NO ONE HAS ever been inclined to give back free money handed to them by the federal government, so don’t look for Massachusetts state officials to start now, but the not-so-secret truth is we’re hardly in desperate need of the billions of DC dollars slated to come our way.
While some warned that we should brace for an enormous falloff in state revenue due to the pandemic, after a short-term hit, the state has actually seen year-over-year gains in revenue — something more typical of stable economic times than what would be expected amid an enormous spike in unemployment and shutdown of big parts of the economy.
Writing last month in CommonWealth, Evan Horowitz, director of of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, pointed to two big factors: The infusion of federal money through earlier rounds of pandemic relief, including PPP loans to businesses and unemployment aid, and a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that expanded states’ ability to collect sales tax from online retailers, a change that made a huge difference as people switched to online purchases while hunkered down at home.
Nevertheless, the state is now poised to get $5.3 billion in federal aid, to be spent over five years, as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden in March.
Massachusetts is hardly alone in planning for a huge windfall despite healthy revenue numbers. From California to Oregon to Virginia, states that may have seen steep shortfalls in the most acute phase of the pandemic are now “flush with tax revenues,” reports today’s New York Times. The paper chalks up the reversal of fortunes to a rebounding economy and the soaring stock market.
California, where officials had feared a shortfall that might exceed $50 billion, is now anticipating a budget surplus this year of $15 billion. California may be more of an outlier, Horowitz said in an interview Tuesday morning, pointing to its very progressive tax structure that captures lots of revenue from the state’s top earners — and their stock-market winnings. “But for the bigger picture, we are very much one of the states that they’re talking about in that story, which doesn’t right now need federal money to address COVID-related shortfalls,” Horowitz said of today’s Times report.
Some states, especially those heavily reliant on tourist spending, such as Nevada and Hawaii, may be in dire need of the federal help. But the Times says the overall rosy picture for state budgets is putting pressure on the Biden administration to “repurpose” some of the money for a bipartisan deal on infrastructure spending.
Horowitz said it could even be to our benefit to redirect some of the federal money to infrastructure projects. But that’s now subject to the political give-and-take of Congress, where it may be difficult to pull off a reworking of the massive spending plan given all the competing interests at play.
“Perfect storm” at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home: A legislative report on what caused the deaths of 77 veterans from COVID-19 identified many of the same management problems identified in earlier reports, but it also blamed systemic governance problems that rose all the way to Gov. Charlie Baker’s office. Together with a recent Boston Globe Spotlight report that suggested Baker and top aide Marylou Sudders tried to deflect attention from their role in selecting and retaining incompetent leadership at the home, the report spells trouble for the administration’s efforts to put the horrific incident behind it.
- Ex-superintendent Bennett Walsh, who is facing criminal charges in connection with the COVID outbreak, is faulted for creating a toxic atmosphere at the home.
- The report found a “muddled and seemingly ineffective chain of command” going from the home to its board of trustees to the department of veterans services to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to the governor’s office.
- A major takeaway: “The Special Committee questions why Superintendent Walsh was chosen for this key leadership position and why action was not taken to remove him from his duties before the tragedy emerged.”
MBTA fares too high? For years, the Baker administration has pushed for moderate MBTA fare increases at regular intervals. Those days appear to be gone, as Boston mayoral candidates, transit advocates, and members of the T’s own oversight board are pushing for eliminating fares entirely or lowering them for people with incomes equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The debate is shaping up as a huge policy issue, with politicians lining up behind abolishing fares and the T favoring the more targeted approach of providing relief to those riders on low incomes.
Key developments from Monday:
- Frustrated with the unwillingness of the Legislature to front money for means-tested fares, two members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board suggest the T should foot the bill for a pilot project next year testing the concept and using the results to convince the Legislature to spring for funding. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak cautioned against launching means-tested fares without a funding stream in place. Tim Sullivan, another member of the control board, warned that sticking the next board with the bill for the pilot may not be such a good idea when the T is staring at yawning deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars. Read more.
