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This Week in Massachusetts – September 27

Posted on September 27, 2022

Small Businesses Struggle to Return to Pre-Pandemic Form, New Survey Says

Boston Herald – Small businesses in Massachusetts face a long road to recovery coming out of the pandemic, as well as an array of inflation-related problems, according to a survey released Thursday.

About half (53 percent) of the respondents said that revenue is lower now than before the pandemic, despite multiple rounds of federal COVID relief funding. Eighty percent reported receiving some relief money, though smaller and non-white businesses were more likely to miss out, according to the survey.

The survey, conducted by the Coalition for an Equitable Economy in partnership with The MassINC Polling Group and Mass Growth Capital Corporation, polled 3,243 Massachusetts businesses with fewer than 500 employees about their needs, inflation and pandemic concerns, and access to capital and other resources.

The results showed that small businesses owned by people of color have been disproportionately affected by pandemic-related financial issues. Many reported having more trouble finding and raising money compared with white-owned businesses.

Businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color were more likely to report a range of challenges in applying for loans, and less likely to receive the full amount of money they applied for application, according to the coalition’s report.

Maura Healey Meets with Business Leaders, Touts Housing Plan

Boston Herald – Attorney General Maura Healey joined business leaders in Boston Thursday, as she continues to make the campaign rounds ahead of November’s general election.

“Massachusetts is home to the greatest people, innovation, and know-how in the world, and it’s going to be the job of our next governor to harness these resources to grow our economy,” Healey said.

Healey spoke at the Verizon Innovation Center in Boston, a “technology-based workspace” housed on the 15th and 16th floors of the Hub Causeway, where Verizon staff demonstrated for the prospective governor some of what the communications company is working on at their research and development site.

Healey seemed impressed by the breadth of what was being shown during her brief tour, from the latest in robotics to facial recognition and shot spotting technology, as well as virtual and augmented reality products, and said it’s a perfect showcase of what she says will grow the state’s economy.

“The Verizon Innovation Center is a wonderful example of how we can do this. As governor, I’ll be committed to creating spaces where the greatest minds in our technology sector can get together to take their ideas to the next level,” she said.

According to Healey that means putting a focus on making it so people want to work and live in Massachusetts, and so she used the visit to tout a recently launched housing plan her and her running mate, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, hope will help alleviate the housing shortage which has plagued the commonwealth for decades.

“This requires a focus on making Massachusetts more affordable, especially when it comes to housing, seeking out public-private partnerships and supporting workforce development programs,” she said.

Baker Sends Road Safety Bill Back to Legislature

Boston Herald – Gov. Charlie Baker says a plan by the Legislature to regulate how closely you can drive around bicycles is too confusing.

“As currently written… the passing distance formula presents enforcement and messaging challenges that would undermine the goal of a clearly understood and enforceable standard,” Baker wrote of H.5103, or An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities.

The law included a provision which would have made it illegal for a motor vehicle to pass within a sliding, speed determined distance of a bicyclist or a pedestrian. Proponents say the plan will save lives.

Baker says motorists shouldn’t have to do math while they are driving, and the law should just say how far away from bikes and pedestrians drivers should be.

“I propose instead to establish a consistent three-foot distance requirement,” Baker wrote in sending the bill back to lawmakers. “Clarification is also needed to make sure motorists do not mistake this provision as requiring them to cross the center line to overtake other vehicles.”

Baker also took issue with the bill’s plan to establish a standard 25 mile-per-hour limit on state highways in thickly populated areas.

Baker said that plan was at odds with work being done at the federal level.

“Our federal partners are currently undertaking a comprehensive safety review of the (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), which will conclude next year with updated requirements for all roadways open to public travel, regardless of jurisdiction,” Baker wrote. “It is prudent for the Commonwealth to implement speed limit and related changes after the federal process concludes to ensure consistency and compliance.”

Baker Not Expecting Return to Formal Legislative Sessions

State House News – Whenever top Democrats in the Legislature overcome their self-induced paralysis and revive an economic development bill, Gov. Charlie Baker expects it will no longer feature more than $1 billion in borrowing.

Baker signaled during an interview with GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” on Monday that he believes legislative leaders will not seek to change their rules to reconvene in a full formal session and will instead continue to meet in informal sessions, where they cannot take the roll call votes needed for bond authorizations, until the two-year term ends in January.

