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Beacon Hill Roll Call: May 11 to May 15, 2020

Published: 5/22/2020 1:57:17 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 1:57:04 PM

The Senate made history last week when it held the first remote session with just a few members in the Senate chamber. Most members watched and listened to the debate from their homes or business offices using their computers and voted by phone.

Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ and senators’ votes from the week of May 11 to May 15.

Allow the state to borrow billions of dollars (H 4677)

House, 157 to 0, Senate, 38 to 0, approved and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a bill that would authorize the state treasurer to borrow billions of dollars needed to keep the state running through the end of June. The funding is needed as a result of diminishing income tax revenues during COVID-19 when Massachusetts moved the tax return filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, in addition to the loss of sales tax and other revenue as a result of business shutdowns. State tax collections dropped in April by more than $2.3 billion compared to April 2019.

The Legislature and the administration accomplished this by agreeing to engage in RANs (Revenue Anticipation Notes). This means the state will borrow in the current fiscal year the amount of money that was deferred or estimated to have been deferred by the movement of the tax filing date. Then the state would use fiscal year 2021 revenues to pay back the loan.

Supporters anticipate the borrowing could reach up to $3 billion to keep the state financially afloat. They said the state is obligated to pay its bills and has no other choice.

“The legislation that advanced today will help the commonwealth responsibly meet near-term budget challenges as we continue to address the impacts of COVID-19,” said Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.

A “Yes” vote is for the borrowing.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Adam Hinds — Yes

Also up on Beacon Hill $502 million for cities and towns for COVID-19 costs

Gov. Baker announced he is preparing to distribute up to $502 million from the state portion of the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund to local cities and towns for their costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan will allow cities and towns to apply for estimated fiscal year 2020 needs immediately and then apply for fiscal year 2021 funding at a later date.

The money must be used by municipalities for eligible costs related to the COVID-19 response effort, consistent with parameters established by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department.

The Baker administration said the available funds represent about 25 percent of the funding the state received from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and will help ease municipal cash flow pressures. The administration plans to maintain flexibility to allocate additional funding if unanticipated needs arise, or if federal rules change.

Voting in the age of COVID-19

The Elections Laws Committee held a virtual online hearing and heard testimony on several bills from many participants who weighed in on what changes to make in the voting procedures for this year’s Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election.

There were some differences on three main issues: whether to mail ballots to every voter or only those who request one; how many days before an election in-person voting should be allowed; and how polling places should be physically set up to maintain social distancing.

“As a committee, we felt it was important to livestream a virtual hearing to maintain transparency and allow constituents to experience the hearing remotely,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, Senate chair of the Election Laws Committee. “We heard a great deal of testimony and insight today on the various possible solutions to the challenges COVID-19 has imposed on our elections. The committee has a lot of work to do in the coming days as we carefully review the testimony, but I am confident that we have the tools to modify our elections to promote health, safety and accessibility, and to ensure that citizens can safely exercise their right to vote this fall.”

Congressman Joe Kennedy III kicked off the hearing with his support of universal mail-in voting as the way to increase voter “turnout” and not spread the virus.

“No-fault absentee ballots just aren’t going to be good enough,” Kennedy said. “Seven days of early voting is not good enough. Mailing ballots to some, but not all, is not good enough.”

“Voting must be safe,” said U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who is being challenged for re-election by Kennedy in the September primary. “It must be accessible. And it must be paramount. No one should have to choose between their personal well-being or the well-being of others and exercising their constitutional right to vote. Democracy is our shared responsibility.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh cautioned it would cost cities and towns lots of money if they had to mail a large number of ballots. He also noted the communities would have to spend money to hire more temporary staff members.

“A lot of what I’m talking about is staffing and making sure we have appropriate staffing for this,” he said, “because we’ve never seen the potential magnitude of mail-in ballots we’re going to see in this year’s elections.”

In mid-April, the American Council of the Blind, the parent organization of the Bay State Council of the Blind submitted written testimony urging the committee to protect the voting rights of people who are blind and disabled during the current pandemic.

“Implementing vote by mail programs without offering an accessible online absentee voting alternative for people with disabilities is not going to be acceptable to the community of people with disabilities,” the council wrote.

The League of Women Voters also submitted written testimony.

