State House News 3.29.2024



Weekly Roundup – The Best-Laid Plans

Chris Lisinski

MARCH 29, 2024…..Sometimes the path to that bright, shiny future is more of an M.C. Escher staircase than a straight line. Take it from the MBTA, where leaders decided the least-bad option to reinvigorate delivery of new Red and Orange Line cars is to pay more money and waive penalties against the company that’s already failed to meet past deadlines.  Or look at offshore wind. Three procurement rounds built up a solid forecast of clean energy to be delivered to Massachusetts, only for projects representing three-quarters of the promised megawatts to drop out and officials to pivot to a novel multistate approach.  So it goes, especially in the world of government. The T’s self-described contract “reset” with Chinese firm CRRC is at once another blemish on a project that started nearly a decade ago with high hopes and also a chance for some semblance of   recovery after prior stumbles.

New terms will pay CRRC another $148 million, plus forgive about $90 million in damages accrued as a result of delays so far in delivery of the new trains to the T. The company also has a chance to get a remaining $37 million in fines forgiven if it meets reshaped targets — or CRRC’s bill could grow even more if it continues to fall short. The new deadlines are September 2025 for the final Orange Line car to arrive at the T, and December 2027 for the final Red Line car, each roughly four years later than the original contract. It’s far from an ideal move, but MBTA overseers suggested they did not have much of a choice, especially as failures in aging trains continue to hamper riders. Trying to find a new manufacturer at this point, the T suggested, could delay the project another half-decade and increase its cost even further. “I think we just have to hold our nose and vote to approve the reset,” said MBTA Board member and Framingham Mayor Charles Sisitsky before his counterparts gave the amended contract the green light.
Wednesday marked another milestone in the state’s journey toward a clean-energy future, which still feels like it’s pretty far off. Four developers submitted bids for offshore wind projects that could add more power to the pipeline in Massachusetts or to the region under a tri-state approach including Connecticut and Rhode Island. Altogether, the Massachusetts-only or multi-state projects including the Bay State represent up to 4,270 megawatts of power potential. It won’t be clear how much of that would go to Massachusetts itself, or how much any of it would cost, until officials actually select winning projects to advance. That may not happen until August. The bids submitted don’t exactly revive the previously scrapped Commonwealth Wind and SouthCoast Wind projects, at least not in the same way they were originally envisioned. SouthCoast Wind proposed a tri-state, 1,200 megawatt project to replace the Massachusetts-only version that faltered, and what was Commonwealth Wind’s 1,200 megawatts is now folded into an 1,871-megawatt, multi-state New England Wind 1 and 2 proposal. The involvement of our neighbors to the south adds even more complexity to a process not known for simplicity, but elected officials and regulators see significant upside in the different approach. In recent years, developers have backed away from projects over financial concerns, and the hope is that banding multiple states together can insulate against some of the risks. Auditor Diana DiZoglio is already onto Plan C in her campaign promise to subject her former bosses in the Legislature to new scrutiny. Top Democrats refused to participate in a DiZoglio audit, so she asked Attorney General Andrea Campbell to clear the way for forced compliance. Campbell wouldn’t, concluding that the auditor’s office does not have that authority under existing law, so DiZoglio is now planning to ask voters to empower her team explicitly. Old bruises and deep-rooted grudges came to the fore Monday as DiZoglio pitched seemingly skeptical Democrats on the ballot question she is now pushing, moments after academic experts invited to weigh in slammed the measure as a dramatic overexpansion of executive branch power. “It’s unfortunate that we even have to send this issue to the ballot,” DiZoglio told the committee reviewing ballot questions. “While I appreciate the formation of this committee, let’s be real: if the Legislature wanted to, you would. If you wanted to comply with the audit, you would. We have enough precedent, we’ve asked for cooperation, but yet, we can’t even get a meeting to discuss what we want to audit.” When it comes to the state’s emergency family shelter system, officials are not quite taking a circuitous route toward long-stated goals. They’re just trying to stay afloat.

Gov. Maura Healey made the latest significant change to operations in the overburdened system this week, requiring families to demonstrate every month that they are looking for new housing and participating in case management in order to remain eligible for safety-net shelters.The administration’s point person on shelter, General Scott Rice, said the change is a “responsible step” to manage capacity constraints amid persistent demand for the overflow sites. Meanwhile, House and Senate Democrats are still trying to agree on their approach to the crisis. House Speaker Ron Mariano delivered a stark warning that state spending in fiscal year 2026 might need to be rebalanced to account for shelter costs. “If we keep getting a billion-dollar bill for emergency shelters, where are we going to get the money?” Mariano told reporters. “It’s like your budget at home. If you get a new car payment, and all of the sudden the engine falls out, you’ve got to buy a new engine. You don’t have the money, you just don’t have it, so you’ve got to cut something else.” Legislative leaders finished setting up a negotiating panel this week that will need to iron out differences in how much more money to steer to the system and what kinds of time limits to put on emergency assistance shelter stays more broadly.That conference committee is one of four still in play (five if you count the team that appears to have given up on reforms to the joint rules for the 2023-2024 session). Another might be on the horizon if legislative leaders think they need formal talks to achieve a compromise on bills banning revenge porn and coercive control, which already cleared both chambers. Plus there’s the inevitable annual budget talks and anything else that might emerge before the July 31 end of formal business for the term.

Can you tell it’s getting to be crunch time on Beacon Hill?

ODDS AND ENDS: … Elected officials are already skeptical about the proposed sale of Steward Health Care’s physician network to Optum Care, especially given a reported antitrust investigation into Optum parent UnitedHealth Group … Convention center authorities are ditching an envisioned development in South Boston after more than a year of drama … A new low-income fare program is set to launch at the MBTA this summer after about a decade of advocacy … Speaking of the T, we wonder what came as a bigger shock in a financial presentation New York City Transit President Rich Davey gave to MBTA overseers: that New York City and state officials approved a bevy of tax and fee dollars to fund the MTA less than two years after transit leaders “started sounding the alarm,” or that Davey expects New York’s annual budget to be in place the same week its fiscal year begins …

STORY OF THE WEEK: The T charts a new course after its best-laid plans for transforming the Red and Orange Line went awry.

SONG OF THE WEEK: When the alternatives to an updated CRRC contract included waiting another five years for even more expensive trains, T officials concluded there’s no other way to go.