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This Week in Massachusetts, May 24

Posted on May 24, 2022

Amid New Surge, Baker Resists Call for Mask Mandate

MassLive – Gov. Charlie Baker touted Massachusetts’ high vaccination rate — including among vulnerable residents at greater risk of developing serious coronavirus-related complications — as he again resisted calls Thursday to reinstate COVID-19 safeguards to tamp down the commonwealth’s rising caseload.

More than 80% of adult residents are vaccinated against COVID, with around half of that demographic also boosted, Baker said during a press conference in Boston following a National Governors Association event focused on computer science education.

Meanwhile, the vaccination rate among seniors exceeds 95%, Baker said.

“COVID is a very transmissible virus, and each new strain appears to be as transmissible or more so than the one before,” Baker said. “But I think at this point in time, for most people — especially those who are vaccinated — their experience with COVID is something akin to the flu. And I think that’s an important piece to remember and remind people.”

Baker’s comments Thursday came two days after he abruptly canceled public events. A spokesman said the governor had tested negative for COVID but was “not feeling well.” Baker resumed in-person events Wednesday after testing negative for the virus in the morning.

Massachusetts Will Send $500 Payments to 330,000 Residents, Essential Workers

MassLive – Some 330,000 Massachusetts residents should expect to receive $500 payments in June, the Baker administration said Thursday as it announced the second round of the COVID-19 Essential Employee Premium Pay Program.

That amounts to $165 million, funded through federal COVID relief dollars. Checks will be mailed automatically to eligible Bay Staters.

The first round of the program in March distributed $500 checks to about 480,000 people, officials said. People who received those payments are not eligible for this latest stimulus funding.

Also not eligible are those who received unemployment benefits in 2021 or a coronavirus-linked payment from the Massachusetts state government as their employer.

The Baker administration will gauge eligibility for the program’s second phase based on 2021 tax returns. The criteria encompasses individuals who earned at least $13,500, with their total income at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, officials said.

That equates to a maximum income threshold for a single filer of $38,640. The maximum threshold is $52,260 for a household of two, $65,880 for a household of three, $79,500 for a household of four, $93,120 for a household of five, $106,740 for a household of six, $120,360 for a household of seven and $133,980 for a household of eight.

Grants for Restaurants, Small Businesses locked in Senate

Roll Call – Deficit-conscious senators blocked the US Senate from considering a $48 billion aid package for restaurants and other small businesses Thursday, likely dealing a fatal blow to a effort to provide a final round of relief for industries that suffered major revenue losses during the pandemic.

The Senate did not invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the small-business aid bill, in a 52-43 procedural vote that was subject to a 60-vote threshold.

All but five of the 50 Senate Republicans voted against cloture, which was more than enough to mount a successful filibuster to prevent the Senate from even considering the measure for debate.

Senate Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., worked on the small-business aid package for months. The duo drew on past bipartisan proposals in an attempt to spread benefits far and wide, offering relief to stakeholders ranging from stage, lighting and sound providers for theaters to minor league sports franchises.

“We must pass this legislation to keep these vital parts of America’s economy and America’s social and community life going,” Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor Thursday before the vote. “When minor league teams closed, entire towns have fewer options for coming together.  When theaters can’t open because businesses they rely on closed down, it disintegrates the fabric of our communities.”

Massachusetts Job Market Weakens in April

Boston Globe – The Massachusetts job market hit a speed bump in April, with the pace of hiring slowing and the labor force barely expanding as the Federal Reserve attempts to cool off the economy.

Employers added 10,500 jobs last month, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said on Friday. That was down from an upwardly revised gain of 21,500 jobs in March, and below the average of 18,500 new jobs over the previous six months.

The state’s unemployment rate dropped 0.2 percentage point to 4.1 percent and remained higher than the national rate of 3.6 percent in April.

The Fed is attempting to tame inflation by boosting interest rates. The higher borrowing costs are aimed at reducing the big gap between demand for goods and services and supply. That imbalance has helped push the rate of growth in consumer prices to a 40-year high.

Omicron Variant Caused more Deaths in Massachusetts in Shorter Period than Delta

WGBH – The omicron variant of SARS-COV-2 caused more “excess deaths” in Massachusetts in eight weeks this year than the delta variant did in 23 weeks when it was the dominant variant. Excess deaths are a measure of how many more deaths occur in a given time period than would normally be predicted for a population.