“That part, obviously, won’t happen,” Baker said about the bond dollars that constituted a large chunk of the funding in a more than $4 billion economic development bill. He added that he hopes lawmakers will return to the bond authorizations “at some point in early 2023, because there are programs on the bonding side that are running out of money.”

The Democrats who control the House and Senate have not revealed their plans for tackling the bill now that the outlook is clearer on nearly $3 billion in mandatory tax relief, nor have they made explicit whether they will scrap the bond authorizations and focus only on direct spending.

Mass General Brigham to Slash Millions of Dollars in Spending

Boston Globe – Mass General Brigham has said it will reduce its total medical spending by $127.8 million annually, nearly doubling its commitment to reduce its spending after months of discussions with a state watchdog agency.

The filing is part of the hospital’s “performance improvement plan,” which was required by the state’s Health Policy Commission after what it said were years of spending above acceptable levels.

MGB is the first health system to be required to file such a plan, which will still need to be approved by commissioners, likely at a meeting on Sept. 27. Approval will put to the test the state’s main mechanism to hold providers accountable for ever-increasing health care costs.

“Despite unprecedented financial challenges facing Mass General Brigham and health systems everywhere, we are resolute in doing our part to lower the cost of health care in Massachusetts, without impacting our ability to provide patient care or our responsibilities to medical research, education, and the communities we serve,” Dr. Gregg S. Meyer, executive vice president of value-based care at Mass General Brigham.

The plan, unveiled Thursday, is similar to the one filed by the system in May, which suggested Mass General Brigham would reduce spending through a combination of lowered prices, reduced hospitalization rates, and by shifting some hospital care to people’s homes. At a meeting in July, HPC Executive Director David Seltz said the commission had reviewed the proposal and was engaged in ongoing conversations “of mutual benefit to both sides.”

Traffic is So Bad, it Could Hurt our Economy

Boston Globe – Here’s a puzzle:

Badge into almost any building in Boston, and try to find all the lawyers, bankers, and architects who populated vast warrens of offices in 2019. Many simply aren’t there. Others have adopted hybrid schedules, with a slim slice back full-time.

Then head out onto the highways, where gridlock reigns during the morning and evening commutes, pretty much no matter where you are: I-93, I-95, Route 2, Route 1. It’s a numerical grab bag of terrible.

So, who the heck is on the roads and why?

“What really never changed” during the pandemic, says Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, “was the idea in people’s heads that ‘when there is a place to go, I drive there.’”

Manville, who spoke to me during a visit to his hometown of Reading, says there are a few reasons that the roads aren’t a lot better than they were in 2019, despite all the bond buying, corporate lawyering, and executive assisting going on from home.

First, he says, “it just doesn’t take that many people to screw up the road.” And there’s tremendous latent demand — especially in a place where the economy has been strong — for road space. So, if a few people stay home, and traffic gets marginally better, others will eagerly jump into their cars to fill the void.

Sports Betting Companies Debate Use of Temporary Licenses

MassLive – Companies looking to offer mobile sports betting in Massachusetts were split Thursday on the use of temporary licenses, which have been pitched as a way to quickly stand up the sports wagering industry. But regulators have cautioned that those licenses come with many challenges.

A Massachusetts Gaming Commission roundtable at the State House featured a who’s who of the online sports betting industry, from household names like Boston-based DraftKings to new startups like Jake Paul’s Betr. The meeting comes as the commission is working its way through a mound of new regulations and soliciting feedback from stakeholders through public meetings.

During the hours-long hearing, many of companies told regulators that a defined timeline, clarity, and transparency from commissioners will help move the nascent industry along. Representatives also largely agreed that a universal launch date for mobile betting would create a level playing field.

But some of the most prominent players in the country were not in agreement on the use of temporary licenses here in Massachusetts, which the state’s sports betting law allows for but does not place a cap on like it does for the seven untethered digital licenses.

What’s Next for Cannabis? Commissioner Nurys Camargo on Equity, Cafes and More

WGBH – Boston Cannabis Week is underway, and GBH’s Morning Edition is having a series of conversations about policy, education and the business of cannabis.

Nurys Camargo is a member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, which is the regulatory body for the state’s cannabis industry. It’s a busy time for the commission — it has a new chair, Shannon O’Brien, and orders to implement a new cannabis equity law. Camargo joined Morning Edition co-host Paris Alston to talk about her work. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Nurys CamargoI think we’re on track, it’s a good time. And I’m excited because we will now open our regs whether at the end of the year or the beginning of next year. But this new law has allowed us to go back and start working on some stuff that we should have, could have, done before. And we have the opportunity to do it now. We need to demystify a little bit of what this industry is in terms of educating and providing more public awareness around public safety and public health. But also, you know, what is it doing with the economy? It’s bringing jobs. It’s bringing tax revenues to Massachusetts. I’m excited. It’s exciting to be a commissioner at this time.

