By Bob Katzen
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THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ votes on roll calls from the week of November 8-12. There were no roll calls in the House. Most of the Senate roll calls are on the $3.82 billion package which spends the federal money the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the surplus left over from the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget on relief and recovery from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months.
A LOOK BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE $3.82 BILLION FOR COVID RELIEF AND RECOVERY PACKAGE
All of the decisions on which senators’ amendments are included or not included in the relief and recovery package are made “behind closed doors in person” or in the COVID-19 era, “behind closed Zoom doors.” Many of the more than 700 amendments proposed were on local projects for cities and towns in individual senators’ districts. Some amendments were considered individually but many were consolidated into “Yes” or “No” bundles, created by the Democratic leadership, and were approved or rejected on a voice vote all at once without debate and without a roll call vote.
Supporters of this system say that any senator who sponsored an amendment that was placed in the “No” bundle can bring it to the floor and ask for an up or down vote on the amendment itself. They say this system has worked well for many years.
Critics say this system gives too much power to the Democratic leadership and leaves all the decisions up to a handful of senators in the leadership whose word is final.
$3.82 BILLION FOR COVID RELIEF AND RECOVERY (S 2564)
Senate 38-0, approved a $3.82 billion package which spends the federal money the state received from the ARPA and the surplus left over from the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget on relief and recovery from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months. The plan includes one-time investments in health and human services, education, housing, the environment including climate mitigation, economic development and jobs. The House has already approved a different version of the measure and a House-Senate conference committee will hammer out a compromise version.
Provisions include $400 million in mental and behavioral health support; $118.4 million for public health infrastructure and data sharing; $95 million for grants to local boards of health to be prepared to respond to future public health threats; $60 million for food security infrastructure; $50 million for nursing facilities; $25 million for a grant program for community violence prevention focused on communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; $500 million for the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to provide relief to small businesses; $75 million for equitable and affordable broadband access and infrastructure improvements to close the digital divide; $75 million for the Mass Cultural Council; $50 million for grants to minority-owned small businesses; $600 million for investments in affordable and accessible housing; $25 million for tree planting; $15 million for parks and recreational projects; $10 million for clean energy retrofitting in affordable housing units; and $7.5 million for community colleges to help train underserved populations for green jobs.
“The Massachusetts State Senate has acted decisively to support our state’s recovery and ensure we do not go back to normal but ‘back to better,'” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). “The Senate’s proposal provides a path towards an equitable recovery that benefits residents, businesses and communities through transformational investments in public health, housing and climate change.”
“The Senate demonstrated its commitment to using the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the ARPA funds represent to fuel an equitable recovery and support the communities most impacted by the pandemic,” said Sen. Mike Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “The Senate has risen to the challenge of making meaningful investments in mental health, public health, workforce development, affordable housing and so much more, ensuring those hit the hardest by COVID-19—families, essential workers and small businesses—are being helped the most.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill).
Sen. Jason Lewis Yes
UNEMPLOYMENT TRUST FUND (S 2564)
Senate 5-32, rejected an amendment that would increase from $500 million to $1 billion the amount of money that the bill would place in the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund which pays out unemployment benefits to jobless residents.
Supporters said that employers are currently saddled with paying back the $7 billion the state borrowed during the pandemic to stabilize the dwindling amount of money in the trust fund. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), the sponsor of the amendment said businesses will find it difficult to bring on new employees while coping with the added costs of repaying the $7 billion. “It was not possible to plan for a global pandemic that would cost $7 billion in the cost of the unemployment insurance trust fund,” said Tarr. “They’re going to say, ‘Can I afford that new employee, can I afford that new group of employees, when I have my share of this $7 billion mortgage?’ It’s hard enough. We don’t need that additional obstacle to be any higher than it has to be.”
“Employers have experienced great hardship and I support funds to reduce unemployment costs, but the underlying bill dedicates nearly 10 percent of our total ARPA funds to this purpose.” said Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville) who voted against the amendment. “The [Baker] administration has presented no evidence to justify the added money, given the current positive trust fund balance of $3 billion, with only $2.2 billion outstanding debt. Until we receive that justification, I believe the level of contribution offered in the bill is sufficient for now.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the additional $500 million. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Jason Lewis No
TWO-WEEK SALES TAX HOLIDAY (S 2564)
Senate 3-34, rejected an amendment providing $210 million for a two-week sales tax holiday in 2022 allowing consumers to buy most products that cost under $2,500 during a two-week sales tax holiday without paying the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. State law currently calls for a two-day sales tax holiday every year.
Amendment supporters say this longer tax-free holiday would boost retail sales and noted that consumers would save millions of dollars. They said this is a reasonable way to provide relief to taxpayers who suffered during the pandemic and are now dealing with inflation, the high cost of gas, groceries and so many other things.
Amendment opponents said extending the holiday is more of a feel-good policy that does little to help families. They noted the extension would actually generate little additional revenue for stores because consumers typically buy the products even without the tax-free days.
(A “Yes” vote is for the additional $210 million and the two-week sales tax holiday. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Jason Lewis No
$5 MILLION FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS’ BEHAVIORAL AND MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS (S 2564)
Senate 37-0, approved an amendment that would provide $5 million for grants to public higher education institutions to address student behavioral and mental health needs.
