensive school safety website.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do all that we can to provide safe classrooms and schools for our children to learn, grow and succeed, and for adults to feel comfortable,” Baker during a Thursday morning press conference at the Massachusetts State. “We look forward to sharing more details about this proposal shortly (and) working with our colleagues in the Legislature to get it done and then put the dollars to wor