Recap and analysis of the past week in Massachusetts state government
The stranglehold COVID-19 has held on life for two years has begun to ease as restrictions fall by the wayside and people slowly ease back into routines that were once taken for granted.
But as Massachusetts marked the two-year anniversary of the public health emergency this week, residents are being squeezed by a new set of forces largely out of their control.
Inflation was already putting pressure on household budgets when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago started an upward spiral of gas prices that pushed the average price of a gallon of regular motor fuel to new records this week, peaking at more than $4.36 on Friday.
The response from some lawmakers and both GOP candidates for governor was to call for the immediate, but temporary, suspension of the state’s 24-cent gas tax. The state, after all, is flush with cash at the moment and can afford to forgo a little revenue.
House Speaker Ron Mariano, however, quickly dismissed the idea as a “political stunt” that would do little to provide relief if gas prices keep climbing, and some of his top deputies argued it would amount to the state reneging on its covenants with bondholders who own the state’s debt.
The House rejected a Rep. Peter Durant amendment to suspend the gas tax on a voice vote, and the idea doesn’t appear to have gained much more momentum in the Senate. But that’s not to say the gas crisis hasn’t breathed new life into the idea of tax relief for low- to medium income households.
“We’re beginning to try and figure out a way that would have a bigger impact on families that have to deal with the uncertainty that we’re facing in inflation and certainly in fuel supply,” Mariano said.
The Quincy Democrat suggested a package that would couple reforms to the estate tax with “something else that would benefit renters” could be a starting point. And the speaker’s comments were music to the ears of the Baker administration, which included both as part of the governor’s budget package of $700 million in tax cuts.
“Many of the tax cuts proposed by the Administration enjoy bipartisan support and that should come as no surprise, as nearly everyone in Massachusetts is feeling the effects of inflation and millions would benefit from cutting these taxes,” Baker press secretary Terry MacCormack said. “Hearing Speaker Mariano voice such strong support for similar tax relief measures is another hugely positive sign that the Governor’s tax cuts could become a reality for Massachusetts families.”
Baker was on vacation all week with his family in Utah, though he did fly back Wednesday to attend the funeral of State Police Trooper Tamar Bucci, who was killed on Interstate 93 when her cruiser was struck by a truck while she was pulled over helping a motorist.
Coincidentally, his last Utah vacation in 2020 was also interrupted when he flew back early and for good to deal with rising COVID-19 infections, not knowing just how serious and lasting an emergency it would become.
Since that Tuesday, March 10, 2020 when Baker declared a state of emergency a lot has changed.
“With vaccines and boosters and new COVID-19 therapeutic treatments, we are in a much better place than we were at this time last year,” Commissioner of Public Health Margret Cooke told the Public Health Council this week.
The department even announced that it was retroactively revising the way it counts deaths attributed to COVID-19, resulting in a net decrease of 3,681 deaths overall from the virus. The state as of Thursday was reporting 22,966 COVID-19 deaths, but that number could dip below 20,000 by Monday’s report.
While Baker was away, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to improve oversight of the state’s two veterans’ homes, setting the stage for negotiations over the finer details with the House.
Both branches want to see the superintendents of the long-term care facilities in Chelsea and Holyoke licensed as nursing home administrators, but unlike the House senators voted to make the secretary of veterans’ services a Cabinet position to put responsibility for management of the homes at the very top of the executive branch.
The House was also active this week, producing a $1.6 billion mid-year spending bill that would put $700 million into COVID-19 mitigation for vaccine access, testing, personal protective equipment and other measures. The bill also proposes to extend until next spring the popular pandemic accommodations for restaurants to offer expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktail service.
The budget bill was scaled back from Baker’s initial $2.4 billion proposal, with the House omitting $450 million for early education and child care grants and $50 million to train child advocates who would be assigned to every court case involving a minor in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.
House officials said they were working on a more comprehensive DCF bill, and shared concerns raised by some familiar with the juvenile legal system that the use of “guardians ad litem” in courts could perpetuate systemic racism.
Rep. Maria Robinson remained a member of the House to cast a vote in favor of the spending bill this week as her bid to join the Biden administration as assistant energy secretary in charge of the Office of Electricity hit a snag in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Robinson’s appointment had been scheduled for a committee vote to advance her nomination to the full U.S. Senate for confirmation, but when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont failed to show up in person Democrats were less than confident in the votes needed to push Robinson forward.
Not unlike U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins’s winding road to confirmation, Senate Republicans have issues with Biden’s pick of Robinson to lead the electricity office.
“In the Massachusetts House of Representatives, she consistently prioritized reducing greenhouse gas emissions over reliability and affordability,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. “She has openly celebrated abandoning America’s abundant coal, oil and natural gas resources in favor of intermittent, unreliable and unaffordable renewable energy. These traditional energy resources are the very backbone of our nation’s electrical system.”
They also happen to cost quite a bit these days.