The excess deaths caused by omicron during the study period occurred despite existing evidence that those who caught that version of COVID-19 tended to have less dangerous outcomes, according to a new study published Friday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study found 2,294 excess deaths in Massachusetts during the omicron surge from late December 2021 to late February of this year — 16% more than the 1,975 deaths reported during the delta variant surge that lasted from June to December of last year. The study attributes the increase in excess deaths to omicron’s high contagiousness.

“The data that we published really slams home an important point for me,” said Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the lead author of the study, “which is that — even in a state that is highly vaccinated and in which there have been a lot of infections, so people have a lot of immunity — still, a variant that’s quote unquote ‘milder’ can cause this massive amount of increase in mortality.”

Parents Scramble to Find Formula for Infants as Shortage Continues

Boston Globe – One night in February, Nick and Monée Vance received a series of terrifying texts from friends and family members.

Didn’t their daughter drink Similac Pro-Advance? Check out this article, they said, sending links to the news that the formula had been recalled.

The Vances had already spent most of their then-six-month-old daughter’s infancy scrambling to find formula amid a shortage caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues. When loved ones flooded their phones with articles announcing the infant milk recall, the young couple panicked. At first, they weren’t sure whether the liquid formula they’d already fed her was a part of the announcement. It wasn’t, but the emergency boxes of formula powder in their pantry were among those being recalled.

And then, as the Vances feared, the shuttering of an Abbott Laboratories plant in Michigan, amid an investigation of suspected foodborne illness, made formula even tougher to find. In Massachusetts, some parents are driving across state lines to find supplies. They’re scouring the Internet for support and hoping their small stash will last them through the chaos.

The Vances have driven across the Commonwealth, scoured Amazon to no avail, and relied on loved ones to help them buy formula.

Health Care

When will Little Kids get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

WBUR – A third pediatric dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children 6 months to under 5 years of age prompted a strong immune response, with a safety profile that was similar to placebo, the companies said.

Pfizer’s pediatric COVID-19 vaccine has an efficacy of 80.3%, according to a preliminary analysis, and meets “all immunobridging criteria required for Emergency Use Authorization,” the company said Monday. The results are based on clinical trials in which kids from six months to age 5 got three doses of the company’s vaccine.

Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, plan to submit the new data to the Food and Drug Administration this week, bringing families with young children one step closer to a long-awaited vaccine.

The FDA also updated the schedule for its vaccine advisory committee, saying it will meet to discuss pediatric COVID-19 vaccines on June 15.

The regimen has three doses

The size of Pfizer’s pediatric dose is one-tenth of its adult dose. The company had originally tested a two-dose regimen, but mixed results prompted Pfizer to test a three-dose regimen.

The third dose was “well tolerated among 1,678 children under 5 years of age with a safety profile similar to placebo,” Pfzier said as it announced the news.

Kids in the trial received the third shot at least two months after their second dose, the company said, adding that at the time of the vaccine trial, omicron had become the predominant COVID-19variant in the U.S.

Planned Parenthood Employees Look to Unionize

MetroWest Daily News – Workers at Planned Parenthood clinics in Marlborough, Boston, Worcester and Springfield are looking to unionize, citing the need for better recruitment and retention in the face of ongoing challenges to reproductive rights and abortion access nationwide.

Nearly 200 Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM) employees will vote on whether to become members of 1199SEIU, a health care union with members throughout Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida and Washington, D.C., according to the union’s website.

The organization is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which already represents nearly 1,000 Planned Parenthood workers in New York, Maine, D.C. and Colorado, according to a 1199SEIU press release. The National Labor Relations Board will set a date for the union election.

By uniting, Planned Parenthood workers can ensure they have a voice in their workplace and that those on the frontlines play a role in making decisions to improve their jobs and the care they provide, 1199SEIU Vice President Dana Alas said in an email interview with the Daily News.

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

Woburn Startup Aims to Break China’s Grip on Rare Metals

Boston Globe – Clean energy can be a dirty business, especially when extracting the minerals that are vital to building green technologies like electric cars. But a Woburn startup called Phoenix Tailings says it has developed a pollution-free way to refine rare earth metals from mining waste.

In theory, at least, that’s a breakthrough that could turn rare earth mining into a major US industry, while loosening China’s stranglehold on the global market.

In traditional mining, “you go after maybe one or two metals within an ore source, throwing away anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of the ore,” said Anthony Balladon, Phoenix Tailings’ cofounder. “We thought this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.”

