Weekly Roundup – Friends of Labor?

Recap and analysis of the week in state government

“Public workers are the backbone of our economy and deserve the ability to fight for fair wages, access affordable health care and work in safe conditions.”

So said Senate President Karen Spilka on June 27, 2019, when she steered a public sector union dues bill through her chamber in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME ruling that barred unions from charging non-members agency fees.

Nearly three years later, Senate staffers are waiting and hoping to see if the Ashland native and one of the most powerful Democrats in Massachusetts will meet their unionization push with the same support she’s voiced for public sector unions elsewhere.

Weekly Roundup - Friends of Labor?
yes are on Senate President Karen Spilka, pictured at a Thursday press conference where she unveiled new climate legislation, while a group of Senate staff members await her response to their unionization effort. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

News of the union push within the State House walls spawned an awkward dynamic, where many Democrats in the House and Senate — who are often quick to side with workers in labor disputes and see themselves as organized labor allies — hesitated to take a position until they see what kind of tone legislative leaders set.

Even Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman, perhaps the most well-known labor leader in the state, didn’t want to get too involved given the players involved. “This is a very delicate situation, and a lot of feelings can get hurt if things are misconstrued,” Tolman said.

Key questions continue to swirl about the effort to organize Senate aides with IBEW Local 2222, including whether legislators will need to, or be willing to rewrite state law to empower the push, and what would happen to a unionized staffer if voters toss out their boss.

Instead of the labor movement on Beacon Hill, Spilka wanted to talk about the next major legislative push her chamber will make: a wide-stretching bill investing in clean energy, electric vehicles and green building.

Top Senate Democrats unveiled their response to a House-approved offshore wind bill, significantly widening the scope of proposed action to target the transportation and construction sectors.

That appears likely to complicate the lawmaking process. If and when the bills head into conference committee negotiations, the talks will not just focus on whether there should still be an offshore wind cap and how to manage new bids, but will also need to determine if the House is ready for action on electric car rebates, utility decarbonization, MBTA buses, solar panel sites and other topics that weren’t part of the House bill.

Senators’ ideas are fueled in part by frustration with how state agencies have responded since Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law last year committing Massachusetts to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

That displeasure was on display earlier in the week, when a Senate panel dove into a utility-driven report analyzing the future of natural gas in Massachusetts, which some lawmakers panned as pulling its punches.

“In my view, reaching net-zero emission requires that the future of gas is largely a future without gas,” said Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, who chairs the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

While both branches mull strategies to supercharge the offshore wind industry, the Senate this week planted a flag in another growing sector.

Senators approved legislation aimed at removing obstacles and stumbling blocks for cannabis businesses with a combination of grants, stronger oversight on host community agreements, and authorization for “pot cafes.”

It’s perhaps the first time since the 2016 legalization ballot question that lawmakers have revisited the topic with an explicit goal of empowering industry growth rather than tweaking regulations, an acknowledgement that recreational marijuana is here to stay and has the potential to become a pillar of the state’s economy.

House Speaker Ron Mariano has also named the topic as a priority, and the wildcard in the mix is Baker. After opposing the ballot question, it’s not clear where Baker stands on the latest changes sought to help expand the cannabis industry.

Baker has been especially wary of allowing cafes for adults to purchase and use marijuana in a social setting without an updated drugged driving law in place. The Judiciary Committee already spiked Baker’s proposed operating under the influence overhaul, and the governor might now wield his signature on the latest pot bill as a bargaining chip in an effort to revive debate.

Another Baker administration effort crashed and burned, mostly, when the U.S. Department of Labor rejected the state’s request to waive most instances of overpaid unemployment benefits that flowed through federal programs.

The feds wiped away the repayment obligation for a subset of claimants who received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program overpayments made before March 23, 2021, saying those workers did not know they needed to provide proof of employment and could not be held at fault for improper benefit levels.

But the Department of Labor — headed by former Boston Mayor Martin Walsh — shot down the remainder of the administration’s request for a blanket waiver, meaning state workers will need to launch a laborious process to comb through tens or hundreds of thousands of individual requests asking to be forgiven from an obligation to repay excessive jobless aid.

Significant work is on the horizon for the Department of Correction, too, to wind down operations at MCI-Cedar Junction. Department of Correction officials announced suddenly Thursday that they would work to take the 67-year-old prison in Walpole offline, citing a decreased need for housing costs and “the aging facility’s exorbitant maintenance costs.” Over the next two years, DOC will stop using the prison, starting with relocation of its reception and diagnostic center followed by relocation of inmates to other facilities.

While lawmakers continue to push for a five-year pause of all jail and prison construction, some celebrated the news as a milestone toward additional criminal justice reform.

“BREAKING: @MassGovernor announces closure of Walpole prison!” Judiciary Committee Co-chair Sen. Jamie Eldridge tweeted shortly after the administration unveiled the news. “Major priority of @CJReformMA Caucus & big push this session by @MaryKeefeMA, myself & #CJReform members. Declining crime rates, prosecutors’ progressive shift & 2018 #CJRA led to today!”

Justice was on the mind of Attorney General Maura Healey, who brought a cadre of mayors and Bay Staters who lost loved ones to opioid overdoses along to talk about the $525 million Massachusetts will receive from a 2021 settlement with Johnson & Johnson and a trio of drug distributors.

All of the money — more than $210 million for cities and towns and $310 million for the state — will go toward blunting the impact of the opioid epidemic that still rages, including addiction treatment programs and overdose prevention measures.

“Of course” those dollars are not enough, Healey said, especially when placed in context with a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 21,000 Bay Staters since 2000 and left thousands of families irreversibly changed.

The AG buoyed reform activists who have long pressed for Massachusetts to invest in safe injection sites, also known as supervised consumption sites, by indicating some interest in the controversial idea.

“I certainly have supported efforts at harm reduction. Safe injection sites are part of that,” Healey said.

Supporters have gained little traction in recent years amid threats of federal prosecution from former U.S Attorney Andrew Lelling and Gov. Baker, but with Rachael Rollins now the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts and Healey in the running to become governor, they may have reason for new optimism.

The reform groups backing voter registration changes, meanwhile, are hopeful they can achieve success in a legislative compromise.

A panel of lawmakers tasked with deciding whether mail-in voting and expanded early voting should return to Massachusetts convened its first meeting on Thursday, two months after legislative leaders tasked it with ironing out a final bill to overhaul elections.

While the conference committee was idling, cities and towns quietly conducted springtime local contests using pre-pandemic rules rather than now-expired voting options that proved popular.

Wielding Hershey chocolate bars, advocates poured into the panel’s meeting and urged members to back Election Day registration, a slightly less extensive change than the Senate-approved proposal allowing residents to register and cast a ballot on any early voting day.

The committee has less than five months until the statewide primary election, which could feature heated contests for governor, lieutenant governor and other constitutional offices.

If the past is any indication, a resolution probably may not come until or even after the 11th hour.

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