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Gov. Baker signs $101 million COVID bill

Massachusetts will steer another $101 million toward its COVID-19 response under a spending bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed over the weekend that also shifts the statewide primary election date up to Sept. 6.

Baker on Saturday approved all of the spending on COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave, rapid tests, high-quality masks and vaccine access that lawmakers included in the supplemental budget (H 4430). He vetoed two outside policy sections and returned another two, including an attempt by the Legislature to codify a vaccine equity plan, with amendments.

The new law calls for $76 million in direct state spending aimed at boosting access to masks, COVID-19 vaccines and rapid tests, particularly for schools, congregate care facilities and homeless shelters. It also allots another $25 million in available federal funds to the state's COVID emergency paid sick leave program.

Baker struck down two outside sections that he said together would have required the state Department of Public Health to "issue and post guidance on mask usage and testing, quarantining, and isolation periods related to COVID-19 within 30 days."

The department already works to publish up-to-date guidance, Baker said, arguing the additional language in the bill would "serve no purpose if signed into law."

One section Baker returned to lawmakers with an amendment called for the secretary of health and human services to craft and implement a COVID-19 vaccination equity plan with a goal of eliminating disparities in vaccination rates within 120 days.

Baker's amendment strikes the 120-day target, a change that he said would "reflect the continuing challenge faced by nearly every country in the world and every state in the country of achieving total vaccine equity."

The Republican governor defended his administration's work to make vaccines are available and accessible across Massachusetts, recounting steps the administration took such as prioritizing 20 hard-hit cities and towns — in which 12 have rates of residents with one vaccine dose above the national average, according to Baker — and steering additional funding to community organizations.

"Our administration is committed to continuing our efforts to reduce disparities in vaccination rates in Massachusetts," Baker wrote. "But the challenge of eliminating disparities in vaccination rates altogether is a project that will require us all to work beyond the 120 day deadline envisioned by the language of this section."

Baker added that he plans to comply with other language in the bill requiring the administration to file a vaccination equity plan within 30 days and regular progress reports every 60 days.

The other amendment Baker offered deals with public employees who come out of retirement to resume working for their former employer. Lawmakers proposed extending a pandemic-era waiver on earnings and hours caps for those workers through the rest of the year, and Baker instead suggested linking the extension to the public health emergency so it is "tied to a specific time period where a heightened response may be necessary."

Lawmakers can choose to override Baker's vetoes with a two-thirds vote in either chamber, where Democrats hold supermajorities.

In addition to his vetoes and amendments, Baker wrote that he "disapprove(s) language" requiring masks, testing and vaccines to be made available by Feb. 28. He called it "simply unrealistic" to expect to hit those deadlines in two and a half weeks.

The mid-year spending bill also officially sets the statewide primary election for Sept. 6, two weeks earlier than the default date under existing state law.

Changing the primary date has evolved into a biennial tradition in Massachusetts, and Secretary of State William Galvin had warned that the original Sept. 20 date for this cycle would not provide him enough time to make ballots ready for military and overseas voters.

Galvin announced on Sunday that nomination papers would become available to candidates starting at 10 a.m. Monday, a day ahead of the codified deadline he faces.

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Depending on the office sought, candidates must collect between 150 and 10,000 signatures from registered voters.

Those running for district and county offices have until May 3 to submit signatures to local registrars for certification, then until May 31 to submit certified signatures to Galvin's Elections Division. Party candidates seeking statewide office or Congress must file signatures locally by May 10 and with Galvin by June 7, while non-party statewide and congressional candidates have until Aug. 2 to provide signatures to local officials and until Aug. 30 to hand them to the secretary's office.

The new law also extends several pandemic-era policies — including remote open meeting law flexibility, remote notarization authorization, flexibility for municipalities to lower town meeting quorums and allowance of remote reverse mortgage counseling — until July 15.

Assisted living facilities could waive certain staffing and training requirements until that date. The bill would also temporarily revive through the end of February liability protection measures for health care workers in situations where patient care may have been impacted by COVID-19.

Other sections would revive an early education and care review commission and give it a March 1 deadline and extend the deadline for a state seal and motto commission to finish its work from July 31 to Dec. 31. 2022.

The legislation also includes language regarding overpayments made by the state unemployment insurance system during the pandemic upheaval. It would require the Department of Unemployment Assistance to submit a detailed report by March 1 estimating how many people received overpayments and how much the department paid in excess.

Under the law, DUA could also reconsider determinations or redeterminations that resulted in overpayments one year after the date of the original decision. The department would need to launch a $1 million public awareness campaign to inform recipients of overpaid benefits that they have more time to appeal their cases.

The Massachusetts Medical Society applauded Baker's signature of the supplemental budget, praising in particular "the focus on health equity throughout the law."

"Citing the pivotal role of education in children's mental, physical and emotional development, the Medical Society has long advocated for safe in-person learning, and we are incredibly pleased that funding is allocated for high-quality masks for school children and increased access to COVID-19 testing, especially in early education and childcare settings," said Mass. Medical Society President Dr. Carole Allen. "The Massachusetts Medical Society is grateful for the inclusion of liability protections that protect providers and patients alike when care is rendered under unusual and extreme circumstances. These protections are crucial as physicians and health care teams remain resolute in their commitment to help our patients safely through the pandemic to what we all hope will be healthier times."

Baker still has not acted on two other local land bills affecting Savoy and Northampton nor on legislation allowing emergency medical personnel to treat and transport police dogs injured in the line of duty (S 2573).

The governor said last week he intends to approve that bill, referred to by supporters as "Nero's Law," and convene a formal signing ceremony.

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