“College is the first time many young adults experience living on their own, which can certainly be a challenging transition,” said sponsor Sen. Julian Cyr (R-Truro). “With the increased isolation and stress from the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of college students who report that they suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Simply put, young adults are suffering. [This] amendment will help address and support the mental health needs of students in our public higher education institutions.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the $5 million).
Sen. Jason Lewis Yes
GIVE MEDAL OF LIBERTY TO PEOPLE WHO DIE DURING TRAINING EXERCISES (S 2564)
Senate 37-0, approved an amendment that would expand eligibility for the Medal of Liberty to include families of service members who died during training exercises. Current law awards the medal to Massachusetts service men and women who have been killed in action or who died in service while in a designated combat area in the line of duty or who died from wounds received in action.
Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield) told the story of Air Force Lt. Col. Morris “Moose” Fontenot Jr., a Longmeadow resident who died in 2014 after his F-15C Eagle fighter jet crashed during a routine flight. Under 2014 and current law, Fontenot was not and is not eligible for the Medal of Liberty.
“There is an expression in the military,” said Velis. “‘Train as you fight, fight as you train.’ In order to be the best, you need to train to be the best and with that training comes its own set of dangers. Lt. Col. Fontenot’s story is not alone. We have service members completing missions and trainings like him every single day. It is imperative that we recognize the dangers that these even routine missions present and properly honor the sacrifices of all of our service members.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the amendment).
Sen. Jason Lewis Yes
ALLOW AMBULANCES TO BE USED FOR INJURED POLICE DOGS – NERO’S LAW (S 1606)
Senate 38-0, approved legislation that would require EMS personnel to provide emergency treatment to a police dog and use an ambulance to transport the dog injured in the line of duty to a veterinary clinic or veterinary hospital if there are not people requiring emergency medical treatment or transport at that time.
Sponsor Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford) first filed the bill in 2019 following the tragic death of Yarmouth Police Sgt. Sean Gannon who was shot and killed in the line of duty. His K-9 partner Nero was severely injured and had to be rushed to the animal hospital in the back of a police cruiser. Nero survived. Montigny also cites the heartbreaking loss of the beloved K-9 Kitt of the Braintree Police Department.
“K-9 officers protect the men and women in law enforcement as well as the community at-large,” said Montigny. “These animals endure extreme danger from gun violence, narcotics and even explosive materials. Allowing our emergency personnel to provide basic treatment and transport is a commonsense measure that honors their contributions across the commonwealth. Sgt. Gannon was a native son of New Bedford and therefore his K-9 partner Nero is part of our community’s extended family. Words cannot describe the gratitude we have for the Gannon family for their tenacious and compassionate advocacy to get this bill done.”
“With Nero’s Law, we have the opportunity to save K-9 members of law enforcement where the opportunity to do so would not place a person at risk,” said Sen. Susan Moran (D-Falmouth). “K-9s are their officers’ partners, shields and scouts. Like Nero and Kitt, their job is to put themselves in danger to protect us, and despite the K-9’s service to our commonwealth, an archaic law stood in the way of measures that could save these valued members of law enforcement. This has gone on long enough.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill.)
Sen. Jason Lewis Yes
CONTINUE SESSION BEYOND 8 P.M.
Senate 35-2, approved a motion to suspend Senate rules to allow the Senate session to continue beyond 8 p.m. Under Senate rules, the Senate cannot meet after 8 p.m. unless the rule is suspended. The session lasted almost three hours beyond 8 p.m. and adjourned at 10:40 p.m.
Supporters of rule suspension said that the Senate has important work to finish on the $3.82 billion COVID relief and recovery package and should stay in session to work on it.
Opponents of rule suspension said it is irresponsible for the Senate to debate and vote late at night when taxpayers are asleep.
(A “Yes” vote is for meeting beyond 8 p.m. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Jason Lewis Yes
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK’S SESSION? Beacon Hill Roll Call tracks the length of time that the House and Senate were in session each week. Many legislators say that legislative sessions are only one aspect of the Legislature’s job and that a lot of important work is done outside of the House and Senate chambers. They note that their jobs also involve committee work, research, constituent work and other matters that are important to their districts. Critics say that the Legislature does not meet regularly or long enough to debate and vote in public view on the thousands of pieces of legislation that have been filed. They note that the infrequency and brief length of sessions are misguided and lead to irresponsible late-night sessions and a mad rush to act on dozens of bills in the days immediately preceding the end of an annual session.
During the week of November 8-12, the House met for a total of one hour and 24 minutes while the Senate met for a total of 12 hours and 25 minutes.
Mon. Nov. 8 House 11:04 a.m. to 12:18 p.m.
Senate 11:15 a.m. to 11:23 a.m.
Tues. Nov. 9 No House session
Senate 1:13 p.m. to 1:24 p.m.
Wed. Nov. 10 House 11:03 a.m. to 11:13 a.m.
Senate 10:34 a.m. to 10:40 p.m.
Thurs. Nov. 11 No House session
No Senate session
Fri. Nov. 12 No House session
No Senate session
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