BOSTON (SHNS) – The dual public health and economic crises triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic have consumed virtually all of Beacon Hill’s attention, shifting many of the Baker administration’s pre-pandemic priorities to the back burner or off the stove altogether, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said Wednesday.
For more than two months, state officials have been focused almost exclusively on responding to the highly infectious virus that has killed nearly 6,500 Massachusetts residents and blunting the major economic fallout that has pushed unemployment to record levels.
During an interview with Boston Magazine Editor Chris Vogel for the “Power Talks” series, Polito said the greatest challenge she has experienced amid the disruption is the “relentless focus” on COVID-19 response.
“It is our 100 percent focus — there isn’t anything else,” she said. “I have a pile on my desk of the things I was working on before this hit, and it’s just there, and it is so secondary to what we need to focus on. I think that that’s in a way important, but really, all the things that we dream and hope for for the Commonwealth are just kind of on hold. And that’s hard.”
It appears increasingly likely that the Legislature will need to push fiscal 2021 budget talks deep into the summer, and questions are swirling about what other major priorities Baker and legislative leaders will try to salvage and enact this year, or whether formerly pressing priorities will just be kicked into the next session.
The House last week returned to legislation the administration had offered months earlier, approving a $1.73 billion information technology bond bill (H 4708) after adding about $100 million to its bottom line.
However, many of the other legislative goals Gov. Charlie Baker and Polito targeted, as well as the legislative agendas of those who lead the House and Senate, have been stalled during the crisis.
Baker filed a $240 million economic stimulus bill (H 4529), which featured components such as incentivizing housing development near public transit and growing manufacturing jobs, on March 4, less than one week before he declared a state of emergency related to COVID-19. The bill was drafted based on feedback, assembled over months, on an updated state economic strategy.
The administration’s long-sought legislation (H 3507) to lower the voting threshold required for local zoning changes gained momentum in December when the Housing Committee endorsed it by a 16-1 vote, but it has not moved in the House Ways and Means Committee since then.
“Just a short time ago, Chris, we were just filing with the Legislature our economic development bill, and we were talking about housing choice, how important it is to build more housing in the Commonwealth,” Polito told Vogel. “The conversation has changed so much. So we need to reopen, and then we need to think about how to balance our budgets, help municipalities balance their budgets, get businesses open again, and then see where the gaps are.”
The traditional state budgeting process has been upended by the outbreak. The House Ways and Means Committee has until July 1 to propose a full budget for the new fiscal year, and officials appear poised to rely on an interim spending plan for at least the start of fiscal year 2021.
Lawmakers typically conclude formal business after July 31 in the second year of sessions to avoid friction with campaign season, but they could opt to extend that deadline to give themselves more time to finish delayed work.
The House passed its own version of Baker’s $18 billion transportation borrowing bill and a separate landmark transportation tax bill during the first week of March. Senate President Karen Spilka said last month she plans to take up at least the former bill, but she has also hinted that the gasoline and other tax increases in the latter may not have a chance amid the suddenly dire economic climate.
Last week, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he does not view transportation as “something that we can put on the back burner, COVID-19 or not” as he named child care and restaurants as key areas of focus for his chamber.
The tax bill is intended in part to improve service on the MBTA, which is now poised to take on a tough task – getting workers safety to and from their jobs on a system that has struggled with crowding and performance.
Spilka similarly flagged bills dealing with prescription drugs, climate change and mental health on her list of priorities this session.
Polito co-chaired the advisory board that drafted the state’s reopening plan, working with Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy to solicit feedback from a range of stakeholders and plot a roadmap for a gradual transition to a new normal.
Each of the four phases will last at least three weeks and potentially longer if public health indicators do not meet still-unidentified thresholds. Polito said Wednesday that officials chose three weeks as a minimum to cover a full 14-day incubation period for any new virus transmissions plus an extra week for observation and analysis.
“Phase two includes things like retail in-store, restaurants and hotels, more personal services,” Polito said. “Those are things that we would all like to enjoy more if you choose to, but can’t activate until we get closer to phase two in the public health metrics, continue to trend downwards. Everyone has a role to play in doing that, especially as the weather gets better.”
While she acknowledged the pandemic’s disruption, Polito said she has worked to adjust to a new routine where telework — something the administration is pushing as many employers to allow as possible — plays a larger role.
A silver lining in the crisis, she said, has been an increase in the “family time” she enjoys.
Before the outbreak, both she and Baker would “find ourselves up early and out” to “crisscross” the state, Polito said. But now, many of her meetings can be done over videoconference.
“It gets me home in time to take a walk with my family, or a lot of meal planning, a lot of meal prepping, a lot of meal time,” Polito said. “I just started a little patio garden with my daughter. That was something we wanted to do and we just never did.”
“We were a family, much like others who are listening, that had a lot of games and practices and tournaments and all the comings and goings on top of work and found ourselves with very little downtime,” she continued. “And now, having this at-home time has been really special, and I hope to see that continue.”