Blog & News

Back to Posts

This Week in Massachusetts – August 7

Posted on August 8, 2023

Boston Globe: Hiring is Strong, but Exodus of MBTA Employees Thwarts Agency’s Efforts

The general manager of the MBTA said Tuesday the T is still struggling to retain employees, even as hiring hits a relative peak.

Phil Eng, who began leading the MBTA in April, said in an interview on WBUR that the T is “hiring at a rate we’ve never hired before,” but is facing steep competition from the private sector, and seeing far too many employees exit the troubled agency. He said the agency is meeting its internal hiring goals — although he did not specify what those goals are — but attrition is “offsetting those metrics.”

The T faced a 13 percent attrition rate throughout the fiscal year that ended in June, according to a presentation given during the agency’s July 13 board meeting. While about 280 workers retired, nearly 580 others left the agency for other reasons.

The MBTA hired 117 workers per month between the start of January and July 16, up from an average of 69 workers per month in 2022 and 27 per month in 2021, according to Joe Pesaturo, an agency spokesperson.

“We have made great strides in terms of the hiring,” Eng said on WBUR’s “Radio Boston,” and the agency is now focused on “making sure the employees that come on board know there’s a career at the T, and a long career, and it can be rewarding.”

Boston Herald: Business Confidence Returns to Optimistic Levels

Quick on the heels of better-than-expected jobs numbers from the Department of Labor, the state’s employers are reporting they feel more optimistic about the future than they have in months.

According to the monthly Business Confidence Index published by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, confidence among the state’s business owners grew 2.8 points in July to 52.5, moving from pessimistic territory to positive and reversing months of decline.

“The confidence boost came as the United States and Massachusetts economies defied expectations of a recession in the face of 11 interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve. The nation’s economy grew at a 2.4 percent annual rate in the second quarter, up from 2 percent in the first quarter, while inflation fell to a two-year low of 2.97 percent during June,” the Index reads, in part.

Confidence reported by the state’s employers fell to pessimistic levels for the first time in years this May and stayed below 50% through June, with businesses telling pollsters they were struggling to find employees in the midst of a high inflation environment.

Now, according to the index, businesses are feeling better about the pace of inflation and workers have more money to spend due to growing wages, and the numbers are promising enough to temper fears of a recession.

Boston Herald: Massport Executive Director to Step Down for Job at National Grid

Massport Executive Director Lisa Wieland is stepping down from the quasi-public agency she has led for the past four years to take over National Grid’s New England operations.

Wieland has overseen Massport — which runs Logan International Airport, the Conley Terminal, Worcester Regional Airport, Hanscom Field, and the Flynn Cruiseport — through turbulent pandemic-era times in the travel industry when business activity plunged and financials became hard to manage.

“Because of our amazing team, we restored activity across our business lines, delivered strong financial performance, and invested in strategic initiatives to position the authority for future success and contribute to the commonwealth’s economic development, transportation and climate goals,” Wieland said in a prepared statement.

Massport Aviation Director Ed Freni will take over as interim chief executive officer when Wieland departs for National Grid. The Massport board is tasked with finding and hiring the next CEO.

Wieland first joined Massport in 2006 as the director of corporate planning and analysis and took over as the director of human resources strategy and employment in 2007. She was promoted to chief administrative officer for maritime in 2013 and in 2015, became port director for the port of Boston.

Spectrum News: Possible 2024 Ballot Questions May Address Rents, MCAS, Driver Rights

Efforts to subject the Legislature to outside scrutiny, reform the role of standardized MCAS tests, allow cities and towns to regulate rent levels, and reshape rights and benefits for on-demand drivers took steps Wednesday toward potentially being decided by voters in 2024.

After months of noncommittal answers and behind-the-scenes whispers, the outer limits of the ballot question universe became clear as the deadline arrived for supporters to file measures they want to bring to the ballot box.

Altogether, 42 ballot questions were filed by the 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday, proposing 38 laws that could be decided at the 2024 ballot and four Constitutional amendments that could be decided in the 2026 election, according to Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office.

Another 12 questions had been filed in late 2022 with a goal of reaching the 2024 or 2026 ballot.

Supporters filed multiple versions of the same question on several topics, including nine versions of a revived app-based driver question and eight versions of a proposed law requiring voter identification. Filing multiple drafts with minor differences is a common strategy campaigns use to keep their options open while they figure out which draft has the best chance of legal and political success.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association followed through on one of two initiatie petitions it had been weighing. Activists with the union joined with educators, parents and recent graduates to file a measure that would uncouple the MCAS exam from graduation requirements, but MTA opted against pursuing a ballot question related to higher education funding and affordability.

