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This Week in Massachusetts – November 1, 2022

Posted on November 1, 2022

White House Invites Dozens of Nations for Ransomware Summit

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is bringing together three dozen nations, the European Union and a slew of private-sector companies for a two-day summit that started Monday that looks at how best to combat ransomware attacks.

The second International Counter Ransomware Summit will focus on priorities such as ensuring systems are more resilient to better withstand attacks and disrupt bad actors planning such assaults.

A senior Biden administration official cited recent attacks such as one that targeted the Los Angeles school district last month to underscore the urgency of the issue and the summit. The official previewed the event on the condition of anonymity.

Among the administration officials planning to participate in the event are FBI Director Christopher Wray, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. President Joe Biden is not expected to attend.

Participating countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, the European Commission, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

An Opportunity to Make the Cannabis Industry More Equitable

Commonwealth Magazine – For years, budding marijuana entrepreneurs – particularly those of color – have complained that the legal industry is dominated by Big Pot.

Now is the time for those advocates to take seats at the policy-making table.

The marijuana equity law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in August created a Social Equity Trust Fund, which will offer grants and loans to participants in equity programs, generally those from communities disproportionately affected by prior drug law enforcement.

Applications are now open for seats on the advisory board that will advise the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development on administering the fund. Five board members will serve five-year terms. They will be appointed by the governor, treasurer, and attorney general, and are required to include people with backgrounds in the cannabis industry, finance or commercial lending, business development, and entrepreneurship.

They must be from or have experience advocating for communities disproportionately impacted by prior drug laws. Board members must be appointed by January 9, under the law.

Cannabis Control Commissioner Nurys Camargo, in an op-ed on MassLive, urged people from harmed communities to apply. Camargo wrote that marijuana entrepreneurship can provide a pathway to economic stability and generational wealth.

But that has not been the reality for many aspiring entrepreneurs. “The communities harmed by the Commonwealth’s disproportionate enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws still find themselves at a disadvantage, while others profit off the substance that pilfered their communities,” Camargo wrote.

Camargo said the advisory board will provide crucial guidance on the creation of policies and procedures surrounding the fund “and will need to understand the systematic and social structures that have created inequity – past and present – not just business and the cannabis industry.”

“The individuals appointed to the board can make or break this trust fund for years to come,” she wrote.

Baker Expects Economic Development Bill in the “Next Couple of Weeks”

State House News – After spending nearly two months at loggerheads, there’s a chance top Democrats reach a breakthrough on their stalled economic development and tax relief bill ahead of the Nov. 8 election, at least in Gov. Charlie Baker’s view.

Baker said Thursday that he thinks a compromise version of the unanimously-approved-and-then-frozen legislation will likely emerge “sometime in the next couple of weeks,” which could put it in play before voters head to the polls with all 200 seats in the Legislature up for election.

“The timeframe people talked about previously was the end of October. The end of October, obviously, is this week, unless you want to count Halloween (on Monday),” Baker said in an interview on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.” “It’s probably going to be sometime in the next couple of weeks that we’ll probably see that bill.”

Both branches approved bills containing more than $4 billion to supercharge the state economy and deliver one-time and permanent tax relief for seniors, renters, caregivers and other Bay Staters, but top Democrats iced their plans after realizing the state must return nearly $3 billion in excess tax revenue and since late July have not been able to agree on a path forward.

Baker said he is unsure “exactly what’s going to be in” the final economic development bill. He does not expect anything that would require a roll call vote — which under legislative rules can no longer take place until the new term starts in January — such as bond authorizations.

New Hampshire Isn’t Feeling the 2024 Love

Politico – The stream of would-be presidential hopefuls that typically flows through New Hampshire has slowed to a trickle ahead of November.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) haven’t set foot in the state since the summer. Former Vice President Mike Pence headlined a fundraiser for Republican Senate nominee Don Bolduc the day after the state’s Sept. 13 primary and never came back. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed both Republican House candidates but is nowhere to be seen.

The cast of characters has dwindled on the Democratic side, too. President Joe Biden has been to reliably blue Massachusetts more times this year than to purple New Hampshire, which he last visited in April.

“It’s confusing to me for a couple of reasons,” Republican consultant Mike Dennehy, who advised one of Bolduc’s primary rivals, said in an interview. “You have New Hampshire being one of the top U.S. Senate races in the country. And you have New Hampshire as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. So where are all the political celebrities?”

