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This Week in Massachusetts – May 2

Posted on May 2, 2023

Downtown Boston Storefronts Reimagine Themselves Post-COVID

Boston Globe – Since February, Lee Morgan and Patrick Brewster have been serving canapés and cucumber sandwiches in a meticulously decorated storefront on Tremont Street. The Silver Dove Afternoon Tea Room is an anomaly downtown, open only from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

It’s a hub of finger-food, not business, vastly different from the sort of spots that populated downtown not so long ago: barbershops, boutiques, and dry cleaners for the office worker; no-frills coffee joints; a few fine restaurants and a host of establishments that dish up lunch in a to-go bowl.

“After the pandemic, there are so many empty storefronts downtown,” Brewster said. “You can’t put a fast-casual restaurant in all of them. It gives us the opportunity to do something a little bit different.”

N.H. Work Force Shortage Hinders Economic Growth

Boston Globe – In his first year as head of one of the state’s most influential business groups, New Hampshire’s Business & Industry Association’s President Mike Skelton took a tour of the state, visiting his members and learning about the biggest challenges they face today.

He told the Globe what he learned, why the housing crisis is the biggest barrier to economic growth in the state, and how Manchester is the city that would never die.

Skelton was born in Manchester and studied political science at Saint Anselm. He was the president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce before taking over as head of the BIA.

Head of CPA Group to Retire; Deputy Will Step into Top Job

Boston Globe – Amy Pitter, the head of the Massachusetts Society of Certified Public Accountants, plans to retire on Dec. 31, the trade group announced on Monday.

Zach Donah, currently the group’s deputy CEO and former vice president of advocacy, will take over as CEO and president on Jan. 1, 2024. As part of the leadership transition, Donah was promoted to deputy CEO on Monday. Donah was selected by a search committee of MassCPAs’ board of directors.

The group represents about 11,500 people in the accounting field.

Pitter is a former Massachusetts Department of Revenue commissioner who was named president and CEO in 2015. Donah, meanwhile, had joined the group in 2013 and had taken the lead on a number of public-policy issues.

“In the years I’ve worked with Zach, he has developed a track record of leadership, not only in the accounting industry, but also within the association and business communities,” Pitter said.

Fed Set to Raise Rates Yet Again. Then What?

Boston Globe –  The Federal Reserve is on track to raise its benchmark interest rate for the 10th time on Wednesday, the latest step in its yearlong effort to curb inflation with the fastest pace of hikes in four decades.

Yet economists and Wall Street traders will be more interested in what the Fed and chair Jerome Powell signal in a statement and at a news conference about a bigger question: What comes next? And on that note, they may be disappointed.

Economists say Powell will likely hint that the Fed is edging closer to a long-awaited pause in its rate increases. Yet he won’t necessarily send a clear sign that this week’s hike will be the Fed’s last. Instead, he will probably stress that further rate hikes could happen if inflation were to stay persistently high, well above the Fed’s 2 percent target rate.

“He wants to kind of tell the market, ‘Don’t relax. Don’t be complacent. We could still hike more if we think we need to, but we don’t know if we have to yet,’ ” said Derek Tang, an economist at LHMeyer, an economic consulting firm.

First Republic Collapse is Felt in Boston

Boston Globe – Is that the last of them?

That’s the big lingering question after First Republic Bank was taken over by federal regulators and sold to JPMorgan Chase in the wee hours of Monday morning.

It was the third US regional bank failure since March, when Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank collapsed.

Bankers and regulators alike are hoping that the worst of the recent banking turmoil is over.

“This is getting near the end of it, and, hopefully, this helps stabilize everything,” JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon said on a call with journalists Monday. “The American banking system is extraordinarily sound.”

Needing Younger Workers, Federal Officials Relax Rules on Past Drug Use

New York Times – Not long ago, urinating in a cup for a drug test was a widely accepted, if annoying, requirement to start a new job. The legalization of marijuana in more and more states in recent years upended that, prompting many employers to shelve hiring rules from the “Just Say No” era.

There was a major holdout: the federal government, by far the nation’s largest employer. But now, it too is significantly relaxing drug screening rules as agencies struggle to replenish the ranks of a rapidly aging workforce in a tight job market.

During the past five years, the US military gave more than 3,400 new recruits who failed a drug test on their first day a grace period to try again, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Agencies like the CIA and the FBI have adopted more lenient rules regarding past use of marijuana among job candidates, officials acknowledge.

And later this year, the Biden administration is expected to take another major step, scaling back how deeply the government delves into the drug histories of people applying for a security clearance.

Administration Seeks Statewide Economic Growth

Boston Business Journal – Gov. Maura Healey and state Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao say they have a plan to support entrepreneurs in all parts of the state and spur economic growth across Massachusetts, from Pittsfield to Provincetown. In an exclusive interview, the state leaders said there are “a lot of good seeds” in Central and Western Massachusetts, but there’s still some growing to do to reach that “tipping point.”

