House Bill Steers $55 Million Into Testing, Masks
BOSTON — House and Senate Democrats are looking to send Gov. Charlie Baker a bill as soon as next week that would dedicate $55 million to COVID-19 testing, youth vaccination and school mask supplies, along with scheduling this year's state primary for Sept. 6.
The bill, which Ways and Means Committee chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues described as an effort "to address the urgent challenges brought upon us due to the Omicron surge and boost our ongoing COVID-19 response," earned initial House approval on Tuesday after it emerged from House Ways and Means.
Michlewitz and Rodrigues said in a statement that the bill will be considered this week in the House, with the Senate following "soon thereafter early next week." Next week, Gov. Charlie Baker is due to give his state of the commonwealth address on Tuesday and file his annual budget proposal by Wednesday.
The legislation is gaining traction amidst a sharp surge in mid-winter COVID-19 infections that has left long lines at testing sites and spurred the White House to embark on a nationwide effort to disseminate tests.
"In the coming days, we look forward to working collaboratively with our colleagues in our respective chambers to ensure we can swiftly pass this bill and get it to the Governor's desk," the chairmen said.
The bill (H 4340) appropriates $30 million to establish and expand COVID testing sites, with at least $5 million dedicated to expanding vaccination rates among kids ages 5 to 11. The youth vaccination efforts would be focused on communities disproportionately affected by the virus.
Another $25 million would go towards "the acquisition and distribution of high-quality personal protective masks for children and faculty in elementary and secondary public school districts."
The Baker administration would be directed, under the bill, to create a public website with information on the number of masks purchased and distributed to school districts and information on the purchase and distribution of rapid COVID-19 tests.
At an oversight hearing last week, lawmakers pressed Baker on issues including youth vaccination, mask standards for schools, and communication with the public about COVID-19.
Baker, asked about the legislation shortly after it was made public, said he was not yet familiar with its details.
"The biggest challenge we have with respect to testing is much more about staff than it is about either supplies or dollars," he said. "We think keeping — and I said this when I was talking to the oversight committee last week — we try to keep about a six-month supply of masks on hand. If this would be funding that would make it possible for us to continue to extend and expand our supply with respect to masks, then obviously we would put it to work that way."
The bill that emerged Tuesday would also extend some of the policies originally adopted in 2020 to reflect realities of the pandemic era. The authorization for remote public meetings, set to lapse on April 1, 2022, would be extended through July 15.
The bill would also allow notarization and reverse-mortgage counseling to take place remotely through July 15.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said the bill aims to "to provide funding where it is needed, and to ensure that the uptick in cases does not prevent critical day-to-day obligations from taking place."
He said it also "provides flexibility so retired teachers and other public employees can go back to work to ease staffing shortages," and that the money allocated to testing expansion would help sites take more walk-in appointments.
"Since the Omicron variant arrived in Massachusetts over a month ago, it has exacerbated many of the pandemic-related needs that were already so prevalent," Mariano said.
In a non-COVID but time-sensitive matter, the bill would schedule the 2022 primary election for Sept. 6, instead of the Sept. 20 date that would otherwise be called for under state law.
A federal law requires that ballots be ready for military and overseas voters 45 days before Election Day — this year, by Sept. 24, 2022 — and Secretary of State William Galvin has cautioned that a Sept. 20 primary would not allow sufficient time.
Galvin's office needs to make nomination papers available to candidates in February, leaving a short window for legislative action.
The bill also extends for a second time the deadline for a commission investigating the state's seal and motto to recommend new or revised options, pushing it from July 31, 2022 to Dec. 31, 2022.
— Katie Lannan, State House News Service