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DeLeo Flags Focus Areas: Child Care, Restaurants, Liability .: The State House News Service

DeLeo Flags Focus Areas: Child Care, Restaurants, Liability

Mariano to Lead House Recovery Committee

House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced Thursday the creation of the Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee, tasked with finding ways to mitigate economic hardship, minimize unemployment and job loss, and stabilize small business ownership. [Photo: Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS]

MAY 21, 2020.....With his agenda abruptly upended in March by the arrival of the coronavirus, House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Thursday outlined in a speech to business leaders steps the House would take to refocus lawmakers on aiding the state's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The speaker's goals include finding ways to help child care centers stay afloat and navigate the new health and safety protocols when they eventually reopen, and coming to the aid of restaurants who are requesting permission to sell alcohol outdoors and get a break from interest on late meals tax payments.

"None of this is easy. But it is necessary," DeLeo said about the difficult decisions ahead.

DeLeo spoke remotely Thursday afternoon to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce from a podium in his office. Wearing a suit and tie, the speaker delivered an annual speech that he typically makes in April and uses as an opportunity to tease the House's initial budget proposal.

The House and Senate have yet to figure out how to tackle the annual budget this year amid uncertainty over how to gauge the full extent of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some experts have predicted a drop of up to $6 billion in revenue, and DeLeo noted the possibility of more direct federal aid.

"Without more concrete information, it's simply not possible to immediately provide sound details about the budget or our approach. It is so much more important to operate with reliable information, than to do something for the sake of making a quick announcement," DeLeo said.

Asked about tapping into the state's $3.5 billion "rainy day" fund to cover spending, DeLeo said he was willing to dip into reserves, but not so deeply that it might impact the state's bond rating.

"This could go on for more than one year," DeLeo said. "We have to make sure we keep that stabilization fund healthy, not just for the coming year, but for the years ahead."

As legislators work through budgetary challenges, DeLeo said it is the House's role to "foster, aid, and assist" the economic recovery that began on Monday when Gov. Charlie Baker rolled out a four-phased reopening plan and began to ease back from some of the mandatory closure orders that have ground the economy to a halt.

DeLeo said he's asked Majority Leader Ron Mariano, of Quincy, to chair a new Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee. Mariano, along with Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner, will coordinate across existing committees and with the administration to identify legislative priorities.

The goal of the special committee, DeLeo said, will be to find ways to "mitigate economic hardship, minimize unemployment and job loss, and stabilize small business ownership."

One area the committee might look at is liability for the health care industry, as well as business, schools, universities and other institutions as they begin to reopen and search for ways to keep workers, students and patients healthy until there is a vaccine. DeLeo said he's heard concern about this topic from several lawyers.

"We will probably take a look at those on a case by case basis, but like it or not this is going to be one of the aftershocks in terms of what goes on hopefully as we get out of the concern with COVID-19," DeLeo said.

No cluster of businesses has been hit harder during the pandemic than restaurants. DeLeo said a group led by Rep. Paul McMurtry of Dedham that had been focused on find ways to promote the state's culinary culture had been ready to release recommendations in March. Now it will repurposed as the Restaurant Recovery Commission.

The commission, DeLeo said, will begin by working with local authorities and the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to find a "solution" for restaurant owners requesting to amend their licenses to sell alcohol outdoors for better social distancing and safety.

The commission will also be looking into whether the state should waive interest on late payments of meals taxes until restaurants get back on their feet. "Just as we were sensitive to the needs of tenants and homeowners amid the pandemic-created downturn, it's important for us to work with restaurants so that when this is over, we have healthy businesses to provide jobs for our residents," DeLeo said.

The speaker also said he's asked Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Alice Peisch to spearhead a new Early Education and Care Recovery Advisory Group focused on helping child care centers navigate new health protocols and find a financial model that will allow them to survive.

The state has still not released a plan for reopening day care centers, which are currently closed through June 29 by order of the governor. "We all understand a key component of any recovery is access to safe child care," DeLeo said.

More than 500 business leaders from the Greater Boston area registered for DeLeo's speech to the chamber on Thursday, and DeLeo said legislators would need their help and their ideas to bounce back from COVID-19.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce had been particularly active before the coronavirus outbreak in the debate over transportation funding that led to the House passing a more than $500 million revenue package that included hikes in the gas tax and higher fees for Uber and Lyft rides.

The status of that bill may be hold as it waits for action in the Senate, but DeLeo said transportation must not get overlooked as policy leaders think about how to safely let people return to public transit.

"If we're talking about our economy coming back fully, and I always considered transportation to be a key to this, that's not something we can put on the back burner, COVID-19 or not," DeLeo said. The House has also passed an $18 billion borrowing bill for transportation that was initially filed by Gov. Baker, and awaits action in the Senate.

DeLeo also said that despite the financial challenges the state will have to navigate, he hopes to continue to support the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which with $2 million has helped some Bay State manufacturers transition to produce personal protective equipment during the crisis.

"There's no question that challenges surround Massachusetts right now as we fight two battles simultaneously -- a battle against the COVID-19 pandemic and a battle to restore our economy," DeLeo said. "We can't sugarcoat the position we are in. But, at the same time, we can have faith in the resilient spirit and innovative core of our state."

SHNS Audio: GBCC Government Affairs Forum: House Speaker DeLeo

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