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This Week in Massachusetts – June 22, 2022

Posted on June 22, 2022

Will Remote Work Help Boston’s Startup Scene?

Boston Globe – The pandemic forced many companies into a massive, unplanned experiment in remote working. Local tech startups discovered they could hire talented coders, marketers, and salespeople from all over the country. Now, one question is whether that ability to draw talent from all over hurts or helps Boston’s startup scene.

Lars Albright, who has started several successful tech companies here, is betting on continued success. After selling his most recent startup, SessionM, to Mastercard and working for a few years for the credit card giant, he’s shifting to investing in startups and opening a Boston outpost for Silicon Valley firm Unusual Ventures.

“This access, where you can reach into talent pools that are not physically located in Boston, is a tailwind for companies that are trying to find the best possible talent,” Albright said in an interview over coffee at Thinking Cup on Newbury Street. “They can still be headquartered in the area, but reach out and find that talent in other parts of the country.”

Massachusetts Lawmakers are Fighting the Clock to Finish Their Term. But They’re Facing an Unusual Crush of Circumstances

Boston Globe – There are looming Supreme Court decisions. A tax-relief plan has yet to materialize. And there’s mounting pressure to act, including from a lame-duck governor hoping to button up the last of his legislative legacy.

With 42 days to complete major business, the Massachusetts Legislature’s typical late-session logjam of budget negotiations and unfinished work is being complicated by an unusual crush of circumstances.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano has privately urged lawmakers to speed the pace of their closed-door negotiations, on issues such as climate and energy legislation. Democratic leaders say they’re crafting various contingency plans for if, or when, Supreme Court decisions sweeping away abortion rights and gun safety requirements upend decades-old law.

The glut of proposals, both known and unknown, virtually guarantees there will be a torrent of major new laws put on the books this summer. It also raises the potential for a cluttered cutting room floor come Aug. 1.

“When you’re trying to make things happen and you don’t have the ability to just say, ‘Do it,’ it’s frustrating as hell,” Mariano said in an interview. The timing of the Supreme Court decisions — due within days — is “awful,” he said. “It’s the worst. Because we’re gone July 31. People have elections. No one wants to come back in the midst of a fight if they have one. It’s a challenge.”

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said the Senate is ready for a “busy and productive” final six weeks, including confronting “events outside our control.”

Perhaps of the highest interest to many on and off Beacon Hill: a potential tax- relief package.

Lawmakers have been pressed for months by Governor Charlie Baker, business leaders, and others to ease the burden on taxpayers at a time when inflation is running at a 40-year high and state revenues have far exceeded expectations. For Baker, who’s not seeking reelection, it’s also topped his final-year agenda: He tied a $700 million package of tax breaks onto his final budget proposal, and has repeatedly, and publicly, prodded the Legislature to take action.

How to Find COVID-19 Vaccinations for Kids Under Five in Massachusetts

MassLive – Children under 5 years old and as young as 6 months became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Massachusetts on Tuesday.

The long-awaited milestone in the vaccination push against the coronavirus comes days after an advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unanimously approved the shots for the only age group yet to receive them.

“We know millions of parents and caregivers are eager to get their young children vaccinated, and with today’s decision, they can,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director.

In the coming weeks, the Department of Public Health expects to have 400 vaccination locations open across the commonwealth.

Many children are expected to receive their shots at a pediatrician’s office. But the vaccines will also be available at community health centers, state vaccination sites, mobile clinics and some pharmacies, depending on the pharmacy and the child’s age, Gov. Charlie Baker’s office said.

Parents may contact their pediatrician’s office or use the state website to find other available locations.

Parents of Small Children Divided over Whether to Get Them Vaccinated against COVID

Boston Globe – Katherine Haenschen told her 2-year-old son they will both be crying at the next visit to the pediatrician — the boy, because he’ll get stuck with a needle, and the mom because she’ll be overjoyed to finally protect him from COVID-19.

“We put our children in car seats. We put safety covers over electrical outlets,” she said. “This is another piece of doing the best we can to protect our children.”

But in her eagerness to vaccinate her child, Haenschen, a Northeastern University professor who lives in Brookline, may be in the minority among parents.

As the long-awaited and newly authorized COVID-19 vaccines for children 6 months through 5 years old start arriving in the state this week, it remains an open question whether parents will leap at the chance to vaccinate their kids.

survey in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation found only about one in five planned to vaccinate their child as soon as the vaccine became available.