Mass Live: Lt. Gov. Driscoll Talks Economic Development during Hot Dog Social in Attleboro

It was still a bit shy of 11 a.m., but Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll had spent the last 45 minutes walking through downtown Attleboro and talking about the nitty-gritty of economic development with the city’s mayor, development team and legislative delegation. There was only one thing left to do.

“Let’s do it,” Driscoll said. “Let’s go get a hot weenie.”

Led by Mayor Cathleen DeSimone, Driscoll, Sen. Paul Feeney, and Reps. Jim Hawkins and Adam Scanlon piled into Tex Barry’s Coney Island Diner for hot wieners late Thursday morning. The southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island specialty is a hot dog with yellow mustard and onions topped with chili sauce. There was even a “hot dog toast to Attleboro.”

“Oh my gosh, Tex! That was a great hot dog,” Driscoll said afterwards. “It’s so authentic to be able to walk into a place like that, that you know has had decades of experience in a community and you still get that same nostalgia. It was a terrific hot dog and great community building for sure.”

Axios: How Downtown Boston’s Pandemic Recovery is Going

Foot traffic is rebounding unevenly in different parts of Boston’s downtown, according to two studies of where people are going.

Foot traffic in the two zip codes that make up the city’s Financial District is at 47.8% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, according to mobile phone data analyzed by University of Toronto researchers.

That means activity in the area has decreased this year compared to last — and was actually higher in the summer of 2021.

Foot traffic sensors placed in areas more dedicated to tourism, retail, restaurants and entertainment — Downtown Crossing, the Theater District and the Ladder District — show improvements.

Downtown hasn’t been able to recover the activity levels it saw pre-pandemic, according to both sets of data, but areas less affected by remote work are on the upswing.

Fourteen sensors between Tremont Street, Congress Street and Essex Street show foot traffic levels comparable with last July, Downtown Boston Business Improvement District president Michael Nichols told Axios.

Commonwealth Magazine: T Unions Look to Do Much Better under Healey

The relationship between the MBTA and its largest union appears to be undergoing a sea change under Gov. Maura Healey.

Under the administration of former governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, the Carmen’s Union and the MBTA were often at odds. It started in 2015 when Baker used the fallout from snowmaggeddon to push through the Legislature a three-year exemption from the so-called Pacheco Law, which regulates and restricts how state services can be privatized.

The T quickly privatized its cash collection and counting operation and used the threat of more privatization to prod the Carmen’s Union into matching savings that T officials alleged privatization could offer.

For example, the Carmen’s Union accepted a contract that offered no wage increase in fiscal 2017 and a 1.55 percent average increase over the entire four-year contract. Prior to that contract, wage increases had averaged 2.7 percent a year over the previous 15 years.

Boston Globe: Resident Wants to put EV Charging Stations on Highway Exit Signs

In a state working to lure more people into electric cars, the idea seems like a no-brainer: Add EV charging-station logos to the food, fuel, and lodging services advertised on the ubiquitous blue signs along Massachusetts highways.

But what may seem logical is also, apparently, impossible under current Federal Highway Administration rules — and new regulations under consideration in D.C. could make it even more difficult.

Bob Armstrong, a longtime green policy advocate in Western Massachusetts, has written to every federal and state agency and politician he can think of with this idea, but antiquated federal highway regulations aren’t easy to change.

“We have signage for fuel, food, and lodging without a single sign that there are chargers already there and ready for use,” he said in an interview. “We need to immediately dispel the belief that there are no chargers out there.”

Whereas today the signs carry logos of gas stations such as Mobil and Gulf, a rule change would allow them to include the logos of electric charging station operators such as Electrify America, EVgo, and Tesla. The specific logos are important, as not every EV can charge at every kind of station.

Boston Globe: Automakers Face a Labor Showdown as the E.V. Era Looms

Detroit may be headed for a tumultuous labor showdown.

The United Auto Workers union has made a bold opening bid in negotiations for new four-year collective bargaining agreements with General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis. Its new president, Shawn Fain, has declared that the 150,000 hourly workers employed by the companies are prepared to strike to achieve the union’s goals.

The U.A.W. presented the automakers with a list of demands, including a 40 percent wage increase — premised on the compensation gains that the union says the companies’ chief executives have made over the four years since the last contract talks.

And with the pivot to electric vehicles, the union wants guarantees that workers hired at the automakers’ new E.V. battery plants will be covered by the U.A.W. national contracts, or at least given contracts with comparable wage and safety terms.

