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Downing, Vennochi voice concerns on Baker

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS GIVE Gov. Charlie Baker very high marks in general and for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but two guests on the CommonWealth Codcast criticized him for failing to think bigger, to take responsibility when things go wrong, and to use his political capital to address some of the more difficult challenges facing the state.

Former state senator Ben Downing and Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi both said that Baker has done a lot of things well, but they nevertheless criticized him on a number of fronts.

Vennochi said she was troubled with the administration’s response to the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and the governor’s refusal to take any personal responsibility for giving final approval to a political appointee to run the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. That hire, according to a report commissioned by Baker, contributed to a breakdown in leadership during the COVID-19 crisis that cost 76 veterans their lives.

“He’s never really owned the process that put that in place,” Vennochi said, adding that the governor has acted similarly when scandals erupted at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the State Police.

“To me that’s the frustrating thing about him because he has so much political capital,” Vennochi said. “With that much political capital, he could just step up and say, ‘You know what, that one’s on me.’ That’s what I’m waiting for.”

Opponents debate merits of Maine hydro project

TWO BAY STATE REFERENDUM questions will appear on the ballot this fall in Massachusetts, along with a third in Maine.

The referendum in Maine can be considered a Massachusetts question because it seeks to block a nearly $1 billion power line that is being paid for by Bay State utility customers. The fight over the power line, which would carry hydroelectricity produced in Quebec to Lewiston, Maine, has become one of the top political fights in Maine.

Two officials from the opposing camps – Serge Abergel, director of external relations for Hydro-Quebec, and Adam Cote, an attorney representing opponents of the project – laid out their positions on The Codcast.

Cote said the ballot question is already the most expensive in state history, and it’s only August. He insists polling shows his side doing well despite being heavily outspent.

Abergel says the hydroelectricity his company produces will back electricity produced using natural gas out of the market, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New England, and provide backup power for other more variable renewables, such as wind and solar.

As local news withers, we’re losing sense of identity

WHEN RICK HOLMES RETIRED as the opinion editor at the MetroWest Daily News in 2017, he was worried about the decline in journalism and what it would mean for local communities.

“The local paper introduces us to our neighbors. It’s a mirror, through which communities see themselves. It expresses and reflects community values. It establishes the facts on which public debates are based. In its pages, the community defines itself, argues with itself, sets its priorities and, most of the time, finds consensus,” Holmes wrote in his farewell column.

In the three years since he wrote his goodbye, the situation has only worsened. His paper, and the chain it was a part of, merged into an even bigger organization called Gannett. His position was abolished and his old paper now rarely runs a locally produced editorial on a local issue.

“I don’t believe Gannett has any editorial page editors anymore,” Holmes said on the CommonWealth Codcast. “Even the Providence Journal no longer has an editorial page editor. So how is a paper like that, the most important media presence in the state, going to exercise any leadership if they don’t have anyone to research those topics and write about them and provide that leadership in the pages of the paper. It’s a tremendous loss.”

Sharp split on need for new transpo revenues

WITH 17 PERCENT UNEMPLOYMENT, a recession, and a global pandemic, does Massachusetts need to be raising more money right now to fix the state’s ailing transportation system?

“Clearly the Legislature needs to be thoughtful and considerate in a time when so many folks are struggling about raising revenue, but if we’re not making investments in transportation then we’re not going to have that full and vibrant economy recovery we all want,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a transportation advocacy group that has been leading the push for more revenue.

But John Regan, president and CEO of the business group Associated Industries of Massachusetts, disagrees. “With the economy in such a state of flux, with state finances so far in a state of confusion…adding even modest new revenue to the equation right now is not prudent,” Regan said.

On this week’s Codcast, Dempsey and Regan both agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way they saw the state’s transportation needs. But they disagreed on virtually everything else, from whether new transportation revenue is needed to what types of revenues are worth looking at. Their debate mirrors the one happening on Beacon Hill, with a slight twist. On Beacon Hill, the business-friendly House in February passed a $600 million transportation revenue bill and the Senate, which is generally considered more liberal, this month said it would not take it up, due to the pandemic. The Senate passed a $17 billion transportation bond bill, but the House says that is too large without new revenues.

Michael Curry: Waging a duel-front war on the pandemic and racism

THE LAST SEVERAL MONTHS have been dominated by two seismic issues convulsing the nation — the global coronavirus pandemic and a burgeoning movement for racial justice. For Michael Curry, that’s meant working double-time as the twin crises strike at the heart of the work he’s been doing in Boston for years.

The son of a Roxbury single mother who migrated to Boston from the Jim Crow South, Curry is deputy CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and the past president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, who has had prominent roles nationally in the iconic civil rights organization.

