Vargas Bill to Remove Religious Exemptions to Vaccines and Similar Bill Attract Comments

Supporters and opponents of bills that could remove religious exemptions to required vaccination laws, such as one proposed by Haverhill Rep. Andy X. Vargas, or standardize immunization requirements, testified yesterday before the legislature’s Public Health Committee. More than 400 people had thoughts they wanted to share with lawmakers Monday on bills related to vaccines and immunization policy, issues catapulted to the forefront of public discussion by the COVID-19 pandemic. Vargas said his bill to remove the current religious exemption for the required vaccines for Massachusetts students—which would maintain the existing medical exemption—and legislation filed by Sen. Becca Rausch and Rep. Paul Donato both seek to “address the high rates of vaccine exemptions in our state.”

“Above all, the lessons learned through the pandemic, perhaps the most powerful one is that whether we like it or not, Americans, Massachusetts residents and human beings have a responsibility for the health and safety of one another,” Vargas said. “As lawmakers, we have to reason with the facts, listen to trained experts, trust the science and make tough decisions to stop preventable death and illness. We learned this the hard way during the pandemic.”

Vargas said all but one county in Massachusetts has one or more schools where herd immunity for measles has not been met.

Massachusetts Senate Sends $48.1 Billion Budget to Baker, but Not Before DiZoglio Criticizes Timing

The Massachusetts Senate Friday sent a $48.1 billion state budget to Gov. Charlie Baker, but not without hearing first an objection from Sen. Diana DiZoglio. DiZoglio said the body once again gave senators less than 24 hours to read the 434-page spending plan that emerged from a House-Senate Conference Committee. “It’s not acceptable. If we keep doing this over and over again, it’s not going to magically become acceptable. The fact that we didn’t get even a day to review this is very disappointing, but what’s more disappointing is the fact that those in our communities who have a stake in what happens in this bill, those it will impact most, our schools, our elderly populations, those who are coming from positions of powerlessness, those folks probably—many of them—still don't know we’re taking this bill up today,” DiZoglio said in the Chamber.

Rep. Vargas Co-Chairs Legislative Commission Studying Racism’s Role in Parole Process

Haverhill Rep. Andy X. Vargas is co-chairing the new state Commission on Structural Racism in the Massachusetts Parole Process. Vargas, appointed by House Speaker Ronald Mariano, opened last week’s first meeting by quoting from the Aspen Institute’s definition of “structural racism.”

“‘Structural racism is not something a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead, it has been a feature of the social, economic and political system in which we all exist.’ In other words, we’re not picking on the parole process here. Every single institution across our criminal justice system, our economic system, our financing system, our housing system has some element of structural racism embedded in it,” he said. Created as part of the landmark police reform law Gov. Charlie Baker signed Dec.

In Light of Surplus, Gov. Baker Proposes Sales Tax Holiday for Both August and September

With Massachusetts on track to end the year with a multi-billion dollar surplus, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday proposed a two-month sales tax holiday that would give consumers a break from the state’s 6.25% sales tax in August and September in an effort to drive shoppers to local businesses. The major tax relief proposal would cost the state an estimated $900 million in forgone revenue, but the Republican governor said it would also be a way for the state to show appreciation to business owners and consumers who have contributed to the surplus by finding ways to support each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It would be a really big deal, not just for taxpayers, but also for all those Main Street businesses have really had it probably toughest of all on the economic side since the beginning of the pandemic,” Baker said at a State House press conference. Baker said he would file legislation Wednesday to expand the annual sales tax holiday from a two-day weekend in August to a two-month event, believing it would help give the state’s economy “some momentum as we come out of this sort of pandemic doldrums that we’ve been in.”

To take effect, the proposal would need to get through the Democrat-controlled legislature where lawmakers in both the House and Senate were already questioning the governor’s decision to prioritize tax relief over investments in things like student debt relief or public transit. As it stands now, the tax-free holiday has been set for the weekend of Aug.

Baker Signs Late Legislation Extending Certain Pandemic-Related Measures Through Next Spring

Remote public meetings, to-go cocktail sales, eviction protections and other pandemic-related measures will remain in force through next April and May after Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Senate- and House-approved measures into law yesterday. Senate President Karen Spilka thanked Baker by tweet for signing the legislation about 13 hours after it passed, but not before Baker’s state of emergency expired. House and Senate lawmakers say they plan to keep negotiating on some of the COVID-19 policy measures. The bill they passed Tuesday night, which represents areas of common ground between the two branches, would extend the eviction protections and permission for virtual public meetings through April 1, next year, and keep special permits for expanded outdoor dining in place through that same date. It also allows restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails to-go until May 1, and temporarily extends the authorization for representative town meetings, notary services and reverse-mortgage loan counseling to occur remotely.

Senate Approves Keeping Certain COVID-19 Policies, but Rejects DiZoglio Restaurant Relief

The state Senate yesterday approved a package of pandemic policy extensions, but did not include certain continuing benefits for restaurants. Sen. Diana DiZoglio thanked her colleagues for supporting a continuation of cocktails to-go through next April, but the senator was unsuccessful in convincing them to approve continuing for the long term “Expanded Take-Out/Delivery Options” and “Third-Party Delivery Cost Containment for Restaurants.”

“I am calling on us as a body to recognize how long it is going to take these mom-and-pop restaurants that actually made it through the pandemic—we know many did not—to recognize how long it is going to take for them to actually enter a place of full recovery. They are not going to be fully recovered, magically, on June 15 or in April of next year,” DiZoglio told her fellow senators. Either way, the Senate bill must get through the House and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker by Tuesday. Remote public meetings, mail-in voting and takeout cocktails remain in place for a time when the state of emergency ends on June 15.

Massachusetts State Senate Adopts Resolution Honoring Late Methuen Athlete Daniel Ford

Methuen Sen. Diana DiZoglio again took the senate president’s chair this week to honor a former Methuen High School athlete who died of cancer in 2009. Sen. William N. Brownsberger, who was presiding Monday, invited DiZoglio to read a resolution she filed, honoring the memory of Daniel Ford on the occasion of the dedication of Dan Ford Field in Methuen. In a social media post later, DiZoglio said she was humbled t present the resolution. “Ford was an all-star athlete at Methuen High School, inducted into the MHS Hall of Fame in 1997. He went on to play football at both the University of New Haven and UMass Lowell and received the top physical fitness award from the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.

Michael Smolak of North Andover’s Smolak Farms Receives Senate Honors as DiZoglio Takes Rostrum

Michael Smolak of North Andover’s Smolak Farms received special honors last Thursday within the Senate chambers at the State House. Sen. Diana DiZoglio, seated in the Senate president’s chair, read a resolution she filed commending Smolak for his lifetime dedication to farming and agriculture in Massachusetts. She said, in part, his farm combines agriculture, education and entertainment for children and families to learn about how their food is grown. He has held positions with the Massachusetts Fruit Growers Association and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau and preserved 107 of his farm’s 160 acres in cooperation with the state Agricultural Preservation Restriction program. Sen. Joseph A. Boncore of Winthrop, who was presiding, invited DiZoglio to take the rostrum.