And that’s about what Dr. Lloyd Fisher, a Worcester pediatrician, expects from his patient population. He ordered enough vaccine for 20 percent of them, and the doses arrived Monday morning.

The Fed Will Put the Economy in a Coma If That’s What’s Needed to Whip Inflation

Boston Globe – What a mess.

Consumer prices are accelerating faster than at any time since the early 1980s. The average 30-year mortgage rate is approaching 6 percent, the highest in 14 years. The stock market is melting down.

And here’s the kicker: Times will most likely get tougher before they get better.

As the Federal Reserve drives up interest rates in a high-stakes bid to bring down inflation, more people will be out of a job. Real wages (adjusted for inflation) will stagnate or fall. Businesses will fail. People who can least afford it will take the biggest hit.

Still, if we’re lucky and all the breaks go our way — most helpful would be an end to the war in Ukraine, which has led to spikes in food and energy prices — we may dodge a full-blown recession.

Instead, inflation might gradually recede, as the higher borrowing costs engineered by the Fed restrain but don’t crush consumer spending and business investment. In this “soft landing” scenario, a version of which was laid out by the central bank last week in its most recent projections, the economy would continue to expand, though at a far slower pace than last year. Unemployment would climb but not dramatically.

Child Care is in Crisis. Here’s What’s Being Done about It

WBUR – There’s more than one way to tally the cost of child care.

The sticker price for families is certainly high: Tuition in Massachusetts is the highest among the 50 states. But the system takes other tolls.

Most child care providers run their businesses on razor-thin margins and can only afford to pay their staff around the state’s minimum wage. And there are broader impacts: parents stay out of the workforce, businesses are short-staffed and children miss out on educational opportunities.

While these struggles are not new, the pandemic has made them harder to ignore. As staff quit and centers closed, a struggling system was pushed closer to a breaking point. And more business leaders and politicians began to see child care not as a private burden for families and caregivers, but as an urgent public problem.

Business Leaders Want State to Cover ‘Overpayment’ Waivers

Eagle Tribune – Business leaders are calling on the state to cover the cost of providing waivers to hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts’ jobless claimants who owe ‘overpayments’ for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Charlie Baker filed a $3.5 billion economic development bill in April that included $300 million to cover state waivers for overpayments, but a legislative committee yanked that provision from the spending plan before releasing a scaled-down version of the bill earlier this week.

On Thursday, the state Department of Unemployment Assistance’s advisory board tabled a proposal to approve the Baker administration’s overpayment waiver plan, noting the uncertainty over funding for the waivers. The six-member panel voted to postpone a decision on the proposal until its meeting next month.

Board member Chris Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, requested the delay in making the waiver policy permanent. He said authorizing waivers without allocating the funds would be an “unfunded mandate” that would saddle employers with the cost for the overpayments.q

Gas Prices Tick Down to $5 Per Gallon

Boston Herald – Drivers aren’t exactly cheering as they head past their local gas station, but pump prices are finally moving in the right direction across the Bay State.

The average gas price for regular in Massachusetts ticked down 4 cents in the last week to $5 a gallon, according to AAA Northeast. The state’s average gas price hit an all-time record a week ago when it was $5.04 per gallon.

“It’s encouraging to see prices finally edge down,” Mark Schieldrop of AAA Northeast told the Herald on Monday. “We may see below $5 in the next week.”

Prices have skyrocketed in the last few months following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. and other countries have banned Russian oil.

Gas is now 70% more expensive than this time last year, when the average for regular in Massachusetts was $2.95 a gallon.

The average in the Bay State was $4.73 a month ago, and the hope is that last week’s downward trend continues to move prices back toward that.

Early Care Push Still Alive

State House News – Workforce support and affordability for families will be key components of an early education and care bill set to surface soon in the Senate, top Democrats in that branch said Tuesday.

Lamenting the pandemic’s drag on women’s participation in the workforce and the challenges that families face in paying for and accessing care, Senate President Karen Spilka told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce the Senate would “be releasing a bill shortly” but did not offer a specific timeline.

“This legislation, if and when fully implemented, will be transformative in expanding access to high-quality, sustainable and affordable early education and care for young children and families in Massachusetts,” Spilka said, drawing applause from the crowd gathered at the InterContinental Hotel for her breakfast address. “It’s overdue.”