Balladon’s 15-person company plans to extract valuable minerals from the rubble left over by most mines, known in the industry as “tailings.” The team is developing methods to capture everything from iron to aluminum to silica. But for starters, Phoenix is focused on the rare earths, exotic metals with names like neodymium and dysprosium. Tiny amounts of these metals are essential to all sorts of advanced gadgets — smartphones, headphones, power-generating windmills, and the motors of electric cars.

Rare earths are found all over the world, but in extremely low concentrations that make it very hard to refine the stuff. Existing methods use massive amounts of energy and require highly toxic chemicals such as hydrochloric acid. And according to Walter Filho of the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, producing one ton of a rare earth metal generates about 2,000 tons of waste matter.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

As Affirmative-Action Decision Looms, Colleges Seek Alternative Paths to Diversity

Boston Globe – Alarmed that the US Supreme Court could strike down affirmative action next year, higher education leaders and thinkers have begun to strategize: How can they continue diversifying elite college campuses without using race as a factor in admissions?

The court is poised to hear two cases this fall about the use of race in selective college admissions, including one focused on Harvard’s admissions policy. The court’s rightward shift, and the conservative majority’s recently leaked draft opinion in an abortion case, which signaled its willingness to overturn established precedent, suggests to many observers that the end of affirmative action may be imminent.

But even as they’ve expressed concern that such a decision could reverse decades of effort to break down systemic barriers blocking marginalized groups from attending elite institutions, higher education leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to diversity.

“Regardless of the court’s decision, we will continue to advance our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals,” said Anthony Monaco, president of Tufts University who is departing next year. “Diversity is vital to creating a climate that encourages learning both in and outside of the classroom, fosters respectful conversations across differences, and provides all our students with transformational experiences.”

Taxation and Budget

Surtax Opponents Warn Against Beacon Hill Blank Check

State House News – Opponents of the proposed surtax on household income over $1 million launched their campaign Monday morning to defeat the Constitutional amendment on November’s ballot, focusing on the potential impact on small businesses and retirees as well as the possibility that the Legislature treats the estimated $1.3 billion in annual surtax revenue as a “blank check.”

The Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment, a group of small businesses, chambers of commerce, some of the state’s most influential trade organizations, retirees and concerned citizens, formally kicked off its anti-surtax efforts and said its members have “united to communicate to voters the damage this massive tax increase will have on our state’s economy.”

“Proponents of the amendment claim that it will raise taxes only on Massachusetts’ highest earners, but in practice, it will harm hardworking families across the state,” Dan Cence, a veteran lobbyist and political strategist and spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment, said. “Massachusetts already has a budget surplus of billions of dollars. We must work together to strengthen our economy and ensure Massachusetts remains a place where small business owners can thrive.”

Massachusetts voters will be asked in November whether the Massachusetts Constitution should be amended to impose a new 4 percent surtax on annual household income in excess of $1 million to raise money for education and transportation. The change is proposed as a Constitutional amendment because the state Constitution currently requires that a tax on income be applied evenly to all residents.

If the surtax is approved, the first $1 million of household income would still be taxed at the current 5 percent rate and all household income above and beyond that first $1 million would be taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent. Estimates put the annual revenue that could be generated by the surtax at about $1.3 billion and supporters pitch the idea as a way to provide a sustainable revenue source for education and transportation without dipping further into the pockets of most residents.

But the Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment and other opponents have repeatedly highlighted how the so-called millionaire’s tax could affect people who might not typically be thought of as millionaires, like small business owners that file as pass-through entities for tax purposes or people who plan to sell their company to support their own retirement.

“The Tax Hike Amendment is not just a tax on people making a million dollars a year. It will also tax the nest eggs of longtime homeowners and small business owners whose retirement depends on their investments,” the coalition wrote on the fact sheets. “That is because, unlike federal taxes, this amendment would treat one-time gains from selling a home or business as regular income, pushing many retirees and small business owners into the new higher tax bracket, and nearly doubling their taxes.”

Supporters of the surtax have said that concerns about its effects on small business sales are overblown, pointing to a March analysis from the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center that said taxes would only be due on the capital gain — the increase in value over time — rather than the total price.

Rep. Jim O’Day, the House sponsor of the proposed Constitutional amendment, last June rejected opponents’ claims that the surtax would unduly harm small businesses in the Bay State by asserting that “businesses earning over a million dollars, in my estimation, are not small businesses.”