Paris Alston: And there’s been so much growth in this industry in such a short window of time since cannabis was legalized here in the commonwealth. Do you know what the current demographic breakdown of the state’s license holders are? Is it mostly white? Is it mostly men? Or is there a significant percentage of people who have been disproportionately affected by those laws?

Camargo: As of now, what I can tell you is that we have about 434 licenses that are open that have commenced operation throughout the state. We also have about 98 medical facilities, or MTCs [medical marijuana treatment centers], as we call them, throughout the state. In terms of agents that are in the industry who work in the industry, we have about 63 percent male and about 36 percent female who work, who are registered agents. And I think we’re at about 70 percent white male agents who work in the industry.

We’re in our third cohort of our social equity program. And I’ll tell you that in total, that universe is about a 1,000 people throughout the commonwealth who have been disproportionately impacted by the failed war on drugs. When it comes to Black and brown communities or BIPOC communities, the numbers are not there. I would like to see higher numbers. This is a cash-heavy and compliance-heavy industry. You don’t just get in here, you need some access.

‘Soul-Sucking’: Why some Gen Zers are Quitting the 9-to-5

Boston Globe – The viral TikTok videos go something like this: A never-ending loop of a young adult commuting, working, and preparing for bed, set to an audio clip from the cartoon “Spongebob Squarepants,” poking fun at the dreariness of a mundane routine.

For many Gen Z workers, this is their impression of working a traditional job — and it’s getting old. In the video trend crowding social media feeds since August, many are sharing their dull and unfulfilling view of the 9-to-5, a term many social media posts use more to describe a traditional career than the actual hours worked. And it’s garnering millions of views.

“It’s super repetitive. You don’t do the most you can with your skill set,” said Jesus Lares, a recent MIT graduate who said the videos are relatable. Lares worked several office jobs for major tech companies before quitting to start his own business. “It’s just not what I want to do with my life.”

The Globe spoke with several other Gen Z employees who felt working a 9-to-5 job meant sacrificing hobbies, submitting to lifelong monotony, and compromising their physical and mental health. Their generation, born roughly between 1997 and 2012, isn’t the only one to scorn the 9-to-5 (Dolly Parton knows). But, experts say it has been the most outspoken.

Thomas Kochan, an author and professor of work and employment research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said many Gen Z workers experienced their first office job in a remote or hybrid setting during the COVID-19 pandemic, with employers offering more flexibility while less closely monitoring their workers. With much of that starting to wane, many are now questioning longstanding norms and whether a traditional career is still worth the personal sacrifices.

The tradeoffs feel especially stark since a traditional job just doesn’t pay off like it used to; American workers have not seen wages go up in proportion to inflation and cost of housing.

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

Baker Administration Announces $1 Million in Grants for 26 Projects

WWLP – To celebrate Climate Week, the Baker Administration announced $1,217,619 in grant funding for 26 projects through the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Land Use Planning Assistance Grant Program.

This grant program provides towns with critical funding to undertake public processes and hire technical expertise to reduce and prepare for climate change impacts. It also improves land use practices, conserve and sustainably develop land, and to branch out housing choices.

“In 2018, the Baker-Polito Administration created the Land Use Planning Assistance Grant Program, and since that time, over $7 million has been invested into 125 local projects across the Commonwealth,” said EEA Secretary Beth Card. “Many of the projects being funded through this grant program will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is critical as we strive to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We are eager to continue to work with our municipal and local partners to make communities in Massachusetts better and more resilient places to live and work.”

The planning Assistance Grant Program is part of the technical assistance that is offered to communities in support of Baker-Polito Administration’s Housing Choice Initiative. It also helps towns comply with Section 3A of the Zoning Act. Funding enables towns to improve their land use practices, branch out housing choices, and develop land that is consistent with the Massachusetts Sustainable Development Principles.

Forty-Three Communities Share $12M in State Funding for Parks, Open Space

MassLive – A splash pad, a new dam and nature trails — these are some of the projects officials say will be funded through the $12 million in grants going to communities across the commonwealth for open space acquisitions and park improvements.

In all, 43 communities will be receiving grants, according to Gov. Charlie Baker.