Axios: Boston’s Liquor License System is Dragging Down its Nightlife Scene

One of the biggest hurdles faced by would-be dining and nightlife entrepreneurs is the limited supply of liquor licenses available in the city.

The dearth of licenses is a major contributor to Boston’s languid late-night scene.

The right to serve alcohol in Boston is highly controlled by the city and state. Right now the city’s licenses are capped at about 1,400 by state law.

The regulation and cap have sent the price of licenses sky high. Buying and transferring one from a current licensee to a new business can cost as much as $600,000.

Meanwhile, existing bar and restaurant owners — many who purchased their licenses for hundreds of thousands of dollars — don’t want to see their investment devalued by the introduction of new licenses.

When a license becomes available, large chains and restaurant groups with deep pockets, mainly operating downtown or in the Seaport, have the advantage. It’s much tougher for smaller operators in less profitable neighborhoods to compete.

Eagle Tribune: State’s Budding Film Industry Stalled amid Ongoing Strikes

The state’s thriving film production industry has largely ground to a halt amid the Hollywood actor and writer’s strikes, as the dual labor disputes drag on with little sign of resolution.

The Writers Guild of America, a union representing about 11,500 writers in film, television, radio, and digital media, has been on strike since early May, while the 160,000-member Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists walked off the job in mid-July.

Talks between the unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — which represents studios, streaming services and production companies — remain stalled. As a result, most production on films and TV series is being delayed, or even canceled.

But the impact of the Hollywood picket lines is being felt thousands of miles away in Massachusetts, which is home to a small but thriving film production industry that has been spurred, in part, by generous taxpayer-funded subsidies.

“We’re certainly seeing an impact from both strikes,” said Gary Crossen, general manager of New England Studios in Devens. “There is literally no film production going on in Massachusetts, or anywhere else for that matter.”

He said the strikes have been particularly hard for film production industry workers who aren’t in either of the two unions “but are sitting on the sidelines without any work, because of the shutdown of the industry.”

Boston Globe: Healey Considering Emergency Declaration to Deal with ‘Catastrophic’ Shelter Situation

The state’s shelter system has become so overburdened that Governor Maura Healey is preparing to take action to relieve the pressure exacerbated by an influx of migrants on top of the state’s already dire housing needs, according to several people with knowledge of the proposed plan.

The action could come as early as this week in the form of an emergency declaration, which some shelter directors say is much needed, said four people briefed on the administration’s plan.

“There’s been a group of providers who have really been pushing hard in the governor’s office” for such a declaration, said Danielle Ferrier, chief executive officer of the Boston-area homeless services provider Heading Home, in an interview.

At present, she said, the shelters are in a “catastrophic” situation.

“It is not safe any longer on the ground, in our sites,” she said.

Such a declaration would open a path toward seeking federal aid. It also would enable the governor to call up the National Guard more quickly. And it would allow her to bypass normal procurement rules that require a competitive bid process, allowing the state to more quickly hire vendors and contractors or rent places for people to stay.

A declaration would enable the governor to formally appeal to the president for disaster relief funding, which could include money for emergency housing, food, and water.

Health Care

Boston Globe: Bill Would End Religious Exemption for Vaccine Requirements

A bill written to ban religious exemptions for mandatory childhood vaccines is being debated at the State House. It is one of several under consideration to help boost the state’s childhood immunization rates. Reporter Jason Laughlin brings the story of the new bill and what the opposition has to say.

Watch Here

Boston Globe: Postpartum Depression Drug Developed by Sage, Biogen Approved by FDA

A new depression drug has received the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after years of development by two Cambridge drugmakers. Zuranolone, a new drug co-developed by Biogen Inc. (Nasdaq: BIIB) and Sage Therapeutics Inc. (Nasdaq: SAGE), scored an FDA approval late Friday — but the approval was only for postpartum depression, not major depressive disorder. The companies had applied to market the drug as a treatment for both.

Boston Globe: State Targets Most Vulnerable Hospitals with Cash Infusion

The state’s most vulnerable hospitals are about to get an infusion of cash, thanks to a supplemental budget bill that Gov. Maura Healey signed last week.

Legislators said the hospital funding, a total of $180 million, will be essential to institutions grappling with deep financial losses lingering from the pandemic, but specific rules will mean the money is targeted to hospitals that serve high portions of low-income patients and those with proven financial difficulty.

The first $91.5 million will go to hospitals that answered a request for information, put out by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services in March. Eligible hospitals must have a high percentage of patients on government insurance, and their prices must be lower than those of their peers.

