House, Senate differ on COVID spending, voting rights

The House and Senate may agree on broad contours of policy, but when it comes to actually passing bills, the devil’s in the details.

That truism is on full display this week as the Senate took up a COVID-19 relief bill that previously passed the House, and the House plans to consider a version of a voting reform bill that passed the Senate.

The House last week passed a bill to provide $55 million for COVID-19 expenditures. That bill included $25 million to expand COVID-19 testing sites, $5 million for efforts to increase vaccination rates among children ages five to 11, and $25 million to buy and distribute high-quality masks to students and faculty in public schools.

The Senate on Wednesday voted on a slightly different bill. The Senate would earmark $5 million for community health center testing infrastructure and $7 million to organizations focused on vaccine education in disproportionately impacted communities, while requiring the administration to develop a vaccine equity plan. It would distribute masks to health care facilities, not just schools. The Senate bill imposes requirements on the Division of Unemployment Assistance related to its ability to recover overpayments, and adds a provision providing some limited civil immunity from lawsuits for health care professionals providing COVID-related services. The State House News Service reported that senators tacked on an additional $20 million in spending during the floor debate.

Both the House and Senate would extend various COVID-related policies, with the Senate adding authorizations related to outdoor dining.

Both Senate and House leaders have expressed interest in getting the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker quickly, to help Massachusetts weather the current COVID surge – if they can reconcile their differences.

A more significant policy debate – and one with less of an urgent deadline – comes on voting reforms.

The Senate in October passed an expansive election reform package that included same-day voter registration, permanent voting by mail, expanded early voting, and provisions to make it easier for incarcerated people to vote to cast their ballots. 

House Speaker Ron Mariano pointed out this week that he previously voted against same-day voter registration. A bill released Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee, which is teed up for a Thursday vote, does not include same-day voter registration.

The House bill is similar to the Senate bill in that it expands early voting to all primary and general elections and makes it easier for eligible incarcerated people to vote. It also makes voting-by-mail permanent, enshrining into law a policy that was initially proposed as a pandemic-era temporary accommodation.

Republicans in the Legislature have repeatedly raised concerns about the security of voting by mail. But with Democrats overwhelmingly controlling the House and Senate, they usually have the votes to defeat GOP opposition. The harder question may be whether Democrats in the House or Democrats in the Senate will cave on same-day voter registration and whether – and in what time frame – a deal can be reached.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Is it time to cut taxes? Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal includes a nearly $700 million package of tax breaks that would benefit those at the lower end of the income spectrum as well as those much higher up. With the state awash in surplus tax revenue and federal aid, it may be hard for Democratic lawmakers to argue the state cannot afford cutting taxes.

– For those higher up, the package would cut the tax on short-term capital gains from 12 percent to 5 percent and boost the threshold for the estate tax from $1 million to $2 million and make it applicable only to income above that amount.

– For those on the lower end of the income spectrum, the package doubles the existing tax break for taxpayers with dependent children, raises from $8,000 to $12,400 the income level where no tax would be assessed, doubles a tax credit for low-income seniors, and hikes the maximum deduction for renters from $3,000 to $5,000. Read more.

Koonce makes his case: Thomas Koonce, seeking Governor’s Council approval of his commutation, takes full responsibility for killing a New Bedford man in 1987 and says his life will forever be dedicated to giving back to society. Read more.

OPINION

Climate change = societal change: Ed Gaskin of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets says Black-owned businesses must win a share of the billions or trillions to be spent addressing climate change. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Globe columnist Joan Vennochi and Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld both scratch their heads at Gov. Charlie Baker’s ability to avoid any culpability for a series of state transportation department mishaps, some deadly, under his watch. 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association overwhelmingly rejected an offer to settle the union’s standoff with the city over a vaccine mandate for all municipal employees, sending negotiations back to square one with a new Sunday deadline for all workers to get vaccinated approaching. (Boston Herald) Meanwhile, the Boston Teachers Union says Black and Latino teachers are overrepresented in the small pool of teachers who have resisted the vaccine mandate and therefore face termination. (Boston Globe

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

A backlash is growing against the announcement by Tufts Medical Center that it plans to close its pediatric hospital. (Boston Globe

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is stepping down, giving President Biden his first chance to appoint one of the court’s justices. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

State Sen. Harriette Chandler, an 84-year-old Worcester Democrat who has served in the Legislature since 1995, including a stint as Senate president, announces that she will not run for reelection. (Telegram & Gazette) State Rep. David LeBoeuf says he is seriously considering running for Chandler’s seat, and Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty may also be considering it. (Telegram & Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

Two employees working for a MassDOT contractor are fired after they raised the Chelsea Street Bridge with a car still on it. (MassLive)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Several North Shore cities are teaming up to address the impact of climate change. (Salem News) Residents of The Point neighborhood of Salem are already feeling climate change’s effects. (Salem News)