“Investing in these important open space projects will make Massachusetts parks more resilient to climate change, increase the availability of open space and improve access to the outdoors for people in communities across the state,” Baker said.

Of the grants, about $2.57 million went to projects in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties. Among the projects receiving grants are the former Tuckahoe Turf Farm in Agawam, Donna Blake Park in Springfield, Saw Mill Hills Core Conservation Project in Northampton, Easthampton’s Nonotuck Park pool and the Kestrel Land Trust out of Amherst.

The capital budget helped fund the grants, which were administered through a trio of programs, including the Conservation Partnership Grant, the Parkland Acquisitions and Renovation for Communities and the Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity programs.

State Explores Relief for Surging Electric Bills

MassLive – As Bay Staters prepare for steep rate hikes in their electric bills this winter, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said relief may be on the way.

Healey’s office convened utility companies, as well as state administrators and regulators, on Wednesday, the same day National Grid announced that skyrocketing natural gas prices — linked to the war in Ukraine — will trigger a 64% increase in monthly residential bills starting this November.

“This is devastating — devastating for residents, devastating for many of our small businesses,” Healey, the Democratic nominee for governor, told reporters Thursday afternoon in Boston after she toured the Verizon Innovation Center.

In an interim solution, Healey urged Bay Staters to contact their utility companies about creating payment plans.

Baker Reaches to Washington for Energy Aid Lifeline

Berkshire Eagle –  Massachusetts is waiting to hear back from the Biden administration about what the federal government can do “to enhance our ability to get through the winter, both in terms of having the power available to heat their homes but also hoping to deal with some of the price issues,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday.

A top energy official in the Baker administration this week put residents on notice that the cost of heating their homes and keeping the lights on is likely to skyrocket here this winter as the price of natural gas soars. Judy Chang, undersecretary of energy and climate solutions in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that the Baker administration has “been working with our federal partners in developing a plan for New England’s winter.”

After visiting the Big E in West Springfield on Thursday, the governor gave more detail on his team’s work with the federal government and other states to prepare for an expensive winter.

“Ever since the war in the Ukraine broke out, this has been a high concern for every cold weather place in the world, basically. The governors in New England got together and started talking about this in the summer. We actually wrote a letter to the federal government, we wrote to the Biden administration and said we are very worried about both price and availability of thermal, which is basically heat, whatever the source of it is this winter,” Baker said.

Baker said the governors asked the White House to do a number of things as winter nears and have been “involved in some pretty active discussions” about what the federal government might be able to do to help.

“We’re still waiting for their response on that,” the governor said. “But this is something that literally all of the New England governors have been both talking about and pushing the feds on since July.”

How to Conserve Energy this Winter as Prices Soar

Boston Herald – Massachusetts is among the top five states for most expensive energy, and prices aren’t slowing down.

With natural gas supply constraints and electric and gas costs hitting all-time highs, conserving as much energy as possible this winter may be a necessity for many. In summer 2022, Massachusetts had the fifth most expensive energy costs in the country, according to WalletHub, and prices are further soaring at unprecedented rates going into winter.

Which means now may be the time to stock up on energy-saving tips and resources.

There are the staples: Unplug cords and appliances not in use. Use toasters rather than ovens when possible. Run dishwashers at full capacity. Remove lint from your dryer. Set your water heater to 120°F and your fridge to 38°F. And so on.MORE

And there are some more creative options, like recording shows to skip commercials and putting lamps in the corner of rooms to maximize light.

Many appliances are also key tools to conserve energy, including smaller easily-accessible ones like LED lightbulbs and smart power strips.

Both Eversource and National Grid offer incentives and rebates for customers to purchase energy efficient products and home energy assessments.

There are also government and community resources for discounts and assistance, including local Community Action Agencies’ low-income assistance, weatherization and other programs.
Boston is temporarily lifting the residency requirements for some hard-to-hire for city jobs.

‘Huge Win’: South Shore Communities to Get Millions for Coastal Infrastructure Projects

Patriot Ledger – Several South Shore communities will receive a total of nearly $4.3 million in state money to help prepare for severe storms and alleviate the harsh impacts of climate change along the coast.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration this week announced $12.6 million in grants through the state’s Coastal Resilience Grant Program to support local planning and shoreline management projects.

State Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican, said the money is a “huge win” for the region.“It goes to show that there’s a lot of emphasis from the state to do as much as we can as financial

partners because these projects are incredibly expensive,” O’Connor said. “A lot of this will protect the character of the South Shore and who we are. Our coast is a huge identity factor for why people move here and decide to stay here, and the money will go to projects that are beneficial to the people who recreate the beaches, live along the coast and general infrastructure.”

Mayor Wu Proposes Overhaul of Key City Zoning Board

Boston Globe – In a move that could reshape development in neighborhoods across Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday proposed replacing nearly every member of the city’s influential Zoning Board of Appeals, nominating a slate of community developers, neighborhood organizers and construction union representatives to the 14-member board.

“The appointees live across the City and represent the diversity of Boston, including members who are multilingual, renters in income-restricted housing, homeowners, building trades members, first generation immigrants, and multigenerational Bostonians,” the city said in a release Monday.

Almost every major real-estate development project in the city runs afoul of Boston’s decades-old zoning code in one way or another, and thus requires a zoning variance. That gives the Zoning Board enormous sway over what gets built, particularly when it comes smaller and mid-sized projects that don’t fall under the purview of the Boston Planning & Development Agency.

Health Care

Orthodontist vs. Insurer: How Question 2 Could Change the Dental Industry

Boston Globe – When Massachusetts voters head to the polls in November, they’ll get the chance to settle an arcane dispute that could upend the dental industry.

To boil it down: Question 2 would require dental insurers to spend no less for patient care than 83 percent of premiums they collect. It would be a sweeping change for an industry with no minimum threshold today, and one that could affect not just the insurers that do business here, but also the state’s dentists — not to mention anyone with dental insurance. It might even become a model that’s replicated in other states.

But take a look at who has funded this fight so far, and something curious emerges: a one-on-one slugfest between orthodontist Mouhab Rizkallah and insurer Delta Dental of Massachusetts.

Rizkallah essentially bankrolled the initiative from the start. He paid $500,000 last year to hire signature gatherers to get it on the ballot. This year, roughly 40 dentists chipped in, mostly anywhere from $100 to $1,000 apiece, along with about three dozen other individuals. But Rizkallah contributed the bulk of the nearly $1 million the ballot committee raised so far in 2022, according to state campaign finance records published last week.

The pool of contributors on the opposing side is even smaller. Nearly $5 million has come so far from seven donors, most of it from one: Boston-based nonprofit insurer Delta Dental, which kicked in $4.5 million. A few other insurers — including MetLife, Concordia, and Sun Life — provided the rest.

FEMA Reimburses Lawrence General Hospital $3.2 Million for Pandemic-Related Costs

WHAV – Lawrence General Hospital is receiving a $3.2 million federal reimbursement for its increased costs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Friday it will be sending more than $3.2 million public assistance grant to the state to reimburse the 189-bed general hospital in Lawrence which took extra steps to protect the health of its work force, patients and the general public while operating in a pandemic environment between July and September 2020.

“FEMA is pleased to be able to assist Lawrence General Hospital with these costs,” said FEMA Region 1 Regional Administrator Lori Ehrlich. “Providing resources for our partners on the front lines of the pandemic fight is critical to their success, and our success as a nation.”

The expenses incurred included purchasing additional medical equipment and supplies for the treatment of COVID-19 patients; hiring additional medical care staff and supporting services; purchasing personal protective equipment, disinfection services and supplies; and using staff to manage access points and ensure COVID-19 protocols were followed.


Baker Helps Launch UMass Computer-Science Project

Daily Hampshire Gazette – A $125 million building that will allow the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences to expand and diversify enrollment, while its students and researchers promote ethics around advanced automation and collaborate with others to confront climate change, will soon be constructed on the University of Massachusetts campus.

At Thursday afternoon’s ceremonial groundbreaking, Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration made a $75 million capital commitment to the project, said the new building will mean an increase in research capacity and support for the well-being of the state.

“This new, state-of-the-art academic building will equip students with the resources and skills they need to achieve in the classroom and beyond,” Baker said. “This will be, I believe, a very special place going forward.”

Speaking inside the Computer Science Building, Baker said he expects those who use the new site to do amazing things, and he couldn’t think of a better organization than UMass for such an enterprise.

“This one, everything is going digital,” Baker said of the 90,000-square-foot building that will be built east of the existing building off Governors Drive. “That is incredibly exciting and absolutely terrifying.”

For outgoing UMass trustees Chairman Robert Manning and his wife, Donna Manning, who made an $18 million donation to the college that was announced in November 2021, the idea is to reduce that level of fright in technology.