Senate prepping pandemic policy extensions bill for Thursday

Political News

BOSTON (State House News Service)– A bill extending some pandemic-era policies beyond next week’s end of the COVID-19 state of emergency is expected to hit the Senate floor on Thursday, though the details of what it will contain are not yet clear.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee plans to poll its members Tuesday on legislation that will be based on bills filed by Gov. Charlie Baker and Sen. William Brownsberger.

During a Monday session, the Senate teed up that not-yet-released bill for debate on Thursday, five days before the emergency’s end. The bill is slated to emerge from committee on Tuesday, and senators will have until 1 p.m. Wednesday to file any amendments. The quick turnaround reflects the time crunch lawmakers are under if they hope to get a completed bill through both branches and to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by next Tuesday, June 15, when the termination of the emergency declaration takes effect.

A House spokesperson on Monday referred to the forthcoming Senate bill as a “first piece” of legislation, indicating that additional bills could follow in the future. Many of the COVID-19 adaptations put in place either through emergency orders or new state laws are linked to the state of emergency, putting them on track to expire without legislative action.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Westport Democrat Sen. Michael Rodrigues, last week collected about 380 pieces of testimony on the Baker and Brownsberger bills. Some of the comments spoke specifically to the components proposed by Brownsberger and Baker, while others offered broader thoughts on other temporary measures, including greater flexibilities for physician assistants and the authorization for restaurants to sell cocktails to-go.

Baker’s bill (S 2452) would extend measures facilitating outdoor dining and virtual public meetings, and would continue a ban on medical providers billing patients for COVID-related care above the costs paid by insurers.

Brownsberger’s bill (S 27) seeks to extend both the expanded access to mail-in voting for municipal elections and emergency flexibilities for town meetings, including around quorum thresholds and remote participation in representative town meetings.

The committee could choose to hew closely to the original bills or use them as something of a catch-all and incorporate other policy extensions.

Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano last month sought and received from the Baker administration a list of all orders and regulations tied to the state of emergency. In late May, Mariano named several members of his leadership team as a working group to review the COVID-19 laws that are now in line to sunset.

“The House looks forward to receiving State of Emergency legislation from the Senate and continues its own simultaneous review,” House spokesperson Ana Vivas said in a statement. “After receiving the Senate’s bill, the House will work expeditiously to get a final product to the Governor’s desk, taking into account the Senate and House Working Group recommendations. In addition to this first piece of legislation, subject-matter committees and House leadership will continue to learn lessons from the pandemic, hear from the public, and pass legislations to support our residents as we move into this new, post-pandemic phase.”

Aside from the legislation expected to soon move in the Senate, several other bills have been filed to address topics including the continuation of virtual meeting access for officials and the public, remote town meetings and other municipal flexibilities. Bills authorizing communities to continue holding their town meetings through virtual platforms are scheduled for a Tuesday hearing before the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee, and the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee last week held a hearing on remote meeting participation bills.

During a speech last Thursday before the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, former Gov. Jane Swift discussed one approach to post-pandemic decision making. Swift referenced insights that Arjen Boin, a crisis management expert and professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, shared in a recent workshop for Massachusetts educators. Swift, who is now president and executive director of LearnLaunch, said that Boin spoke of acting with a “hot wash” rather than a “cold analysis, weeks or months from now, when we think we’ll remember everything.”

“You think you’ll remember everything, like where you put your keys or where you stored your ties and suits before COVID,” she said. “But really, memory does fade, and even some of the lessons and most important things we’ve discovered, whether about ourselves or our institutions, they will begin to fade as the pressing events of the days and weeks to come are here.”

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