“While the league supports mailing a ballot to all voters ahead of the November election, we also believe that in-person voting must be available, with provisions in place to assure voting is safe for voters and election workers,” the League of Women Voters wrote. “In-person voting is a necessary option if mailed ballots don’t arrive in time, and may be the preferred way to vote for some voters.”

John Rosenberry, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s legislative director, urged legislators to agree on a compromise bill before time runs out. Others echoed his concerns and noted ballots have to be printed, and cities and towns will need to put a new voting-by-mail system in place.

Immunity to contractors (S 2700)

The Judiciary Committee is looking at a measure that would provide immunity to contractors and subcontractors from any suit or civil liability for damages that occur during the period of the COVID-19 state of emergency and six months after that.

The bill lists several reasons, including unforeseeable shortages in workforce; unavoidable schedule changes resulting from federal, state or local government orders; contractor/subcontractor compliance with federal, state and local government orders; Massachusetts’ stay-at-home advisory; and related orders to close businesses.

“As we slowly reopen sectors of our economy, we must be mindful of the ongoing public health crisis and the danger faced by workers of the construction sector,” said Senate sponsor Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxborough. “I know that many contractors and subcontractors recognize how important it is to protect the health of their workers and many have acted swiftly to put in place additional procedures and equipment. With worker safety and protection as our top priority, we want to ensure that employers are protected from liability for doing the right thing on behalf of their workers.”

“It is critical that the construction industry and sector follow all COVID-19 safety guidelines exactly, and in doing so they should not be held responsible for delays in construction due to the current pandemic we are facing,” said House sponsor Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen.

Emergency paid sick time (S 2701)

The Labor and Workforce Development Committee is considering legislation that would guarantee all workers at least 10 additional 8-hour days of job-protected paid sick time for use by employees who are not covered by a similar federal program during the COVID-19 pandemic or future public health emergencies.

Workers would be paid by their employers at their regular level of pay, up to a maximum of $850 per week. Employers would then be fully reimbursed by the state. These 80 hours of paid sick time would be in addition to the 40 hours that each worker currently has under a sick time law signed into law by the governor in 2014.

Supporters said many front-line workers are struggling economically and are without adequate paid sick time. They noted that Raise Up Massachusetts led that 2014 campaign to create Massachusetts’ 40-hour total Earned Sick Time Law, but the 40 hours of sick time it provides workers each year doesn’t meet the scale of this major public health crisis.

“Protecting the health and safety of Massachusetts residents is our top priority in this crisis,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester. “No worker should be forced to come to work when they may be contagious. That is why we need to build on the success of the 2014 earned sick time law and the new federal paid sick time law to ensure that during this public health emergency, all workers have access to the job-protected paid sick time that they so desperately need.”

Nursing homes (S 2657)

A bill before the Public Health Committee would allow the Department of Public Health (DPH) to take control of a nursing home during a public health emergency, inspect a nursing home at any time, and require nursing home employees to undergo COVID-19 and other disease testing as well as temperature monitoring as a condition of reporting for work.

“It has been heartbreaking and outrageous to have so many nursing home residents and health care workers contract COVID-19, including dozens of deaths at nursing home hotspots across the state,” said Senate sponsor Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “The coronavirus pandemic has made it very clear that there is not enough state oversight of nursing homes, often … owned by out-of-state for-profit corporations. The DPH needs to have more tools in its toolbox to intervene in troubled nursing homes, including inspections, and require that all health care workers be tested for illnesses, including the coronavirus. We owe that to nursing home residents, nurses and all of their loved ones.”

Collect vital COVID-19 data (H 4710, S 2703)

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka issued opposing statements after each branch approved a different version of legislation addressing COVID-19 data collection.

“The House is committed to helping the populations that have proven to be most vulnerable during this public health emergency,” DeLeo said in a press release. “With the data clearly demonstrating that individuals in soldiers homes, senior housing communities and other long-term care settings are more at risk, it is disappointing that the Senate removed many of the infection case and mortality rate data collection requirements that were key elements of the House bill.”

“The Senate was surprised to hear through the press that the House was unhappy about our data collection and diversity task force bill,” Spilka wrote in an email to the State House News Service. “To be clear, the Senate bill included every provision in the original House bill and added some additional important protections and reporting requirements. We were dismayed to see that the House, in fact, removed reporting requirements for long-term care facilities from the bill they passed today, although they included it in their original diversity and data collection bill.”

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