Press Release: 2020-03-25

New England Legislative Sessions: Priorities Shift Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

New England Legislative Sessions: Priorities Shift Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

By Stephanie M. Murphy

The 2020 state legislative sessions started off “business as usual,” but this legislative year has quickly become anything but usual. The recent state-by-state implementation of aggressive social distancing measures to mitigate the further spread of COVID-19 effectively ended most states’ 2020 legislative sessions. Massachusetts—the only New England state legislature that continues to meet—is focusing its efforts almost exclusively on bills related to the continued operation of critical state functions and COVID-19 response.

StateSession Status
ConnecticutAdjourned through April 12.
MaineAdjourned sine die on March 17.
MassachusettsContinues to meet. The legislative agenda has shifted almost exclusively to prioritize coronavirus response efforts. The sessions are being streamed live on the Legislature’s website (https://malegislature.gov/).
New HampshireSuspended through April 10.
Rhode IslandCancelled for the week of March 23-27.
VermontAll “non-essential” gatherings at the State House are cancelled through March 31. Both branches will conduct meetings telephonically until restrictions are lifted.

 

COVID-19 responses

Connecticut: To avoid gathering at the Capitol, legislative leaders are working with Gov. Ned Lamont to draft an economic stimulus package that would be implemented by Lamont through executive orders under the sweeping powers he has been granted during the ongoing public health emergency. While no final decisions have been announced, the package could include relief for cash-strapped businesses, expanded funding for day care, and an increase in the earned income tax credit to help low-income families with children.

Maine: Before adjourning three weeks early on March 17, lawmakers enacted a package of bills that address the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the state’s economy. An omnibus bill (SP.789): 1) expands unemployment benefits to individuals affected by closures or quarantine and waives the weeklong waiting period for benefits, 2) provides low-interest loans through the Finance Authority of Maine, 3) adjusts school-day requirements, 4) provides assistance for school lunches for low-income families and 5) gives Gov. Janet Mills authority to change June elections. A separate bill (HP.1547) puts $11 million into a COVID-19 fund to address unforeseen expenses related to the outbreak.

Massachusetts: COVID-19 dominates the Legislature’s agenda. Gov. Charlie Baker has introduced a number of bills to address the COVID-19 outbreak, only one of which has been enacted. The governor signed into law a bill (S.2598) that lifts the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits to be paid to workers affected by COVID-19. The Legislature has not yet taken action on a bill (H.4580), which  would provide flexible solutions for communities for which the COVID-19 epidemic has disrupted the normal conduct of administering town government. Additionally, no action has yet been taken on a bill (H.4571) that would designate Sept. 14, the rescheduled date of the Boston Marathon, as a legal statewide holiday. Attorney General Maura Healey has filed an emergency regulation to prohibit price gouging of essential products and services during the COVID-19 emergency. Reps. Smitty Pignatelli and John Barrett filed a bill (HD.4926) that would create the COVID-19 Quarantine Assistance Fund, which would provide grants to workers who have lost money from not being able to work due to viral infection, quarantines or isolation. No action has yet been taken on the proposal.

New Hampshire: The Legislature adjourned on March 14 without introducing bills to address the impact of COVID-19.

Rhode Island: On March 26, the state’s top legislative leaders will convene a “disaster emergency funding board,” including the House speaker, the Senate president and the chairs of the House and Senate Finance Committees. The funding board will seek to approve up to $300 million in borrowing to keep the state government afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting will be remotely televised but closed to the public.

Vermont: State lawmakers returned to the State House on March 24 to vote on several bills that address the immediate impact of COVID-19, including providing aid to hospitals and laid off workers and increasing healthcare access for Vermonters. Gov. Phil Scott has also introduced a plan to increase the maximum monthly unemployment benefits by $600 and expand benefits to people who don’t pay into the state’s trust fund. The state House of Representatives also adopted a resolution (HR.15) that urges the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to issue an official statement that employees of its Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection agencies will not arrest any person based on immigration status at a hospital, healthcare facility or coronavirus testing site for the duration of the COVID19 pandemic emergency.

Legislative trends from January-early March

Before the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted legislative sessions, a set of common priorities emerged among the New England states.

Work-based learning: Three New England states introduced legislation that would expand work-based learning (WBL) opportunities in their states. Connecticut (HB 5111) is proposing to establish a task force to study WBL opportunities in high-growth industries and expand apprenticeship opportunities for related jobs. New Hampshire (HB 1454) has proposed a bill that would authorize local secondary school boards to grant academic credit for WBL programs. Vermont (S.231) is calling on the Vermont State Colleges and regional CTE centers to design and submit to the Legislature a plan to expand the number of formal apprenticeships offered in the state and to ensure that these apprenticeships follow an “earn to learn” model.

College affordability: Most New England states have proposed legislation around debt-free and or tuition-free college, as well as student loan debt relief.

Debt-free college:

  • CT HB 5353 would appropriate $16 million to the debt-free community college program.
  • MA H.1221 would guarantee free public higher education as a right to all Massachusetts residents.

Tuition-free college:

  • CT SB 128 would provide tuition-free community college to CT residents.
  • ME HP 634 would fully fund community college for eligible students who are residents of Maine.
  • MA H.1245 would establish the Massachusetts Promise Program, to provide a tuition waiver for students enrolled in the state’s community colleges.
  • VT S.271 would provide free tuition at the state’s community colleges for students whose family income is under $100,000.

Student loan debt relief:

  • ME HP 303 would provide funds to guarantee zero interest student loans to certain residents who live and work in Maine for at least five years.
  • ME SP 36 would provide funds for payment of student loan debt for individuals who agree to live and work in Maine for at least five years.
  • MA H.1202 would establish a student loan forgiveness program.
  • MA H.1248 would establish a commission to study student loan debt relief programs.
  • NH SB 529 would establish a workforce development student debt relief program.

Student athlete compensation: Four New England states—Connecticut (SB 306), Massachusetts (S.2454), New Hampshire (HB 1505), and Vermont (H.797)—have introduced bills that would allow student athletes to earn compensation from the use of their name, image or likeness or from employment in activities unrelated to an intercollegiate athletic program.

See NEBHE’s 2020 Legislative Session Summary, March 2020 edition for a comprehensive list of legislation introduced across New England through early March.

Stephanie M. Murphy is a policy & research analyst at NEBHE.