In its launch Monday, the coalition also called attention to the fact that while the amendment itself would require the surtax revenue to be spent on transportation and education, it would not necessarily lead to actual increases in spending on transportation and education because future Legislatures could stop appropriating money from other revenue sources to those areas.

“As the former head of the MBTA, I know there is zero guarantee that the money raised from this amendment will increase education and transportation spending. Due to a loophole in the amendment, ‘subject to appropriation’ means legislators can take this money and use it for their own pet projects — it means giving Beacon Hill a blank check with no accountability,” Brian Shortsleeve, a former general manager at the T who has since founded M33 Growth, said.

Lisa Alcock, a former public school teacher, echoed the same sentiment in her comments on the coalition’s website. She said the amendment is “deceptive” and that “the politicians who put this on the ballot are giving themselves a blank check to redirect existing funding for education and transportation to their own pet projects, with no accountability.”

Worcester City Councilor At-Large Khrystian King addressed that line of criticism earlier this month when the Fair Share for Massachusetts campaign officially launched its pro-surtax effort.

“We know that the devil’s in the details in how the money will be used, we acknowledge that,” he said.

A Fair Share for Massachusetts spokesman said the language of the amendment is “an ironclad dedication that the funds raised by this amendment must be spent on those two areas” and that the campaign feels confident that the Legislature — which last summer voted 159-41 to put the question to voters — intends to increase spending on transportation and education.

The Massachusetts High Technology Council, which was successful in getting the 2018 version of the surtax amendment tossed off the ballot, is leading a legal effort to influence how the surtax question could be described to voters when they get their ballot with a particular emphasis on the potential that education and transportation spending is not increased despite the surtax – decisions on spending are made by the Legislature, which experiences turnover every two years.

The Supreme Judicial Court this month heard arguments related to the complaint that the surtax summary that Attorney General Maura Healey has prepared for voters will mislead them.

The suit seeks to have the SJC order that ballot materials tell voters that “the Legislature could choose to reduce funding on education and transportation from other sources and replace it with the new surtax revenue because the proposed amendment does not require otherwise.”

The Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment is made up of: 126 Self Storage, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, AlerisLife Inc., Ballast Lane Applications LLC, Boston Sword and Tuna, Brandon Landscaping, David Kindred Homes Inc., Diversified Healthcare Trust, EFR Mechanical, IBC Corporation, Industrial Logistics Properties Trust, M33 Growth, MA High Tech Council, MA Seafood Collaborative, National Federation of Independent Businesses, Norfolk & Dedham Group, North Central MA Chamber of Commerce, Office Properties Income Trust, Optikos, Pioneer Institute, PR Restaurants, Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Service Properties Trust, Seven Hills Realty Trust, Sonesta International Hotels Corporation, Springfield Chamber of Commerce, The RMR Group, TravelCenters of America Inc., Trudeau Construction, Western MA Economic Development Council, and Westside Finishing Co.

Senate Amendments Would Add $3.5 Billion to Budget

State House News – The Massachusetts Senate today launches debate on its $49.7 billion fiscal 2023 budget and senators are eager to make major changes to the bill authored by Senate budget chief Michael Rodrigues.

According to a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation analysis, the 1,178 budget amendments filed this year have a total fiscal impact of $3.5 billion, with 60 percent of amendments earmarking funds for local projects and totaling $280 million. If history is a judge, the vast majority of those spending proposals will fail, as senators usually agree to tens of millions of added spending.

Senate Democrats, who hold 37 of the branch’s 40 seats, are also determined to load the spending bill (S 4) with policy proposals, which are reflected in 260 amendments. Most of those will also likely fizzle out.

Budget bills in both branches typically attract scores of amendments from lawmakers who are aware that budgets make it to the governor’s desk, unlike many of their standalone proposals that are dying while technically “under review” in various committees.

There are 261 budget amendments that propose new outside sections to the budget, MTF said. Such budget riders, which often have nothing to do with spending, have come in and out of favor over the years, depending on which Democrats are running the branches. At times, Democrats have trumpeted efforts to keep policy riders out of spending bills as a good government reform.

Thirty-eight amendments propose tax law changes, but some are duplicative, MTF said, leaving 19 separate tax changes on the table.

Budget deliberations start on Tuesday and senators usually motor through amendments to finish well before Memorial Day weekend.

Most amendments are dispensed with without public debate. Senators often withdraw proposals after learning through private talks that their ideas lack support. To speed things along, senators also adopt and reject large bundles of amendments, often by logging them electronically into “yes” and “no” groupings and voice-voting them up or down without any public explanation.