But the funding isn’t a blank check — hospitals must hire an independent third-party, approved by the state, to complete a detailed financial and operational review, and the chair of the hospital’s board must commit to reviewing the report with state officials.

Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association: MassHealth Delivers Solid Win for Telehealth Patients

MassHealth has issued an important bulletin that allows providers to continue delivering a broad range of MassHealth-covered services via telehealth, and to be reimbursed for those services at parity with their in-person caregiving counterparts.

Through the bulletin, MassHealth is also allowing an eligible distant-site provider delivering covered services via telehealth to bill a facility fee if such fee is allowed under the provider’s governing regulations or contracts.

Providers have long advocated for parity payments, arguing that it is important to pay for the services being provided, regardless of the method used to provide them. Paying providers for telehealth services on-par with in-person visits increases access to care for patients, including those in communities where public transportation to care facilities is lacking. Parity also gives financial predictability to caregivers, who are increasingly providing care in a hybrid environment where both in-person and telehealth visits are offered.

“This is a tremendously important action by MassHealth that will further advance the use and promise of telehealth,” said Adam Delmolino, MHA’s senior director, Virtual Care & Clinical Affairs. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, MassHealth has been at the forefront of the rapidly evolving virtual care environment, outpacing commercial insurers in its recognition of the increased access and convenience for patients that telehealth provides. MHA and the members of the tMED Coalition are grateful to MassHealth for the recognition of telehealth as a vitally useful tool for our healthcare system.”

Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association: State Proposes Waiver Amendment to Expand Coverage

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) announced that it plans to submit an amendment proposal to the 1115 MassHealth Waiver, the state and federal agreement that defines numerous coverage expansions, delivery system reform initiatives, and related funding terms for the state Medicaid program.

The current version of the waiver went into effect in late September 2022 and included the historic hospital health equity incentive program, increased funding for safety net hospitals, and investments in primary care practices participating in the MassHealth Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program.

Last week, EOHHS announced its intention to propose to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) new provisions that will bolster MassHealth coverage and subsidized health insurance programs supported by the waiver.

EOHHS will propose 12 months of continuous eligibility to all adults, which is in alignment with a recent federal law that will provide this same continuous coverage timeline for children effective January 1, 2024. This means MassHealth enrollees will remain covered for at least one year even if their eligibility circumstances change during the year.

The amendment will also seek additional federal support for expanded subsidized coverage offered through the Health Connector for those with incomes up to 500% of the federal poverty level. Currently, individuals up to 300% received enhanced state and waiver-funded subsidized insurance. To help address hospital throughput challenges and to ensure adequate support for those recovering from hospital care, MassHealth is proposing coverage for up to six months of Short-Term Post-Hospital Housing (medical respite) as a Health-Related Social Needs service.

EOHHS will pursue a long-standing request of MHA and consumer advocates by no longer limiting retroactive coverage for any low-income residents that apply and become eligible for MassHealth. Currently, applicants that are not children or pregnant receive only 10 days of coverage prior to the date they apply for MassHealth coverage, often resulting in provider and patient bad debt for care provided to uninsured patients who are eventually enrolled in MassHealth. EOHHS will seek to end its waiver policy and instead provide the three-month federal Medicaid standard for this lookback coverage.

MHA President and CEO Steve Walsh said, “The MassHealth waiver proposals put forward by the Healey-Driscoll Administration further cements Massachusetts as the leader in health equity and coverage. We commend Governor Healey, EOHHS Secretary Kate Walsh, and Assistant Secretary Michael Levine for working to eliminate coverage gaps while also increasing access to affordable health insurance for more Massachusetts residents.”

Boston Herald: Budget Would Allow Pharmacists to Prescribe Hormonal Contraceptives

Registered pharmacists in Massachusetts could prescribe and dispense hormonal birth control patches or self-administered oral pills to any person, regardless of whether they have evidence of a previous prescription, under language included in the pending state budget.

Advocates behind the measure say allowing pharmacists to hand out birth control over the counter opens up access to medication that prevents unwanted pregnancies as residents grapple with a shortage of primary care physicians in Massachusetts.

The proposal — first pitched as standalone legislation but later included in the fiscal 2024 budget now awaiting action from Gov. Maura Healey — is backed by state Sen. Michael Moore.

The Millbury Democrat said some people often have to wait three or even six months to see their primary care physicians. The measure also opens the door to hormonal contraceptives for people who do not have health insurance, Moore said.