- The Boston mayoral candidates, all trying to curry the favor of transit riders, are jumping on the no-fare bandwagon. Acting Mayor Kim Janey is going even further, saying she is implementing a fare-free pilot on the Route 28 bus, although that pilot project hasn’t been green-lighted yet by the T. Read more.
- Even as the debate intensifies over eliminating or cutting fares, the Fiscal and Management Control Board is struggling to reach consensus on fines for fare evasion. T staff wants the fines high enough to deter fare evaders, while several members of the control board want the fines for initial offenses to be no more than $10. For the second meeting in a row, the control board is stymied on the issue. Read more.
Legislative staffers complain of long hours, low pay: A survey of 210 people working for lawmakers on Beacon Hill reveals widespread discontent about working conditions and low pay. The survey comes as State House leaders are rushing to address the problem. A 6 percent cost-of-living increase was approved earlier this month and one senator is pushing legislation to raise the base salary from $44,000 to $54,000 and mandate cost-of-living increases every year instead of every two years. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
Some legislators want Gov. Charlie Baker to answer questions before the Legislature about his role in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy. (Boston Globe) Joan Vennochi says Baker should come clean on his role in the politically-driven hiring of Bennett Walsh, the home’s former superintendent who had no health care background. (Boston Globe) Ben Downing, a Democrat running for governor, says Gov. Charlie Baker should be called by the Legislature to testify on his oversight of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. (State House News Service)
Rep. Mary Keefe joins Worcester residents to protest toxic fumes they say are emanating from a Worcester auto body shop. (Telegram & Gazette)
Massachusetts’ partnership with FEMA to run a COVID vaccination site at Hynes Convention Center ends after 301,000 doses were administered. (MassLive)
In a case that may present a challenge to President Biden’s opposition to the death penalty, Dylann Roof, the first person sentenced to death under federal hate crimes legislation for killing 9 black parishioners in a South Carolina church, is appealing his death sentence. (Washington Post)
Campaign finance officials have sent Attorney General Maura Healey more than a dozen referrals of officials who may have broken campaign finance laws, but she has not filed criminal or civil charges in any of the cases. (Boston Globe)
The Boston firefighters union endorses Annissa Essaibi George for mayor of Boston. (GBH)
The head of Boston’s long-dormant Human Rights Commission is raising questions about whether there is equitable access to broadband internet service across the city. (Boston Globe)
Amazon is close to a deal to acquire the MGM movie studio. The delivery company previously acquired Whole Foods. (Wall Street Journal)
The Biden administration extends temporary protected status for 100,000 Haitians in the United States. (NPR)
The Boston Public Schools will cut all ties with a nonprofit that ran a student advocacy group following concerns about its director’s interactions with students, including pressuring them to take part in controversial group counseling sessions. (Boston Globe)
Many Cape Cod communities, facing drought conditions, impose water-use restrictions. (Cape Cod Times)
Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Guilluni said he was prepared to arrest defrocked priest Richard Lavigne in connection with the death of 13-year-old Danny Croteau, but Lavigne died last week. (Associated Press)
The state civil service commission orders an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by the Westfield fire chief. (MassLive)
Boston police union officials say officers say brazen dirt bike and ATV riders vandalized a police van while officers were trying to disperse a group of more than 100 riders of the illegal off-road vehicles. (Boston Herald)
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a law that would impose fines on Big Tech companies that kick politicians off their platforms. Both Twitter and Facebook banned former president Donald Trump. (The Verge)
The Associated Press runs a moving profile of Michelle Pepe, the daughter of Bernie & Phyl’s founder Bernie Rubin. After Rubin died of COVID-19 one year ago, Pepe struggles with grief and guilt because she believes she gave her father the virus.
Family and friends remember Jane Flavell Collins of Duxbury, a courtroom artist who covered most of the biggest cases in the Boston area for the last three decades. (Patriot Ledger)