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

Eversource CEO Urges Biden to Expand Natural Gas Supply

Boston Globe – The chief executive of New England’s largest utility is imploring President Biden to use his emergency powers to help protect the region from rolling blackouts this winter in an unprecedented move that underscores the growing concerns about grid reliability during times of extreme cold.

Eversource CEO Joe Nolan sent a letter to the White House on Thursday, asking for Biden to urgently address concerns about electricity reliability in New England. Nolan cites acknowledgments from grid overseer ISO New England and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that New England will not have enough natural gas to meet electricity supply needs if there’s a severe cold snap this winter. A spokeswoman confirmed this is the first time Eversource has made such a request.

The energy industry has been concerned about reliability issues in New England for years. That’s primarily because at least half of the region’s electricity comes from natural gas-fired power plants. In the winter, businesses and residents who heat with gas get priority — often prompting the power plant operators to turn to oil-fired backups, buy expensive gas on the spot market, or not run at all.

This winter, a new dynamic is at play because of the war in Ukraine. As European countries look for other sources of natural gas instead of Russia, that has driven up global demand for liquefied natural gas, meaning many LNG shipments that might otherwise make their way to New England pipes instead go to other countries. New England gets natural gas from domestic sources through two major pipeline networks, but they are often constrained in the wintertime.

Though Nolan does not mention rolling blackouts outright in his letter, he is clearly concerned about the possibility: ISO New England may need to take that step if there isn’t enough electricity to ensure the grid’s reliability.

Commonwealth Wind Says Project Cannot Move Forward without Contract Changes

State House News – A major offshore wind project in the Massachusetts pipeline “is no longer viable and would not be able to move forward” under the terms of contracts filed in May and now both developers behind the state’s next two offshore wind projects are asking state regulators to pause review of the contracts for one month amid price increases, supply shortages, and interest rate hikes.

Utility executives working with assistance from the Baker administration last year chose Avangrid’s roughly 1,200-megawatt Commonwealth Wind project and a 400 megawatt project from Mayflower Wind in the third round of offshore wind procurement to continue the state’s pursuit of establishing cleaner offshore wind power. Contracts, or power purchase agreements (PPAs), for the projects were filed with the Department of Public Utilities in May.

But last week, Commonwealth Wind filed a motion for a one-month delay in DPU’s review, telling the state that their project can no longer move forward as planned. A one-month freeze, the developer said, “would give the parties an opportunity to evaluate the current situation facing the project and potentially agree upon changes to the PPAs, along with other measures, that could allow the project to return to viability.”

“As has been publicly reported in recent weeks, global commodity price increases, in part due to ongoing war in Ukraine, sharp and sudden increases in interest rates, prolonged supply chain constraints, and persistent inflation have significantly increased the expected cost of constructing the project. As a result, the project is no longer viable and would not be able to move forward absent amendments to the PPAs,” attorneys for Commonwealth Wind wrote in their motion.

Delays in building out the state’s offshore wind potential could have ripple effects on the state’s efforts to meet emission reduction targets and its bid to reduce dependence on natural gas in the production of electricity.

Commonwealth Wind’s  brief highlights “cost saving measures, tax incentives under the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act, an increase in the PPA prices, and improvements to project efficiencies” as the possible approaches to restoring their project to viability. The developer also said that it “remains fully committed to the project and to delivering cost-effective renewable energy from the project to the residents and businesses of Massachusetts in a manner that advances the purposes of [the state’s clean energy law] and the Commonwealth’s energy and climate policies.”

The Boston Globe reported last month that a top Avangrid executive told investors that the company expected Commonwealth Wind and Park City Wind (a project intended to provide power to Connecticut) to each be delayed by a year as they sought contract revisions. CEO Pedro Azagra said Commonwealth Wind is now expected to go live in 2028, the Globe reported.

Mayflower Wind, the other developer tapped last year to help Massachusetts plug into offshore wind power, on Thursday told the DPU that it supports the request from Commonwealth Wind but did not specifically say that its project is at risk.

“A one month suspension would enable the parties to consider potential approaches to help ensure these offshore wind projects are economic and financeable under the PPAs. That assurance is especially important in this case, because the projects are among the few first-mover offshore wind projects in the region. As such, they are critically important projects to the advancement of the Commonwealth’s public policy requirements,” Mayflower Wind wrote in its response to Commonwealth Wind’s filing.