“They can go to the pharmacist and get access to the contraceptives without having to put themselves at risk of an unwanted pregnancy,” he said.

Lawmakers kicked most of the work required to allow prescriptions to start flowing from pharmacists to the Department of Public Health, which is tasked with developing rules alongside the Board of Registration in Pharmacy and the state’s Division of Medical Assistance.

Boston Globe: Transhealth Grows Out-of-State Patient Base amid Surge in Anti-Trans Laws

Transhealth, a Western Massachusetts-based organization that offers medical care for trans and gender diverse people and families, recently reached a milestone of serving 2,000 patients.

As a result of trans rights being “politicized,” many of those patients are coming from out of state, according to Dallas Ducar, the organization’s chief executive.

“It’s been a constant,” said Ducar. “We’re living in a time now where people are actively fleeing other states to Massachusetts to ensure that they can get good medical care.”

Although they’re located in Western Massachusetts, Transhealth, founded in 2021, has welcomed patients from other New England states such as Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, and has gotten inquiries from people looking to relocate to New England in order to get better gender-affirming care.

Enterprise News: Reopening of Brockton Hospital Delayed in Wake of Fire

Signature Healthcare had hoped to reopen Brockton Hospital fully by the end of the year.

But citing supply chain problems, hospital leaders now say key services like inpatient care and the emergency department won’t reopen until 2024.

Signature’s director of facilities and engineering, Brian Backoff, said estimates change daily for when the first day of full service will take place. Until then, nearby hospitals, most notably Brockton’s Good Samaritan Medical Center, will continue to bear the brunt of additional patients. Items the hospital has had trouble sourcing include electrical panels and breakers, he said.

A small but significant milestone could come on August 15 when the hospital plans to offer the first services inside the hospital since a 10-alarm electrical fire forced the evacuation and closure of the facility on Feb. 7. Pending regulatory approvals, the hospital aims to start doing wound care and infusion therapies at the 680 Centre St. facility. Those functions now take place at Signature locations on Liberty Street.

In September, the hospital plans to reopen for outpatient services and colonoscopies. Hospital leaders said they don’t have a particular month in 2024 when they expect to have full services restored.

Meanwhile, residents are urged not to come to Brockton Hospital for emergency treatment. Instead, many reasons people go to the emergency room can be treated instead at urgent care centers. Signature Healthcare has a 24-hour urgent care center on the hospital campus at 650 Centre St. and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Signature Medical Group at 110 Liberty St.

Budget and Taxation

State House News: Spilka: Most Reviews Say Historically Late Budget Was “Worth the Wait”

Senate President Karen Spilka defended the process that led to a month-late fiscal year 2024 budget and its significant use of one-time revenues. She also downplayed the latest House-Senate acrimony during a Sunday morning appearance on WBZ-TV with Jon Keller.

“The parties were working hard, the two chairs of Ways and Means were working hard. I’m glad that we got it done. I’m glad that it’s behind us,” Spilka said about the $56.2 billion budget that legislative negotiators didn’t get to Gov. Maura Healey’s desk until July 31, a month after the fiscal year started.

“Honestly, what I hear from most people — from the State House and for outside — that it’s such a great budget that the quote that I hear is, ‘it was worth the wait.'”

The fiscal year 2024 budget that Healey has until Thursday to act on represents a 6.6 percent, or $3.5 billion, spending increase over the fiscal year 2023 budget signed last summer. The spending splurge is fueled by $1 billion from the state’s new income surtax and more than $600 million from one-time sources, but Spilka told Keller that she does not think the state budget is growing too fast.

“Most of those reserves we put into a reserve from last year when we did not do an economic final bill that we had wanted to put that $200 million towards early education and child care. It didn’t happen, so the Senate — and the House agreed with the Senate — to put that into a reserve to use for the following year,” she said, adding that the state’s rainy day fund was not tapped.

Boston Globe: Healey Signs $375 Million Road, Bridge Maintenance Bill

A cavalcade of local and state leaders turned out Friday as Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll signed a $375 million road and bridge maintenance funding bill into law.

Those gathered for the signing and press conference at the Nicholas J. Costello Transportation Center included Amesbury Mayor Kassandra Gove; Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover; state Rep. Dawne Shand, D-Newburyport; state Rep. Adrianne Ramos, D-North Andover; and members of the Amesbury City Council.

The bill includes $200 million in Chapter 90 roadway money and an additional $150 million to fund six transportation-related state grant programs. The bill also contains $25 million in municipal road construction funding to assist rural communities, specifically those with populations of less than 10,000 and population densities of fewer than 500 people per square mile.