College Internships are Back, and the Competition is Fierce

WBUR – For many of the region’s college students, warming weather signals the end of classes and the start of summer internship season. Hannah Ng, a junior at Boston College, started her quest for one of those coveted positions in October.

“It was actually really stressful and very time consuming,” she said of the hours spent writing cover letters or scheduling interviews. “I think my social life kind of suffered over the past few months.”

Ng is a business analytics and finance major. She said she applied to 73 internships, both inside and outside of Massachusetts. That was modest compared to some of her classmates, who applied to more than 100.

“So many people have told me it’s just like a numbers game, which is apply to as many as you can, and you’ll get at least one,” she recalled. “But it’s very hard to believe when you’re in the process, and you keep on getting rejections.”

Research shows strong evidence that internships contribute to higher academic performance for students and can lead to higher post-college earnings. Internships also can benefit employers by helping them build a pipeline of skilled workers.

During the height of COVID, some businesses cancelled internship programs. Others made them remote. Since then, internships appear to have recovered from their pandemic dip, but some students and college career advisors are finding the competition for these opportunities is intense.

Nationwide, employers said they plan to increase intern hiring this year by about 9.1%, according to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Galvin Levies $2.5 Mil Fine In Securities Case

State House NewsA Missouri broker-dealer will be required to pay a $2.5 million fine and more than $700,000 in restitution after allegedly failing to prevent one of its agents from taking advantage of Massachusetts customers.

Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees the securities division, announced Monday a consent order with Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc., which was previously ordered to pay $400,000 in fines related to a pair of consent orders in 2018 and 2021.

The secretary’s office said a former agent of the broker-dealer, Joseph Crespi, deployed “predatory” sales practices with elderly, nonprofit and church clients to boost commissions over a years-long period. Crespi was suspected of making trades not authorized by clients, in one case involving a deceased client’s account, according to Galvin’s office.

Stifel allegedly allowed Crespi’s misconduct to continue for more than three years before firing him, even though his branch manager and other internal systems flagged potential issues. In one internal communication examined by regulators, a Stifel employee said Crespi would continue his behavior because “spots of a leopard do not change.”

“As the size of this fine illustrates, I will not tolerate repeated rule-breaking by firms that enact toothless compliance and supervisory systems, while placing their own bottom line above investor protection,” Galvin said in a statement.

“This firm failed its customers when it dragged its feet for years, avoiding taking meaningful action to protect their best interests.”

In addition to the fine and restitution for Crespi’s clients, the company will also provide additional restitution to customers charged commissions on equity transactions above 5 percent, Galvin’s office said.

Health Care

Massachusetts  Set up a Mental-Health Hotline and 6,000 People Called in Three Months

WBUR – Massachusetts health officials are taking steps meant to improve access to mental-health care. One pillar of their ambitious effort is a new helpline to assist people seeking treatment. It promises to connect callers with mental-health services — 24 hours a day — and it’s free.

When someone contacts the helpline, a referral specialist will assess the situation, determine whether the person needs immediate help and locate the appropriate services. That could involve scheduling an appointment at a clinic or mental-health provider’s office, or reconnecting the person with a previous provider.

It also might mean finding treatment for a substance use disorder, locating a bed in a psychiatric facility or sending out an emergency mobile mental health team. The help is offered regardless of the caller’s insurance.

What’s behind Shortages of Adderall, Ozempic and Other Meds?

Boston GlobeShortages of drugs like Adderall are growing in the United States, and experts see no clear path to resolving them. For patients, that can mean treatment delays, medication switches and other hassles filling a prescription.

In recent months, unexpected demand spikes, manufacturing problems and tight ingredient supplies have contributed to shortages that stress patients, parents and doctors. For some drugs, such as stimulants that treat ADHD, several factors fueled a shortage and make it hard to predict when it will end.

Shortages, particularly of generic drugs, have been a longstanding problem. The industry has consolidated and some manufacturers have little incentive to solve shortages because cheap generics generate thin profits.

There were 301 active national drug shortages through this year’s first quarter, according to the University of Utah Drug Information Service. That’s 49 percent higher than the 202 recorded in the first three months of 2018.

Patients don’t feel all drug shortages because doctors may be able to substitute different medications or because other parts of the drug supply system mask the issue, said Stephen Schondelmeyer, a University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy professor.


A New Energy Source for Downtown Boston: The Charles River

Boston Globe – Policymakers have long wondered how to reduce carbon emissions caused by the heating and cooling systems in Boston’s office towers, universities, and hospitals.

It turns out one big answer to this vexing question could be found right in front of them — in the Charles River.

Vicinity Energy, the private equity-backed owner of Boston’s and Cambridge’s steam system, has signed an agreement with MAN Energy Solutions to build a low-temperature source heat pump system at Vicinity’s plant near Cambridge’s Kendall Square to make steam. The source of those low temperatures? Water from the Charles River.