Both developers said they want to use the one-month pause to further explore how the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a slew of energy tax credits, could factor into their project finances.

Mayflower Wind said that the federal law “may provide tax incentives to the projects that could provide savings for Massachusetts customers” and that the company “agrees that the PPA parties should examine the economics and financeability of the respective projects and any opportunities to incorporate federal tax or other benefits into the analysis.”

Commonwealth Wind said that “the IRA benefits to the Project are not fully known at this time and not anticipated to make the Project economic absent other changes to the PPAs,” but told DPU that it “believes there may be potential opportunities to share benefits associated with the IRA with ratepayers and would be willing to explore those opportunities with stakeholders.”

Meet the Author

It is unclear when a DPU decision will come, but the agency had previously set a Tuesday deadline for briefs related to the latest offshore wind contract.

Both developers are already connected to roughly 800 MW offshore wind projects for Massachusetts. Vineyard Wind I, projected as the first utility-scale offshore wind farm in the nation, is in the early stages of construction and is due to come online by the end of 2023. Avangrid Renewables owns half of that project. Mayflower Wind’s initial 804 megawatt  project was originally expected to be up and running in 2025 but the company has asked the DPU to merge that project and its second 400 megawatt project to create a 1,200 megawatt wind farm  coming online in 2028.

People are Shocked at the Cost of Filling their Oil Tanks as Winter Approaches

Boston Globe – Had a delivery of home heating oil lately? Be prepared.

With many homeowners filling their tanks for the first time this season, they are facing sticker shock, paying hundreds more than they did last year and dreading the cold weather ahead.

“I was shocked by how much it cost,” said Linda Grossman, who had about 150 gallons of oil pumped into the tank in her home on Tuesday.

“It’s the most I’ve ever paid for an oil delivery in more than 30 years of living in this house,” she said. “It’s scary how expensive it is.”

The cost of Grossman’s fill-up was a staggering $803.95 — and she figures she’ll need another 450 gallons to get through the winter. Total cost for the upcoming heating season? She estimates about $3,200 — about 60 percent more than last winter, when she paid about $2,000 for oil.

And it could get worse. The international oil market is notoriously volatile, constantly buffeted by world events, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and the West’s reaction to it) and the recently announced cutback in oil production by some of the world’s largest producers, including Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Many homeowners are starting to feel the acute pain of high oil prices as they check their oil tanks and get deliveries on the cusp of the months-long heating season in New England.

House Flip May Imperil Clean Energy Push

State House News – A flip of the Congress in next week’s midterm elections could give Republicans the opening some have been looking for to repeal the federal Inflation Reduction Act, but a panel of local energy sector experts said last week they think the law can withstand the scrutiny that could be coming its way.

The IRA, which passed Congress without a single Republican vote and was signed into law in August, “makes the single largest investment in climate energy in American history” to “tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, secure our own position as a world leader in clean energy manufacturing, and put in the United States a pathway to a net-zero economy,” New England Council President James Brett said Friday as he opened a webinar on how the law will play out in New England.

As Republicans look to regain control of the U.S. House and Senate with a consistent focus on President Joe Biden and his administration’s economic and climate policies, there has already been talk of a post-midterms Republican majority repealing some or all of the IRA, particularly its corporate tax minimums, IRS funding and prescription drug reforms. Regardless of whether a new House speaker acts on the campaign season talk, the sprawling climate, health care and tax law is certain to be under the microscope in a new Congress, one analyst said.

“It’s not unlike what we saw with the Affordable Care Act back at the beginning of the Obama administration, right. So, we’re gonna see a new Congress come in and they’re just going to take out the long knives towards this towards, the IRA,” Beth Viola, a Brockton native and senior policy advisor at Holland & Knight who worked in the Clinton administration, said during the NEC virtual event.

She added that a narrowly-divided U.S. Senate would probably prevent “anything of any major consequence” from happening to the IRA. “But I do think it’s important to know that the House of Representatives, in particular, will probably spend a fair amount of time doing oversight of this legislation, which means that they are going to try to tie the hands of … the Biden administration and get them spending a lot of time responding to things as opposed to them using their resources to put money out the door. … [I]t is going to create some challenges for an administration that is currently already struggling to try to get bodies in place to help implement all of these big pieces of legislation.”