Spilka said the forthcoming bill also “recognizes that our workforce needs significant supports, through salary, and education and training.”

Formal legislative sessions conclude for the year on July 31. By waiting until so late in the session to offer a plan, senators are leaving themselves with a tight timeline to produce and pass a bill and to get buy-in from their House counterparts on whatever the Senate ultimately proposes on child care.

With several major bills unresolved, the Senate president said she is “feeling very optimistic” about what lawmakers can accomplish by the end-of-session deadline.

Spilka pointed to a compromise voting reform package that’s now on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk and said she is “extremely hopeful” that a comprehensive mental health reform bill can become law, now that the Senate and House have each approved their own bills.

Mental health is one of several areas where House and Senate lawmakers have both passed legislation but will need to agree on final language before sending Baker a bill, along with bills addressing energy and climate, governance at the state soldiers’ homes in Chelsea and Holyoke, legalization of sports betting, the cannabis industry, and the state budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Both branches infused their budgets with funding aimed at shoring up the early education and care field after the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, though they allocate the money differently.

Spilka said the Senate’s fiscal 2023 spending plan “invests a record $1.13 billion – that’s $1.13 billion – to transform the child-care system,” formalizes the practice of reimbursing providers based on enrollment rather than attendance, and dedicates a new $250 million to continue the Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, stabilization grant program for care providers.

Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senate chair of the Education Committee, said those grants, which originated during the pandemic, have been “truly transformative for the sector.”

Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said lawmakers are talking about how to make the grants permanent and about increasing subsidy reimbursement rates and “providing direct support to the workforce for things like scholarships, so that folks can get associate’s degrees [or] bachelor’s degrees, loan forgiveness programs and other workforce supports.”

“A key part of the sector is having a workforce that is well-compensated, with the training and the professional development and the credentialing that they need, and so that will definitely be a high priority in the legislation, along with increasing affordability for families and also helping providers to be able to provide high-quality care that is sustainable,” Lewis said.

Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch, the Education Committee’s House chair, led a special commission that in March reported that the early education and care system in Massachusetts does not meet the needs of many children, families and employers and issued a series of recommendations it said would require “upwards of $1.5 billion annually over time” to fully implement.

The Education Committee last month advanced a bill that Peisch and Lewis described as “a significant step forward in the multi-session implementation” of the commission’s recommendations. Senate and House versions of the bill (S 2883, H 4795) are now in the custody of each branch’s Ways and Means Committee.

Health Care

Mental Health Bill Clears House

The state House on Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would expand access to mental healthcare across the commonwealth.

“Behavioral health care is as important as physical healthcare,” State Rep. Adrian Madaro, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery said. “This bill could not be more timely, or more needed.”

The bill, an act addressing barriers to care for mental health, would require insurance coverage without prior authorization for acute mental health treatment and for annual mental health wellness exams.

The state Senate, in November, passed their version of the bill, S.2584, which has similar provisions, but also sets a reimbursement floor for mental health clinicians at the rate primary care providers receive for preventative services.

“I am so grateful to Speaker (Ronald) Mariano, (House Ways and Means) Chair (Aaron) Michelwitz, Chair Madaro, and the entire House for advancing a version of the Mental Health ABC Act 2.0,” Senate Pres. Karen Spilka said ahead of the House’s Thursday vote.

“If there is any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that more people are willing to talk openly about their need for quality mental and behavioral health care. Yet our delivery system is broken, and people can’t easily get the care they need and deserve,” she said.

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

As Gas Companies Plan for a Climate Future, Their Vision: More 

Boston Globe – Up on the fourth floor of Westin Copley Place this week, hundreds of natural gas representatives mingled among glossy posters and tables littered with branded baseball hats and Oreos. Among the niceties and exchanges of business cards it became quickly clear — the climate crisis is very much on people’s minds. Another thing became clear, too. The solution, as they see it, is more gas.

“Additional natural gas pipelines are the answer to many of the questions we face today,” Amy Andryszak, chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, told a panel audience Tuesday.

It was the 27th annual gathering of the Northeast LDC Gas Forum — nicknamed the “Best Deal-Making Conference” in the industry, according to the organizers, and seemingly as good a place as any to get the gas industry’s view of the climate crisis as it is lived every day in the executive suites, field sites, and maintenance trucks of the scores of companies that operate in New England.