Vicinity is already retrofitting its Kendall plant, which uses natural gas to fire its steam boilers and an electricity-generating turbine that also produces steam from its excess thermal energy. The company is replacing one of those gas-fired steam turbines with a boiler that will run off the electric grid, a $20 million project that will provide steam to customers who pay a premium for it to come from renewable electricity.

Vicinity will procure that power from renewable sources such as wind and solar plants, and distribute the “green” steam to customers — starting with a lab complex near Fenway Park being constructed by developer IQHQ.

Budget and Taxation

Yellen Says US could Hit Debt Ceiling as Soon as June 1

Boston Globe –  Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified Congress on Monday that the US is projected to reach its debt limit as early as June 1, if the body does not raise or suspend the debt limit before then.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Yellen urged Congress “to protect the full faith and credit of the United States by acting as soon as possible” to address the $31.4 trillion limit on its legal borrowing authority.

“We have learned from past debt limit impasses that waiting until the last minute to suspend or increase the debt limit can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise short-term borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States,” she said in the letter.

The Treasury said Monday it plans to increase its borrowing during the April to June quarter of this year, even as the federal government is close to breaching the debt limit.

Online Lottery Eyed to Boost Child Care

Newburyport News – The state’s child-care industry could receive a new source of revenue if lawmakers follow through on a plan to authorize online lottery sales and divert revenues from the games to state grants for early education providers.

The proposal, which is tucked into a state budget plan unanimously approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, would set up a cashless “iLottery” system and allow consumers to use debit cards to make purchases of MegaMillions tickets and other products.

Unlike previous proposals to shift the games online, lawmakers want to divert the estimated $200 million in new lottery revenue toward early education and child care stabilization grants.

Overall, the plan calls for nearly $500 million in funding for the Commonwealth Cares for Children program.

The program has provided grants to nearly 7,500 child care providers since 2021 to stabilize early education and child care providers impacted by the pandemic. But with federal funds drying up, state education officials are worried that without funding hundreds of state-funded child care providers could shut down.

In March, Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler told lawmakers that one in 10 so-called “C3” grant recipients would be forced to close their doors without funding.


Teachers’ Union Rallies Against MCAS

MassLive – Hundreds of teachers, staff members and employees of the state’s public education system rallied on the steps of Springfield City Hall Friday afternoon calling for the end of the state’s high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing and what they call the anti-democratic school system receivership process, better pay for the state’s teachers and the right for those teachers to strike if their needs and the needs of students are not met.

At the same time, the governing delegates of the Massachusetts Teachers Association threw their support behind legislation aimed at improving educational outcomes and prospects in the state.

The MTA convened its annual meeting of the delegates, representatives of teachers across the state, at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield for the first time in collective memory. For many years, the MTA held its annual meeting in the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. MTA President Max Page, an Amherst resident, said he wanted to show off the “413″ this year.

Delegates threw their support behind two legislative initiatives aimed at improving educational prospects in Massachusetts: The Thrive Act which encompasses elementary and high school education policy and the Cherish Act, making public high education affordable for all income levels and improving the pay and job benefits for adjunct faculty in state schools.

Educators Seek In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students

Commonwealth Magazine – The Legislature last year approved a new law giving immigrants without legal status the ability to apply for state-issued driver’s licenses. The bill had been kicking around Beacon Hill for nearly two decades, and it finally passed with enough support to override a gubernatorial veto, driven by a coalition of supporters who pressed hard for the legislation for humanitarian and practical public safety reasons.

The same momentum is starting to build this year behind legislation that would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. The legislation has also been swirling around Beacon Hill for nearly two decades, but now it’s gaining support from those who see it as the right thing to do and those with practical concerns about the growing number of job vacancies and the shrinking number of college graduates in the state.

Massachusetts’ university system draws more international students than all but two other states, and it is among the 15 states with the highest share of student populations made up of undocumented students. But there is growing concern that these “assets” are not being utilized properly, putting the state at a competitive disadvantage.

Colleges Take Differing Approaches to Dealing with AI

Boston Globe – When ChatGPT was released in late November, the artificial intelligence engine created an immediate sensation. Computer scientists, journalists, and curious people everywhere began plugging in prompts and marveling at what this advanced chatbot produced in response: a recipe, an original song, even a novel.

ChatGPT’s ability to generate persuasive-sounding text on virtually any subject also quickly raised red flags, especially among educators worried about its potential use for cheating. But five months after the program’s debut, college professors are taking varied approaches to the digital elephant in the classroom.

At Boston University, students in professor Wesley J. Wildman’s Data, Society, and Ethics class developed a policy for using artificial intelligence, including ChatGPT, this semester that has since been modified and adopted by the university’s Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences. The policy states that students must disclose any use of AI, include detailed information on how it was used, and not use AI tools during exams unless explicitly permitted.

“We are trying to embrace it and teach people how to learn, teach people how to use it, how to think with it,” Wildman said.