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said he thinks that the IRA’s focus on manufacturing — new and expanded tax credits, grants, and more — will act as “potentially a countervailing force” because he expects that many of the manufacturing hubs that stand to benefit will be located in predominantly red states.

Health Care

How the Candidates for Massachusetts Governor Would Tackle Health Care

WBUR –  The COVID threat is lingering. Inflation is driving up medical costs. Staffing shortages are threatening access to health care.

The next Massachusetts governor will have to grapple with these challenges and more.

Democrat Maura Healey targeted health care costs from her first days as attorney general in 2015. She played a role in slowing the growth of the state’s biggest and most expensive health system, Mass General Brigham. Healey allowed the big hospital merger that created Beth Israel Lahey Health, but only after the hospitals agreed to cap their prices for seven years.

Diehl, a former state lawmaker, says Healey hasn’t done enough to protect consumers from high costs, while Healey accuses Diehl of fighting for policies that would raise costs and hurt Massachusetts residents. She cites his past opposition of the Affordable Care Act, which Healey fought to preserve.

More Dental Insurers Spend to Stop Question 2

Boston Globe – Until this month, the opposition to a state ballot question requiring that a large share of dental insurance premiums be spent on care was almost entirely financed by one company: Delta Dental of Massachusetts.

It looks like the reinforcements have arrived.

Records filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance by an Oct. 20 deadline show several other major insurance companies writing checks to defeat Question 2 on next month’s ballot. These donations bring the industry’s fund-raising from nearly $5 million up to roughly $7.5 million, to beat back a measure requiring dental plans to spend no less than 83 percent of the premiums they collect on patient care as well as imposing new financial disclosure rules. That’s more than many insurers spend now.

Taxation and Budget

Billions in State Tax Refunds to Start Flowing to Taxpayers Today

Boston Globe – State officials said they intend to begin sending taxpayers their share of a $3 billion refund when the calendar flips to November on Tuesday, kicking off a roughly six-week process of doling out checks and direct deposits to millions of taxpayers.

Eligible taxpayers will receive their refunds on a rolling, random basis, Governor Charlie Baker’s budget official said late Friday afternoon. Anyone who has filed a 2021 tax return, and incurred a tax liability, will automatically receive a refund by December 15, officials said.

Individual taxpayers also appear due to receive more than initially projected. Sophia Capone, a spokeswoman for Baker’s budget office, said that eligible taxpayers will receive back roughly 14 percent of their personal state income tax liability from tax year 2021.

The Baker administration had previously said in September that taxpayers could get back about 13 percent — itself a jump from the 7 percent it had initially projected in July. Capone said officials updated the estimate to 14 percent once the income tax extension due date passed on Oct. 17.

The refunds themselves will not be sent out in any “predictable order,” such as alphabetically, Capone said.

The unprecedented return of taxpayer cash came after a windfall of tax collections triggered a 1986 tax-cap law for just the second time in nearly four decades. The checks and direct deposits will land in bank accounts at a time when rising inflation has squeezed families and the prospect of other tax relief flowing from Beacon Hill this year remains unclear.


Boston Schools Added Positions, But They Don’t Have Enough People to Fill Them.

Boston Globe – More than 800 teaching and other positions remain vacant across Boston Public Schools two months into the school year, as the district grapples with an acute nationwide labor shortage and expands its workforce.

The vacancies extend into far-ranging corners of BPS, including administrative offices, classrooms, and cafeterias, and encompass about 175 teaching positions.

The staffing shortages are emerging in a fast-paced hiring season that already has resulted in the filling of 2,760 positions, representing an “unprecedented hiring volume,” according to a staffing update the district released this week. The job postings have been issued for more than 1,500 teachers and nearly 800 positions in its central offices.

Superintendent Mary Skipper said she is committed to hiring a workforce of educators who reflect the racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity of its 49,000 students, although the staffing update indicates the diversity of new teachers and guidance counselors hired externally for this year has decreased from the previous year. BPS employs about 11,000 people.

“BPS is committed to hiring the most-qualified teachers possible to educate the next generation of leaders while building a robust BPS community,” she said in a statement. “We’ve already hired more than double the number of teachers [than] we did during this time last school year.”