The Chapter 90 program, established in 1973, allocates funding annually to all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns using a formula based on the weighted average of a community’s local road mileage (58.3%), population (20.8%) and employment (20.8%).

Funding is provided on a reimbursable basis, with communities required to complete the work in advance before being compensated by the state for eligible costs.

Boston Herald: July State Revenues Up 11 Percent over Last Year

The final accounting of fiscal year 2023 is not yet done, but the Department of Revenue started fiscal year 2024 off in July by collecting $2.67 billion in tax revenue, $264 million or 11% more than was collected in July 2022.

Collections were up for almost every tax category, but DOR said it thinks that about $150 million of the year-over-year increase “reflects a shift in sales and use and withholding collections between months because of timing.” Without that shift, DOR estimated that July 2023 collections would have been about $114 million or 4.7% more than actual collections of July 2022.

“July revenue included increases relative to July 2022 collections in withholding, non-withheld income tax, sales and use tax, corporate and business tax, and ‘all other’ tax,” Revenue Commissioner Geoffrey Snyder said. “The increase in sales and use tax was the result of typical periodic fluctuations in collections. The increase in withholding reflects current labor market conditions as well as periodic fluctuations. The increase in ‘all other’ tax is due, in part, to estate tax, a category that tends to fluctuate.”

July is one of the smaller tax collection months and usually brings in about 6.7% of the state’s annual tax revenue, DOR said. The month’s tax receipts are not compared to benchmarks because DOR has not yet established its monthly revenue expectations for the fiscal year that began July 1.

WAMC: Berkshire Lawmakers Highlight Pros, Cons of $56 Billion Massachusetts Budget

After weeks of conference committee meetings and debate, the legislature sent a compromise budget to the desk of Democratic Governor Maura Healey. It’s the first of her tenure and is $3.5 billion or almost 7% higher than last year’s budget.

The entirely Democratic Berkshire County legislative delegation says there’s a lot to celebrate in the first budget passed by a government entirely in the party’s control in almost a decade.

“What I was most pleased with was all the local earmarks that me and the representatives in the area had put in, seemed to have made it through, which is really important, because we’re talking about funding that’s getting directed to specific agencies and specific organizations and specific communities that directly request and make these requests to us and advocate for a long time,” said State Senator Paul Mark.

“So, a lot of organizations have been waiting for this to come through, which is really exciting and important. A lot of good money coming for road funding, and specifically for funding in rural communities.”

It’s Mark’s first budget since moving from the House to the Senate after last year’s election. He applauds that the budget includes making calls from incarcerated people locked up in Massachusetts free.

WGBH: The Legislature’s 99 Problems

It was a tale of two Jay-Z quotes this week as state lawmakers got ready to pass a month-overdue, $56.2 billion annual budget.

This year’s budget is the fifth crafted by Ways and Means Committee chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston and Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, and the two made a point of highlighting their working relationship in their opening remarks.

“My counterpart in the Senate, the gentleman from Westport, who has now done five of these with me, and is still talking to me. I guess that’s pretty good,” Michlewitz quipped, making his way through a list of thank-yous. “And as Jay-Z said, we’re on to the next one.

Rodrigues followed suit: “To quote Jay-Z, who I’m told is hip by my counterpart in the House, I got 99 problems but this budget ain’t one.”

Playful hyperbole aside, the Legislature is facing its share of problems. At this point, it’s worth noting when a pair of committee chairs from the House and Senate are not only on speaking terms, but willing to come together on lyrics — or legislation.

Energy and Environment

Eagle Tribune: Regulators Asked to Block Storm-Cost Recovery

The state’s utility regulators are being urged to update rules that allow companies like National Grid and Eversource to pass along the costs of storm cleanups to their customers.

In a petition to the state Department of Public Utilities, the Conservation Law Foundation asks regulators to deny a request from National Grid to recoup more than $52 million from its customers for damages and electricity restoration costs from a powerful Nor’easter in October 2021.

“Allowing these companies to keep charging customers for storm cleanup over and over is an outrage,” said Johannes Epke, a CLF staff attorney, said in a statement. “It should be up to the utilities to make their infrastructure resilient to the frequent, climate-driven storms we’re seeing more and more.”

Under state law, utilities may recover operations and maintenance costs for a limited number of weather events from a “storm” fund paid by consumers in the form of a surcharge tacked on to electricity bills.

Utilities say more frequent and damaging storms, fueled by climate change, are causing major power outages and other disruptions.

