Recap and analysis of the past week in Massachusetts state government
APRIL 22, 2022…..It was a big week for Earth or at least a big week for talking about how much everyone loves and wants to protect the only planet known to support human life.
Environmental and climate topics are popular year-round on Beacon Hill, but the third stone from the sun and talk of its fate seemed to be on most lips this week. Friday capped the week off with a flurry of pro-Earth platitudes to mark Earth Day.
In the realm of more meaningful environmental measures, gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey released her campaign’s climate plan this week and announced the endorsements of the two chairmen of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, Healey’s Democratic primary opponent Sonia Chang-Diaz touted her own support among environmentalists, and a special task force released 30 recommendations for dealing with so-called forever chemicals that don’t break down entirely and instead leech into drinking water and soil, where they are thought to contribute to serious and negative health impacts like thyroid disease and kidney cancer.
“PFAS is present in the textiles, some of the clothing I bet each of us is wearing this morning, maybe is present in a pan you made your eggs in, is present in food packaging, in children’s products, in you name it. There’s a real ubiquity there,” Sen. Julian Cyr, who co-chaired the task force, said.
Cyr’s co-chair, House Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan, said Wednesday that she is eyeing “funding opportunities and mechanisms to advance some of the recommendations in the report” before this legislative session wraps up and Gov. Charlie Baker might have created a meaningful opening for that plan on Thursday.
“Happy #EarthDay! ?? Clean energy is a critical component of our strategy to achieve the state’s net zero goal by 2050. That’s why we filed legislation to direct $750M in funding to support the continued growth and development of the industry,” Baker tweeted Friday morning, referring to funding included in the $3.5 billion economic development bill he filed Thursday.
With $1.2 billion in state bond authorization and the $2.3 billion that remains from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act pot, Baker’s bill is designed to reinvigorate downtowns and prepare them for post-pandemic realities, but it also proposes to pump significant money into things like clean energy innovation, climate resilience projects and more.
Of the roughly $2.27 billion of ARPA money that Baker’s bill would spend, slightly more than half ($1.17 billion) would be directed towards climate or environmental infrastructure, which Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said is probably “the largest investment the state has ever put towards this kind of thing.”
That’s more than triple the ARPA money that the bill would spend for the next-largest bucket, community economic development ($311.5 million).
“In total, the Governor’s bill includes 614 environmental, climate and economic development earmarks and guarantees each of the state’s 351 cities and towns at least $250,000 in dedicated funds,” the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said in its analysis of Baker’s bill. The group points out that it is unusual for a governor to earmark appropriations so specifically because it then limits flexibility when distributing funds.
“The benefit of this approach is it provides legislators and communities with certainty as to how such appropriations will be distributed and alleviates concerns that the Legislature is ceding control over how [Fiscal Recovery Funds] resources are used,” MTF said.
While Democrats in the House and Senate are nearly certain to return some version of Baker’s economic development bill to his desk by the end of July (with some of their own priorities and earmarks attached, of course), the fate of the public safety bill the governor is hoping to sign before leaving office is far less certain.
Pending the Senate’s agreement, the Judiciary Committee will now have until June 30 to decide what to do with Baker’s pre-trial detention bill (H 4290). The governor, lieutenant governor and other administration officials were in Salem on Wednesday where Baker said they “heard once again from survivors, their families and advocates that there is more we can and should be doing to protect the brave men, women and children who have been traumatized by violent offenders and predators.”
It was the latest in a series of survivor roundtables Baker and Polito have held around the state as they turn up the heat on lawmakers who have been cool to the proposal to expand the list of offenses considered grounds for a dangerousness hearing since it was first filed in 2018.
“I think certainly Gov. Baker has been quite vocal and active advocating for his legislation. We have also heard from civil liberties groups like the ACLU and domestic violence groups, Jane Doe., about the unexpected or concerning prospects of the bill impacting people of color,” Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said early in the week.
Baker was also busy Tuesday calling attention to another of his legislative priorities in limbo — the $700 million tax relief proposal that Democrats in the Legislature have not embraced but also have not totally ruled out. To mark Tax Day, the governor assembled the heads of various industry and trade groups to demonstrate their support for his bill.
“The cost at the checkout line is getting exorbitant for our working families, and yes, their incomes are up — in fact, the average weekly wage in Massachusetts went up 14 percent in Massachusetts last year. That probably means for the taxman some pretty good collections on the income taxes today,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said. “The taxman is winning, whether it’s on real estate taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, yet the consumer, the taxpayer, is losing.”
The governor’s tax relief bill (H 4361) is still technically alive on its own, but House leadership opted to build its $49.6 billion budget plan for fiscal year 2023 without incorporating any of Baker’s suggestions. “We felt they weren’t necessary at the time,” Mariano said.
The speaker has not closed the door entirely to tax relief, but leadership also has not put forward its own plan to address the crunch taxpayers face as inflation soars and the cost of everyday goods steadily climbs. Mariano would rather reinvest the state’s surging revenues into things like early education and care, and Baker said this week that he doesn’t think a “trade-off” is necessary and would be fine with his ideas advancing either as part of the budget or as standalone post-budget legislation.
“Either one works,” Baker said. He added, “I think dealing with this in or out of the budget process — it’s not that hard to reconcile one way or the other.”
The speaker has said much of the same, telling reporters during a budget briefing last week that “because of the surpluses we are in a unique opportunity” when asked about squaring a budget built on one set of tax policy with a hypothetical set of tax policy changes.
Commuters and travelers noticed a big change this week after a federal judge sitting in Florida struck down the nationwide mandate that public transportation riders wear masks on trains, planes and in shared automobiles. Massport and the MBTA stopped enforcing the mandate Tuesday.