Weekly Roundup – A Cold Wind Blows

Recap and analysis of the past week in state government

SEPT. 23, 2022…..Snap poll: when you woke up Friday to find a crisp morning with the temp hovering somewhere south of 50 degrees, did you fire up the heat?

Some of our hardier readers probably scoffed at the question — it’s not even October, and this is New England, where a higher tolerance for cold weather is a badge of pride. Just put on a sweater, they might say. And as the calendar flips forward, that resistance might be more potent than in years past.

Many Bay State families will face significant strain to keep their homes warm this winter amid projections that energy bills will soar, the latest blow in months of relentless inflation. Utility giant National Grid attributed the looming challenges to spiking natural gas prices amid “global conflict, inflation and high demand.”

Massachusetts officials did not roll out the same kind of sugar-coat spin they often use. “At best,” Baker administration Undersecretary of Energy and Climate Solutions Judy Chang said, it will be “a very high-cost energy winter.” Attorney General Maura Healey’s press secretary cautioned the rate hike will be “devastating for hundreds of thousands of customers in Massachusetts who simply cannot afford it.”

The example National Grid provided for a basic service customer forecasts a $114 increase in a monthly electric bill. If that holds true, only a couple of months of chilly temperatures at the higher energy rates will effectively wipe out any one-time relief Bay State taxpayers can expect from state government.

Lawmakers approved but never finalized rebates of $250 for single middle-income earners and $500 for married middle-income earners, a plan legislative leaders pitched at the time as a more targeted way to address inflation and prices at the pump than suspending the state’s gas tax. The Baker administration predicts tax refunds under Chapter 62F will cover about 13 percent of what a taxpayer paid the state last year; the average middle-quintile earner in 2019 owed $1,642 in state income taxes, which would translate to a check of about $213, though the final amount will vary based on other credits.

Top Democrats either tacitly or explicitly signaled they are mostly on board with the plan Gov. Charlie Baker rolled out a week ago to return nearly $3 billion to taxpayers using checks and direct deposits this fall. It seems less and less likely they have the appetite to intervene and change the proportional formula that will direct most of the money to higher earners who paid most of the taxes.

While House budget chief Rep. Aaron Michlewitz called complaints that millionaires who probably do not need the money will get tens of thousands of dollars “a legitimate gripe,” he made clear House Democrats are not currently planning to change the voter-approved law “midstream.” That’s a conversation for the future, he said, maybe next session.

Even though the final amount of money due back to taxpayers ($2.941 billion) is within a single percentage point of the Baker administration’s estimate from late July ($2.965 billion), Michlewitz maintained this week that he and fellow lead negotiator Sen. Michael Rodrigues still need more time to figure out if the state has enough money to cover both the mandatory relief and the roughly $4 billion economic development and tax relief bill the branches approved this summer and then shelved.

His uncertainty extends to the aforementioned one-time relief checks.

“We’re still looking at all of that. Everything is still on the table,” Michlewitz said, nearly two months after Baker made public the impending impact of 62F. “The challenge that we faced was with 62F being triggered and those rebates going out, we do have to reanalyze what we can and can’t afford. That’s currently what we’re working on right now.”

In the meantime, the House has signaled it’s closer to a conclusion on allowing a new local tax to take effect.

The chamber quietly gave initial approval to a home rule petition from Boston that would authorize the city to impose a charge of up to 2 percent on real estate transactions worth more than $2 million, designed to generate revenue — up to $100 million, in Mayor Michelle Wu’s estimation — for affordable housing.

It’s not clear how far the measure will make it during the informal sessions, where a single lawmaker’s objection can stall a bill, on tap for the remainder of the term.

Lawmakers also need to wrangle during informal sessions with Baker’s proposed changes to a road safety bill, which emerged as the most significant item of business so far during an otherwise quiet, vacation-filled stretch for the Legislature.

The Republican governor sent back a wide-ranging bill seeking to pare down the minimum “safe passing distance” requirement to a more consistent and less confusing measurement, and he also warned that allowing municipalities to set a 25 miles per hour speed limit on state roads in densely populated areas could imperil federal funds for road and bridge construction.

There might not be a Massachusetts bridge construction project more high-profile than the planned replacement of the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges — well, unless you’re former Republican congressional candidate Rick Green, who in 2018 swam across the Merrimack River in a campaign ad highlighting the nightmarish traffic on Lowell’s Rourke Bridge — but that effort is not off to a flying start.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers struck out on the first of several applications for federal grants to help foot the bill for demolishing the pair of 87-year-old bridges and building new spans connecting Cape Cod to the rest of Massachusetts.

We wish we could say exactly how much of a blow that represents, but both the Army Corps and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation are staying tight-lipped about exactly how much funding their unsuccessful bid for an INFRA grant sought.

The federal government only awarded $1.5 billion in this round, with the largest grant totaling $150 million, so maybe it wouldn’t have made that much of a difference to a Cape Cod bridges project that could spiral to as much as $4 billion in costs.

There are other grant program options still in play for the federally-owned bridges, so it could wind up being nothing more than an early hurdle, but the Cape residents and millions of tourists who cross the canal every year will need to continue their wait for a funding plan.

Off the coast of the cape, fallout continues from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s move to fly immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard using taxpayer dollars. DeSantis now faces a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Massachusetts on behalf of the immigrants, who allege they were subject to a “ruse to exploit them for political purposes.”

One matter that will not get decided in federal court is the case of Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph, who was indicted more than three years ago on allegations that she helped an undocumented immigrant facing drug possession charges evade an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer seeking to detain him at the courthouse.

Joseph and U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Zachary Cunha struck an agreement that will drop the federal charges and instead shift her case to a state judicial disciplinary review.

It’s a sign of the changing times: a Trump-appointed prosecutor filed the indictment against Joseph, and now a Biden-appointed prosecutor dropped the charges.

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