House Speaker Robert DeLeo spelled out a to-do list for the Legislature as the state rebounds from COVID-19 that included more transportation revenue, shoring up the state’s shaky finances, and boosting the struggling restaurant sector.
During remarks on a Zoom call on Thursday with the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, DeLeo said he is appointing a new committee of House members to identify and guide legislation that can help the state bounce back from the coronavirus. He named representatives Ron Mariano as chairman and Joseph Wagner as vice chairman for the committee. DeLeo didn’t go into much detail, other than to describe its main missions: mitigating economic hardship and job losses, and stabilizing small businesses.
“If we’re going to recover as a state, to get back to where we were, and I know we’re going to do that, then we’re going to need your help and we’re going to need your input,” DeLeo told the chamber members. “We’re going to come back as strong as ever, and I’m looking forward to being a part of that.”
Transportation: In early March, just before the pandemic shut down businesses across the state, the House passed a long-awaited revenue package to boost transportation. Included in that bill: a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the tax on gasoline, a 9-cent increase in the diesel tax, and a $1 increase in the state fee on individual Uber and Lyft rides. The money would be used to fix the aging MBTA system, address road congestion, and help regional transit agencies. DeLeo said he still wants a bill to pass this year, because the transportation system still needs money to fund improvements, despite the sharp reduction in commuting caused by COVID-19.
Like the chamber, DeLeo wants more information from Governor Charlie Baker’s administration about the protocols and service levels for the MBTA in subsequent phases of the governor’s reopening plan. And he said the Legislature should keep the fiscal and management control board that oversees the T going beyond its June expiration date.
State finances: Normally, the House would have adopted a budget proposal for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1 by now. But it has held off until it learns more about what kind of federal aid might be available. DeLeo said he expects the Legislature will pass a partial budget to get through July, at least, while state lawmakers await clarity from Washington.
Last week, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated that state tax revenues will fall by $6 billion, or nearly 20 percent, in the next fiscal year, from the revenue outlook that state leaders established in January. DeLeo conceded that the Legislature will likely tap into the state’s $3.5 billion rainy day fund, but he doesn’t want to draw down too much and put the state’s credit ratings at risk.
Restaurants: Few sectors of the economy have been hurt more by the pandemic than the restaurant industry. DeLeo said he is repositioning a restaurant promotion commission established by the Legislature last year, alongside $2 million in state funding, to focus on “restaurant recovery” as the industry confronts the new challenges posed by COVID-19. In particular, DeLeo wants the Legislature to make it easier for restaurants to offer outdoor dining with alcohol, and to waive interest charges on delayed meal tax payments to the state.
Child care: DeLeo said he worries the Legislature’s progress on expanding child care to support the workforce and help at-risk children could be undermined by COVID-19. He is creating a task force focused on early education and child care, led by Representative Alice Peisch, to ensure providers can support families and workers amid the pandemic and to explore the impacts on programs in communities of color, in particular.
Telehealth: Lawmakers have struggled to pass legislation that would ensure extensive insurance coverage for “virtual” doctor visits, similar to what’s available for in-person visits. DeLeo said the pandemic is underscoring the benefits of telemedicine, and he is hopeful that a telehealth bill might be “one of the more good items to come out of COVID-19.”