Massachusetts lawmakers launch new legislative session

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BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts lawmakers launched a new legislative session Wednesday just hours after wrapping up the prior session, working into the early morning hours to pass a series of bills including a $16.5 billion transportation bond bill.

In one of their first official acts of the new session, House members elected Democratic Rep. Ron Mariano as the new House speaker following the resignation last month of former Democratic Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Mariano said the House’s ongoing tasks include monitoring the state’s vaccine distribution plan, ensuring small businesses – especially restaurants – are getting enough support, and supporting teachers, students, and their families during remote learning.

He also said lawmakers have to cope with the state’s ongoing pandemic-fueled housing troubles.

“Our strong eviction and foreclosure moratorium expired after a federal judge suggested extending it would be unconstitutional. We have to make sure our eviction diversion program is doing enough to keep people in their homes,” he said.

The Senate voted to reelect Democratic Sen. Karen Spilka as Senate president.

Spilka said one of the Senate’s top priorities will be to collaborate with business and labor leaders to continue to work on solutions as the state grapples with the continuing pandemic.

“In light of the COVID-19 crisis, we must not let up on our efforts to extend the lifelines to our residents, our communities and our businesses,” Spilka said. “It is clear the time is now for emergency paid leave.”

The transportation bond bill approved in the early morning hours sets out a multi-year plan to help pay for bridge and highway repairs, train improvements and long-term projects including the extension of commuter rail service to the South Coast.

Other measures in the bill include a call for an increase to the flat per-ride fee charged by ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft and a measure to establish a a low-income fare program by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The bill now heads to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

Another bill sent to the Republican governor during the waning hours of the session would create a special commission to make recommendations to address barriers that result in racial maternal health inequities, including women of color dying of pregnancy-related causes.

The commission would be charged with gathering data on maternal mortality and making recommendations to reduce and eliminate racial barriers to accessing equitable maternal care.

“The commission established by this legislation is just the beginning of our efforts to turn the tide on the tragic imbalance in treatment and outcomes that exists in maternal health,” Spilka said.

A bill that would require every hospital emergency department in the state to have entrances that are properly monitored by security, clearly marked, and easily accessible, particularly to patients in acute distress, was also approved by lawmakers.

Supporters said the measure was inspired by the death of Laura Beth Levis, a 34-year-old woman who died of an asthma attack just steps from an emergency-room door in 2016.

Yet another bill on Baker’s desk would create a committee to consider a new official seal for the state. The current seal includes an image of a Native American with a bow and an arrow pointed down. Above the figure is a disembodied arm brandishing a sword.

Black and indigenous leaders have long called for the state to draft a new seal, saying the existing seal promotes a history of conquest, appropriation, and genocide. The seal also included the motto, translated from the Latin: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

Lawmakers also saw their first protest of the new session as protesters gathered to object to new rules requiring all Massachusetts students, from preschool to college, to get a flu shot.

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