MA Senate President Karen Spilka On Reopening The Economy

By Joe Mathieu / WGBH / May 20, 2020

Massachusetts is moving forward with Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-phase reopening plan after more than two months of shutdowns. During that time, lawmakers on Beacon Hill have been balancing their response to the pandemic with keeping bills on long-standing issues, like transportation and health care, afloat. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Senate President Karen Spilka to get her thoughts on the reopening process and how the pandemic is affecting legislation. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: What’s your thought on this four-phase plan? The governor seems to be taking criticism on both sides. Some of it’s pretty intense — he’s even had protesters in front of his house — but some people also say that when you’re being criticized by both sides, maybe you’re doing something right.

Sen. Karen Spilka: Well, this has been a very difficult decision, and I agree with the governor that public health and data must guide what the state does with reopening.

I do a lot of car work. I do a lot of my own car work with my husband, actually. I often think of things, as an analogy, as a car. If you think of our commonwealth as a car, it only runs if all parts of the car are working together. So if the engine is our public health and health care infrastructure, which has to be at the core of what we’re doing, that’s what will propel our recovery.

And then just simply there are four tires, and the tires are to keep it going. Our PPE is the first tire. This is a household word now, PPE. Two [or] three months ago, nobody knew what that meant. We need to make sure that if businesses are reopening that there is sufficient and adequate access to PPE. The second tire would be our infrastructure, our transportation and child care. The third tire is municipal support. Simply put, the federal government needs to pass the HEROES Act. We need to get our cities and towns more flexible funding to do the job that they are expected to do. And then lastly, the fourth tire would be our employers and our workers, especially our small businesses, the service economy and our low-wage workers. We need to ensure that they have what they need.

Mathieu: You know I’m always honest with you, Madam President, and I want you to know that I can barely change the oil in my car, but I understood that. You just said a lot. I’m going to guess, though, as the president of the Massachusetts Senate, you must be hearing from business leaders and from business owners a lot. A lot of them, particularly in retail, feel like they’ve been left behind. What’s your message to them?

Spilka: Well, according to a recent analysis, the workers being hardest hit by this crisis are those making $40,000 and under. Those are our hotel workers, restaurant workers, bars [and] retail. They are the ones who feel like it’s a race against time to reopen or get back to work, and they are in the last phases of reopening. So the Senate will be looking at ways to support these workers and these small business owners because they are the real key to keeping our communities and our economy healthy.

Mathieu: I’d love to get a sense of where we go from here. You might not have a lot of answers as we still figure out what we can do in the second half of the year, but there was some big stuff underway on Beacon Hill before the pandemic. I’m thinking about the mental health care legislation that you brought forth, as well as efforts to pay to fix the T and the education funding bill. Are these all up in the air?

Spilka: I’ve been very thankful that I’ve partnered with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Mental Health, and we have a “What If” campaign. It’s a public service announcement to reach out to your friends, your loved ones, your neighbors, just to see how they’re doing. Text, call [and] reach out because this is a time period of severe isolation for many people where depression can easily sink in. As you mentioned, the Senate in February did a very strong mental health reform act. This is something [that], if passed, would compel us to be the leader in the country on mental health reform. I’m hoping that it still is taken up and is on the governor’s desk before the session is over.

Mathieu: We spent a lot of time covering those, actually, so I’m just curious if you’re concerned that they might not get the attention that they would have in another world, having pushed back the tax filing deadline [and] having dealt with some of the layoffs that, in many cases, are staggering — we’re left with less money to work with.

Spilka: You’re right. But some of these things, I believe, we as a commonwealth cannot kick down the road. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road with health care, climate change [and] transportation. This is a perfect opportunity. Hopefully, once it’s deemed safe to return to work, before the roads, the bridges, the buses [and] the trains are fully congested again, [it] is a perfect time for us to be performing the repairs and renovations on all of our transportation infrastructure as well. Also, help put people back to work.

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