BOSTON (SHNS) – Emergency paid leave to help buoy Massachusetts residents who need to take time away from work during the COVID-19 pandemic will be an early focus for state senators in the new session, Senate President Karen Spilka said Wednesday after her colleagues elected her to a second full term leading the body.
Addressing senators convened both in the chamber and remotely on the first day of the two-year session, Spilka reflected on the state’s work so far to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and the major accomplishments of a pandemic-disrupted session that ended in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, hours before the new session.
Describing the signing of a policing accountability law last week as “a very important start”, Spilka said senators must “recommit ourselves to the hard work of ensuring racial justice and equity in Massachusetts,” and struck a note of unity as she urged her fellow lawmakers to do their jobs with compassion, seriousness, dedication and humility.
“As we begin our work this Senate session, we do so against a backdrop of national hardship â€“- and those, they’re still out there, those that would seek to divide us along political, ideological or racial lines,” the Ashland Democrat said. “But at this crucial, precarious time, there is simply no room in government for ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Here in Massachusetts, at least, there is no ‘them,’ there is only ‘us.’ And we will all rise or fall together.”
Her comments came as protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol following a rally among supporters of President Donald Trump where the president, who lost the November election to Joe Biden, said he will “never concede.”
Spilka begins the session presiding over a Democratic supermajority that has expanded its ranks and now holds 37 Senate seats to the Republicans’ three, from a 35-5 breakdown at the start of the last term in 2019.
Sen. John Cronin, a Lunenburg Democrat who unseated Fitchburg Republican Dean Tran, is one of two new senators this year, along with Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield. Gomez defeated West Springfield incumbent James Welch in the September primary.
Gomez, Cronin and several other senators took the oath of office in a socially distanced ceremony in Ashburton Park outside the State House, while other senators were sworn in remotely.
Before adjourning at 4:41 a.m. Wednesday, the House and Senate shipped a raft of bills to Gov. Charlie Baker, including last-minute deals that were presented to lawmakers after midnight on a $16.5 billion transportation bond bill and a $626.5 million economic development package.
The Senate president ticked off “promoting economic resiliency” and “updating our transportation infrastructure” as among legislative accomplishments for the past session, along with a 2019 school finance reform law and recently passed bills addressing climate change and health care.
Spilka, who had convened Senate working groups to explore transportation and revenue, did not tip her hand as to how the branch might approach those two major issues over the next two years.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Adam Hinds, who leads the group that’s been studying the state tax code, indicated last month that a summary of its findings will likely be made public before the annual budget debates that are typically held in April and May.
Last March, before the pandemic gripped Massachusetts, the House passed a set of transportation taxes and fees totaling more than $500 million. The Senate never took up the bill, and top Senate Democrats said the economic crisis had reshaped the conversation around revenue.
Spilka, who has led the Senate since July 2018, has a new partner across the hall in House Speaker Ronald Mariano. Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, stepped into the role last month when former Speaker Robert DeLeo resigned after disclosing he was in talks about a job with Northeastern University.
Mariano and Spilka each told their respective branches Tuesday that the Legislature must continue to respond to residents’ needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is clear that the time is now for emergency paid leave, and so the Senate, I’m proud to say, will be working on solutions with our partners in government, business and labor as soon as this session is underway,” Spilka said.
According to the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition, a majority of lawmakers in each branch co-sponsored bills Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Paul Donato filed in April that would provide an additional 10 days of job-protected sick time to workers who were not covered by sick time provisions under a federal coronavirus response law.
“With vaccines on the way, we need to do everything we can to get through the winter without overwhelming our hospitals and health care system. And ensuring that frontline workers have the ability to take a paid sick day if they have symptoms, have been exposed, or after receiving the vaccine will be critical to ending the pandemic,” said 1199SEIU Executive Vice President Tim Foley, a member of the Raise Up steering committee. “We stand ready to work with the legislature to quickly pass emergency paid sick time and ensure that workers have the benefits they need to keep themselves and others safe this winter and spring.”
Spilka also said legislators “must continue to commit ourselves to expanding COVID testing, tracing and vaccination, particularly for our most vulnerable, and ensuring those on the front lines have what they need to fight this virus. Because paying attention to the details when people are calling on us for help matters.”
Mariano said the state must provide support for restaurants and other small businesses and ensure that its eviction diversion program “is doing enough to keep people in their homes,” that students, teachers and parents are supported during remote learning, that people who are out of work get needed benefits, and “that the unemployment rate isn’t worsened by crushing labor costs on employers.”
Spilka was nominated for the presidency by Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat who last session chaired the Senate Rules Committee and served as an assistant majority leader, and by Winthrop Democrat Sen. Joseph Boncore, last session’s Transportation Committee chair.
Republican Sens. Ryan Fattman of Sutton and Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth nominated Minority Leader Bruce Tarr as president. After a party line vote of 37-3 in favor of Spilka, Tarr moved that her election be considered unanimous.