The House and Senate – 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 the comfort of their home or business office through their computers and voted via phone.

Allow the State to Borrow Billions of Dollars (H 4677) – The House (157-0) and Senate (38-0) approved and sent to Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. a bill to 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 the Bay State 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 revenue anticipation notes. This means that the state will borrow in fiscal 2020 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 said they 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.

All members of the Cape Cod delegation voted to approve the bill.

$502 Million for Cities and Towns for COVID-19 Costs – Gov. Baker 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 funds at a later date.

Municipalities must use the funds for eligible costs related to the COVID-19 response effort, consistent with parameters established by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and guidance from the US Treasury Department.

The Baker administration said the available funds represent approximately 25 percent of the funding the state received from the federal coronavirus relief fund and will help ease municipal cash-flow pressures. It plans to distribute money to cities and towns quickly and efficiently and maintain necessary flexibility to allocate additional funds if unanticipated needs arise or if federal rules change. These resources will also help ease municipal cash-flow pressures.

Not everyone agrees, however. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” said Chip Ford, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “This one has clearly defined who the ‘essential workers’ are and [who] are not. Municipalities and the state now have their own ‘new normal starting points’ when it’s over. Federal helicopter money dropped over the states to assist in this crisis of course needs to be distributed to the cities and towns as designed. Fortunately, limited by CLT’s Proposition 2½, municipalities can’t raise revenue through property tax hikes over 2.5 percent annually, and squeezing that from the record number of unemployed won’t be easy.”

Voting in the Age of COVID-19 – The elections laws committee held a virtual hearing and heard testimony on several bills from many participants who weighed in on what changes to make in the voting procedures for the September 1 primary and November 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 early pre-Election Day in-person voting should be allowed; and how polling places should be physically set up and spread out to maintain social distancing.

US Representative 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,” he 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 US Senator Edward J. Markey, who is being challenged for reelection by Mr. 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.”

The League of Women Voters 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. 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,” the organization wrote.

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

Emergency Paid Sick Time (S 2701) – The labor and workforce development committee is considering legislation that would guarantee all workers at least 10 additional eight-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 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 said the current 2014 law giving 40 hours of paid sick leave is outdated and inadequate in today’s era. They noted that Raise Up Massachusetts led that 2014 campaign to create the state’s 40-hour total earned sick time Law, but the 40 hours of sick time it provides workers each year does not meet the scale of this major public health crisis.

Nursing Homes (S 2657) – A bill before the public health committee would allow the Massachusetts Department of Public Health 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.

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