After digging in to the history of racial discrimination in his studies and serving as president of the black student union at Macalester College in Minnesota, Curry said he made a commitment to pursue racial justice work. “So that brought me home,” he said on a new “Health or Consequences” episode of The Codcast with John McDonough of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and Dr. Paul Hattis of Tufts University School of Medicine.

It eventually took Curry to the presidency of the Boston branch of the NAACP, where he led a rejuvenation of the chapter and became a leading voice of the city’s black community.

Contact tracing effort scaled way back

DR. JOIA MUKHERJEE, the chief medical officer at Partners in Health, said the organization has drastically scaled back its contact tracing workforce amid a sharp decline in COVID-19 infections.

On CommonWealth’s Health or Consequences Codcast, Mukherjee said Partners in Health has gone from 1,900 employees to 470. Working under a contract with the state of Massachusetts, the organization contacts those infected with the coronavirus and tracks down all those who they have come in close contact with (within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes) to urge them to get tested and quarantine. The program also employs resource coordinators to help those who need food, health care, or other services in order to shelter and recover or quarantine.

Mukherjee said the organization is now right-sized for the job it needs to do. “We think that will allow us to properly handle 300 cases a day in addition to what the local boards of health are handling,” Mukherjee told John McDonough of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Paul Hattis, recently retired from the Tufts University Medical School.

State officials have been vague about the employee reductions at Partners in Health. As of June 18, a spokesman said the nonprofit had 1,212 employees, which was described as “peak staffing.” If those numbers were accurate, the nonprofit cut 742 employees in about 15 days.

Spilka makes case for substance over process

IN A WIDE-RANGING INTERVIEW on the CommonWealth Codcast, Senate President Karen Spilka kept returning to the theme of substance over process when it comes to legislation dealing with the state’s many pressing needs.

She applauded the House, Senate, and governor’s office for working collaboratively on a budget for the coming fiscal year rather than following the traditional path of each branch of government doing their own spending plan.

“Unprecedented times require unprecedented solutions,” she said. “We need to work together for the people of Massachusetts.”

She also used the same substance over process argument in talking about a feud between the House and Senate chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing that harkens back to a fairly bitter dispute between the two branches in 2015. The House chair of the committee is insisting all health care legislation should go through the panel, while the Senate chair, frustrated with the slow pace of law-making, is pulling bills filed by senators out of the committee and steering them to the Senate for action.

The new civil rights movement

MONICA CANNON-GRANT ORGANIZED the largest Boston demonstration to date against police brutality toward blacks, a march that drew tens of thousands of people to Franklin Park earlier this month. Nearly a month after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests across the country have continued — Cannon-Grant is leading another march today to the State House — and  the Roxbury community organizer said on The Codcast that she’s convinced a sustained movement has begun.

“I think this is our civil rights movement,” Cannon-Grant said. “What I’ve been telling people is, I think for black people, we’ve been in a war that we just haven’t shown up to out of exhaustion and PTSD and anxiety and just all the things that we experienced. And I think now we’re like enough is enough.”

Rev. Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor at the Historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury and a veteran of clergy anti-violence efforts of the 1990s, called it “the monumental moment of our times.” Just as his parents and grandparents faced similar tests, he said, “we’re at a decision right now as to whether or not we’re going to rise to make our world better for our children or leave the world in a worse condition.”

But how to get that better world — and what it would look like — is still something very much in flux in the nascent movement for change.

Childcare provider: ‘I’m scared for my business’

AS SHE LOOKS TOWARD REOPENING, Tammy Inman, the owner and director of Little Kids childcare center in North Falmouth is scared. “I’m really scared for my business, I’m scared for my families and my teachers,” Inman said.

Her fear does not stem from the coronavirus itself, but from how she will stay in business under strict new guidelines governing how many children she can serve, and from trying to understand how her teachers will care for children if kids cannot share toys or touch one another.

“A huge fear that lies within our families after reading these guidelines is placing their children into settings which are not conducive to caring for young children,” Inman said.

Inman and Amy O’Leary, director of Strategies for Children’s advocacy campaign Early Education for All, spoke on the Codcast this week about the challenges facing childcare providers – and working parents who rely on them – as daycares consider whether to reopen under new state guidelines.

Holmes, Idowu outline reform steps

IN THE WAKE OF George Floyd’s death, Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston and Segun Idowu of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts talked on the Codcast about practical steps that can be taken to address racial inequities and police misconduct.

Holmes said the focus should be on equity. “Equity means that there are folks who have been left behind, and it does mean that you have to actually give more resources to some folks than you do to others,” Holmes said.

Idowu said racial inequities have been amplified by the coronavirus. “COVID is impacting our communities way more than it is other communities, not just in the health area, with the rates of infection and the rates of death, but also the economic conditions, the fact that we are considered essential workers but don’t have access to adequate health care. Or the fact that, you know, access to unemployment [insurance], to be able to pay bills.”