The coronavirus pandemic and vaccine rollout continue to command much of state lawmakers’ attention, but the budget process will pick up pace this month as the Legislature prepares to set funding priorities.
The House Ways and Means Committee typically releases its budget proposal in mid-April after holding a series of budget hearings.
A Tuesday hearing, however, was dwarfed by the death of a Fall River teen, in which a state report found “multi-system failures” to have played a role. That report, which lawmakers discussed when Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda Spears took the stand, has demonstrated the stakes of several lawmakers’ efforts to reform the state’s child welfare systems. An oversight hearing scheduled for May 4 may jump start that process.
The Legislature will likely act next week on Gov. Charlie Baker’s April 2 amendments to a COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave proposal. Baker’s proposed changes have worried advocates over the amendments’ exclusion of municipal employees.
CHILD WELFARE: 14-year-old David Almond, who was known as “the mayor of his former school,” was found unresponsive, bruised and emaciated in a Fall River apartment six months after he was reunited with his father. Almond’s brother, who like Almond is autistic, also suffered “serious bodily and emotional harm.”
Spears called the decision to reunite the children with their father, who had a history of neglect, “inexplicable.” The union representing many DCF workers has also expressed support for the investigation released last week by the Office of the Child Advocate.
DCF has already begun to make changes, Spears has said, including replacing the Fall River area office management team, as well as making plans to hire a disabilities services director and to institute a review process for reunification cases.
Yet, systemic change may require going beyond DCF, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who has proposed to create an independent foster care review office. That office, she said, could hold the DCF accountable on reunification and other decisions.
“There is not one easy answer for this, but I truly believe that it will not work to fix the DCF from within the DCF,” Farley-Bouvier said.
“I hope that people don’t just dismiss this and say it was part of a really bad year,” she added.
While the past year has increased risks for abuse and neglect, systemic flaws existed far earlier and extend beyond DCF to, for example, the roles played by the school system and court system in child welfare, Farley-Bouvier said.
The House also advanced a child protection bill last month, but the Senate has yet to act on that bill, which pertains largely to DCF reporting.
“It’s an important bill and we should pass it, but I don’t believe it really delves into addressing the systemic issues,” Farley-Bouvier said, calling an oversight hearing “the next step” if the DCF fully cooperates.
SICK LEAVE: Advocates are concerned over amendments Baker has offered to an emergency paid sick leave proposal.
The legislation would give Massachusetts workers five days of emergency paid sick time related to COVID-19 sickness, quarantine, caregiving or recovery from vaccination. Baker’s changes would exclude employees of municipalities and districts from those provisions.
Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community groups, faith-based organizations and labor unions, responded in a Friday statement that municipal employees are often “on the frontlines of the pandemic response and deserve the same protections as private-sector workers.”
“Each additional day that goes by without Emergency Paid Sick Time legislation in place means that more workers will go to work even when they might be infectious, because they can’t afford not to get paid,” Raise Up said in the statement.
GOVERNOR’S RACE: A new Democrat has thrown her hat in the ring of possible contenders for the party’s nomination in the 2022 race for governor. State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, D-Boston, said on March 29 she was “seriously considering” a run, citing a need for leadership that reflects the “urgency” working people face.
First elected in 2009, Chang-Díaz played a key role in pushing through school funding reform in 2019, as well as last year’s police reform bill. The only woman of color in the Senate and the first Latina to serve in that body, she is the first incumbent lawmaker to express interest publicly in a run for governor.
Democrat Ben Downing, who represented the Berkshires in the state Senate from 2007-2016, declared his candidacy in February. Danielle Allen, a Harvard University political science professor, and Scott Khourie, a Quincy man with a background in finance, have each said they are exploring runs.
Attorney General Maura Healey has long been considered a possible Democratic frontrunner if she enters the race. Recent fundraising and public appearances have only further fueled speculation.
Baker, a popular incumbent, has not said if he will seek a third term or if Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito might run in 2022.