Elsewhere in the world, on this very day, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued the latest of his increasingly desperate pleas for world action, saying that the planet is headed toward climate chaos and that “new funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional.”

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Whiter Boston Neighborhoods Have More Restaurants Serving Booze

Boston Globe – As the Boston City Council debates efforts to get more liquor licenses in the hands of entrepreneurs of color, a new report is putting hard numbers behind what many Boston politicians and restaurateurs have known for years: Generally speaking, the whiter the Boston neighborhood, the easier it is to find a restaurant with a license to serve booze.

The city’s four neighborhoods with the highest number of white residents — at least 75 percent for each — hold eight times as many liquor licenses per person as Boston’s four most diverse neighborhoods, where the population is at least 75 percent people of color, according to the report, which was published by OFFSITE, a firm that focuses on training and development for those in the bar and restaurant industry.

There are other damning stats: Just 2 percent of on-premise liquor license holders identify as Black, according to the report, in a city where Black residents make up 24 percent of the population.

A key problem: Boston doesn’t control its own destiny when it comes to its liquor license cap. The process of expanding the number of liquor licenses throughout the state is controlled nearly exclusively on Beacon Hill, an antiquated vestige of an era when Protestant state legislators feared that, if left to their own devices, Irish Catholic leaders in Boston would flood the city with whiskey.

Taxation and Budget

Boston Herald – Drivers paying more than ever before at the pump could possibly see gas prices dip a bit, as President Biden on Monday said he’s exploring a federal gas tax holiday.

“Yes, I’m considering it,” Biden told reporters about a potential gas tax holiday. “I hope to have a decision based on the data I’m looking for by the end the week.”

The federal gas tax is 18 cents a gallon, so a gas tax holiday could save the average driver about $3 each fill up. The average price for regular is now $5 per gallon in Massachusetts, resulting in the average motorist paying more than $70 to fill up their tanks.

“It’s not going to be a huge relief for most people,” said Michael Klein, professor of international economics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Klein also noted that gas tax revenue is earmarked for highways and bridges.

“We have huge infrastructure needs in the country, and that (a gas tax holiday) would be damaging to meeting those needs,” Klein said.

Biden’s comments about the gas tax on Monday come after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Sunday said a gas tax holiday is “certainly worth considering.”

“President Biden wants to do anything he possibly can to help consumers,” Yellen said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Gas prices have risen a great deal, and it’s clearly burdening households, so he stands ready to work with Congress.”

It remains to be seen how a federal gas tax holiday would affect demand, noted Mark Schieldrop of AAA Northeast.

“Overall, I still think the forces of supply and demand, and what’s going on with the economy will have the biggest impact on the long-term trend of gas prices,” he added.

Estate-Tax Changes Appear Likely

State House News – The odds of estate-tax reform appeared to improve Tuesday, and a potential tax-relief package could also feature some ideas that haven’t yet been publicly floated, Senate President Karen Spilka said Tuesday.

With inflation high and the state on track for another major revenue surplus this fiscal year, legislative leaders for weeks have been saying they plan to produce a tax relief package but a plan has not surfaced with less than six weeks remaining to get a bill through the Legislature and to Gov. Charlie Baker.

“We are currently in discussions about a tax-relief proposal, which may include changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the estate tax, among others – some of which you may have heard suggestions, some of which not,” she said. “And we will continue to ensure that Massachusetts is open, competitive and inclusive and that these same values will guide our tax relief proposal.”

Baker filed his own nearly $700 million relief package in January, which featured breaks for seniors, renters, parents, and low-income workers. Baker’s bill, one of dozens still before the Revenue Committee, also proposed lowering the short-term capital gains tax rate and changing the threshold where the state’s estate tax kicks in — currently $1 million.

Estate tax changes appear to be emerging as a broad area of consensus, though the Democrats who control the Legislature may differ in their precise approach from what Baker proposed. The estate tax is a transfer tax on the value of a decedent’s estate before distribution to any beneficiary.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has described Massachusetts as an “outlier among the states” on the estate tax, noting that the Bay State and Oregon’s $1 million taxation thresholds are the lowest of the 12 states with estate taxes.

Under Baker’s plan, the threshold at which the estate tax kicks in would double to $2 million. While the current tax applies to the full value of estates over $1 million, Baker’s bill (H 4361) would tax only the amount above $2 million.