In a recent filing to the state Department of Public Utilities, National Grid wrote it incurred costs from responding to nine major storms in 2021 that qualify for cost recovery. The company is seeking to recover more than $103 million.

WHDH: Bottle Redemption Law Expansion also Includes Higher Deposit

Forty years after the state added a five-cent deposit on some plastic bottles in order to encourage recycling, climate advocates say it’s “the right moment” to expand state’s bottle redemption law.

Proposals before the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy would increase the bottle deposit from its current five cents to 10 cents and add more types of beverage containers to the program, putting a deposit on water bottles, vitamin drinks, nips and bottles for other drinks that weren’t contemplated when the initial law was adopted in 1982.

Efforts to update this bill have failed in the Legislature for years, and voters in 2014 shot down a ballot question to tack the five-cent bottle deposit onto drinks besides beer and soda.

Without success in expanding the deposit, advocates told lawmakers that Massachusetts is falling behind.

The state has the lowest rate of people returning empty bottles and cans among the 10 states with bottle redemption laws, according to a report from the Container Recycling Institute that came out last year.

Energy News: More Massachusetts Cities Seek to Ban Gas

Climate activists, legislators, and municipal leaders in Massachusetts are pushing a bill that would give any town or city the option to ban new fossil fuel hookups. State law currently allows just 10 communities to enact these prohibitions, but advocates argue the climate crisis is too urgent for this piecemeal approach.

“I don’t believe that, when we have 435 communities in the state, that only 10 should be able to decide for themselves what they can do,” said Jeff Cohen, a city councilor in Salem, which has expressed a desire to join the pilot. “We can’t fix the climate crisis 10 communities at a time.”

Legislation passed last year created a pilot program authorizing up to 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuel use in new construction or major renovations, a response to a surge of cities and towns petitioning lawmakers for this right. Since the bill was signed, however, four more cities have passed measures formalizing their desire to pursue the same prohibitions.

A new bill, H.3227, under consideration this year would allow these four — plus any qualified communities that become interested in the future — to adopt these bans. Expanding the program, supporters argue, would help accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. Building emissions make up 35% of the greenhouse gasses released in Massachusetts, according to state numbers. Finding ways to make building operations less carbon-intensive is therefore essential to reaching the state’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

WWLP: Relief Program Coming to Massachusetts Farmers

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated parts of the state disaster areas, a move that opened up new avenues for farmers to receive aid.

Farmers in the Commonwealth can now apply for low-interest and refinancing loans. The disaster designation comes after torrential rains from July 9 to July 16. Many farms were flooded and crops were lost.

The designation also allows farmers to opt into the Emergency Conservation Program. That program helps with clean-up costs associated with natural disasters. It is estimated that about 2,000 acres of crops were lost due to the flooding.

Aid will also be coming from the state. A late Monday night agreement will send $20 million to western Massachusetts in flood relief.

Acting Chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Senator Jo Comerford, said in a statement that read in part:

“I am tremendously grateful that the Legislature is coming to the aid of our farmers in strong partnership with the Healey-Driscoll Administration. The $20 million in the fiscal year 2023 supplemental budget will support farmers who have experienced massive hardships and losses, from extreme flooding earlier this month to the frosts and freezes earlier this year.”

WBUR: Charles River Cleanup ‘Stalled,’ Says Annual EPA Report Card

The Charles River is a lot cleaner than it used to be, but you still don’t want to swim in most of it. Combined-sewer overflows, stormwater pollution and increased downpours and heat from climate change continue to trigger toxic algae blooms that prevent people and pets from fully enjoying the river.

That’s one conclusion from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual “report card” for Boston’s three major rivers: the Charles, Mystic and Neponset. Every summer, the EPA issues letter grades to segments of the rivers and their tributaries, so the public can track improvements in water quality.

“People keep asking us, ‘If Paris can make the Seine swimmable for the summer 2024 Olympics, why can’t we swim in the Charles?’ And frankly, it’s a good question,” said Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. She said improvements on the river had “stalled.”

“While we’ve made such amazing progress since 1995, the work is not done until residents can experience the joy of swimming in cool, clean urban rivers on a hot day.”


State House News: Teachers’ Union Formalizes Ballot Question Campaign to Reform MCAS

The state’s largest teachers’ union officially got on board Sunday with the proposed ballot question seeking to eliminate the requirement that high schoolers pass the standardized MCAS tests in order to graduate.

The unanimous vote of the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s board to support the initiative came four days after union Vice President Deb McCarthy and others filed a proposed ballot question that would eliminate MCAS as a graduation requirement. If Attorney General Andrea Campbell determines the question passes Constitutional muster, the MTA said it and its “community allies will begin gathering more than 75,000 signatures, the number required for the question to appear on the 2024 statewide ballot.”

