Wheels in motion for pandemic policy extensions

Boston Statehouse
Massachusetts State House_652115

BOSTON (State House News Service)– Efforts to determine under a tight timeline what pandemic policy adaptations should remain in place beyond the June 15 end of the COVID-19 state of emergency took steps forward on Thursday, as the Senate began soliciting testimony on a pair of bills and the House announced the formation of a new working group.

Without legislative action, an assortment of practices, including virtual public meetings and measures designed to buoy restaurants, will end after Gov. Charlie Baker terminates the emergency he declared on March 10, 2020. Many of the COVID-19 rules and policies were put in place by executive orders from the governor, and it now falls to lawmakers to decide which are worth enshrining into statute on either a short-term or permanent basis.

Baker on Tuesday filed a bill to extend for several months three specific policies — the ability for public bodies to meet via videoconference as long as they maintain public access, special permits for outdoor dining, and a ban on medical providers billing patients for COVID-related care above the costs paid by insurers.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is accepting written testimony through 5 p.m. Tuesday on Baker’s bill (S 2452) and on another from Senate President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger that proposes extending COVID-19 accomodations for municipal elections and representative town meetings. Testimony can be emailed to senatecommittee.ways&means@masenate.gov.

State laws passed last year gave towns flexibility around their quorum thresholds for town meetings and allowed representative town meetings to be held through remote participation or outside a town’s borders during the state of emergency, and expanded access to mail-in voting for last spring’s municipal elections.

Brownsberger filed his bill (S 27) in February, before it became clear when the emergency would end, and as currently written it proposes keeping those measures in place through June 30, 2021. The Senate Ways and Means Committee, if it advances the bill, could redraft it with a new date further out. If the committee were to advance a bill Tuesday evening after reviewing the testimony, that bill would have to win the approval of both branches and Baker in a two-week span to be in place for the end of the emergency.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Ronald Mariano’s office announced that he had appointed five members of his leadership team to a working group to review laws linked to the state of emergency and develop legislative recommendations. Led by Second Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, the panel consists of fellow Democrats Second Assistant Majority Leader Sarah Peake of Provincetown, Assistant Majority Leader Michael Moran of Brighton, and Division Chairs Frank Moran of Lawrence and James O’Day of West Boylston.

“While the Baker Administration filed a nominal bill in the Senate to extend three COVID-related measures, the House recognizes that we cannot wait to start our own process,” a House spokesperson said in a statement. The statement encouraged stakeholders to “reach out on behalf of their positions on these time-sensitive measures” and described the House as “well aware of the challenges caused by the timeframe in which the Baker Administration will end the State of Emergency.”

Baker announced on May 17 that he intended to end the state of emergency on June 15, saying at the time that he wanted to work with lawmakers in the interim to “deal with whatever is sort of undone by this.” That evening, Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka said they’d asked the administration for a full list of orders and emergency regulations that would be affected, and Baker provided them with such a tally three days later.

On Wednesday, a Spilka spokesperson said that senators would confer with each other and work with “our colleagues in the House to effectively and swiftly address the multitude of critical issues that directly impact families, our communities and our economy.”

The Massachusetts Municipal Association wrote to Spilka and Mariano this week, outlining measures its members would like to see kept in place and cautioning of “a number of major transition challenges for government and businesses” from an abrupt end to the emergency. The MMA described “a permanent extension of the ability to conduct public meetings and hearings remotely” as the most immediate and urgent issue, and also asked that lawmakers provide a permanent option to conduct town meeting remotely.

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