The MTA has long opposed the exams that were created as part of a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first MCAS tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.

“The elected leadership of the MTA has made clear how educators feel about the high-stakes nature of the MCAS exams and the unjust use of them as a graduation requirement. The MCAS has not only failed to close learning gaps that have persisted along racial and economic lines, but the standardized tests have exacerbated the disparities among our student populations. We are one of the last states using this outdated method of assessing academic mastery,” MTA President Max Page and McCarthy said in a statement.

“MTA educators support locally developed and state-approved methods of certifying students’ mastery of academic coursework necessary for a high school diploma.”

Boston Globe: Roxbury Community College Charts Path Forward

Boston corporate and nonprofit leaders recently flocked to a conference room at Roxbury Community College as part of a reinvigorated effort by college leaders to raise the profile of the once troubled school and steer its graduates into meaningful careers.

Business executives from an array of organizations — including National Grid, Beth Israel Lahey Health, and Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center —gathered to strengthen ties with the predominantly Black college and hire more of its graduates.

RCC officials, meanwhile, got the opportunity to ask some high-powered employers how they should improve academic offerings to meet industry needs.

The gathering is one of many that RCC is hosting over the year, including a jubilant first-ever homecoming celebration in May, as the school is using the occasion of its 50th anniversary to reset its strategy. The college also looks to use the events to burnish its reputation, which has been battered in recent years by scandalsregulatory hurdles, mismanagement, and low enrollment.

Boston Globe: Education Fares Well in Budget

Lawmakers and public education advocates alike are celebrating after the Legislature voted to pass a $56.2 billion budget proposal for the 2024 fiscal year that includes nearly $6.6 billion for K-12 schools plus hundreds of millions more for new and existing education-related programs, touting it as a “historic” investment in public education.

After coming to a compromise deal over the weekend, House and Senate lawmakers voted this week to send the spending package to the governor’s desk, where it awaits Governor Maura Healey’s approval.

The proposed budget increases public school funding by more than $600 million compared to the previous fiscal year and doubles the minimum state aid per student from $30 to $60.

“Education funding has been a priority of mine for 13 years, and I can say that, without a doubt, this budget has been the best budget for education since I’ve been in the state Senate,” said state Senator Sal DiDomenico, Senate vice chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. “These funds are going to be a game changer for so many districts across our state.”

Lawmakers and education interest groups say the budget proposal demonstrates the state’s ongoing commitment to the 2019 Student Opportunity Act, which aimed to significantly increase public school funding and distribute it equitably, with significant focus on schools that serve high needs students.

The 2024 budget also takes into account approximately $1 billion in projected revenue generated by the Fair Share Amendment voters approved in 2022, also known as the so-called millionaires tax, 52 percent of which is allocated to fund education programs.

Mass Live: Students Lagging after COVID Need Long-Term Help, Study Says

Three years after the pandemic closed many public schools, Massachusetts has seen an impact in the academic success of students, according to educators.

While almost $2.6 billion in federal funds have been allocated to Massachusetts schools, many districts haven’t spent their funding. About $1.3 billion hasn’t been claimed, according to Massachusetts’ government website.

The funding under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund provides emergency relief to elementary and secondary schools to address COVID-19 impacts on their school.

While some districts, such as Brockton, have spent all of their allocated money — approximately $53.6 million — others, such as New Bedford, have only spent about 30% of their allocated funds of $74.3 million.

Andrew O’Leary, New Bedford’s superintendent, said the comparative delay in spending is due to the time it takes for construction and renovations to happen. O’Leary said the district is still on target to use all funds the district has received.

Associated Press: Conservative Groups Sue to Block Biden Plan Canceling $39 Billion in Student Loans

Two conservative groups are asking a federal court to block the Biden administration’s plan to cancel $39 billion in student loans for more than 800,000 borrowers.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in Michigan, the groups argue that the administration overstepped its power when it announced the forgiveness in July, just weeks after the Supreme Court struck down a broader cancellation plan pushed by President Joe Biden.

It asks a judge to rule the cancellation illegal and stop the Education Department from carrying it out while the case is decided. The suit was filed by the New Civil Liberties Alliance on behalf of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Cato Institute.

The Education Department called the suit “a desperate attempt from right wing special interests to keep hundreds of thousands of borrowers in debt.”

“We are not going to back down or give an inch when it comes to defending working families,” the department said in a statement.