This Session, New England Legislators Made the Sausage in the Shadow of COVID

By Stephanie M. Murphy

New England’s state lawmakers in 2020 sessions focused almost exclusively to COVID-19-related legislation and state budget concerns. In 2021, COVID-19-related legislation continues to be a major focus, but other issues are also taking center stage. These include:

Expanding Work-Based Learning Opportunities

  • HB.6227 (Connecticut): Would establish a task force to identify high-growth, high-demand jobs and analyze the implementation of partnerships that provide apprenticeship opportunities for such jobs.
  • SB.44 (New Hampshire): Would establish a workforce pathway program and commission in the Community College System of New Hampshire.
  • SB.213 (Rhode Island): Would establish Apprenticeship Pathways to Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Act to enable individuals to earn a bachelor’s degree at public higher education institutions in Rhode Island by earning credits through apprenticeships.

Sexual Assault on Campus

  • HB.6374 (Connecticut): Would establish a Council on Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey to better understand and protect students who report being a victim of sexual assault, stalking or violence on-campus.
  • S.2979 (Massachusetts), PASSED: Stipulates that each higher education institution must conduct a sexual misconduct climate survey of all students every four years. Takes effect Aug. 1, 2021.
  • H.183 (Vermont): Would form a task force on campus sexual harm to allow schools to share resources, information and best practices to create more consistency across Vermont’s campuses.

COVID-19: General 

  • LD.96 (Maine): Would extend an exemption for students who elect a philosophical or religious exemption from immunization on or before Sept.1, 2021.
  • SD.762 (Massachusetts): Would provide liability protection to higher education institutions and employers that develop, manufacture, test or distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) in response to COVID-19.
  • HB.255 (New Hampshire): Would establish liability limitations for higher education institutions and businesses from actual or alleged exposure to COVID-19.

COVID-19-Related Learning Loss

  • LD.325 (Maine): Would allow students whose access to on-site education has been limited due to the pandemic to be classified as having experienced education disruption and eligible for school work recognition plans to demonstrate achievement.
  • LD.334 (Maine): Would establish methods, services and programs to provide students with remedial assistance in response to education disruption related to COVID-19.

Attainment

  • HD.1455 (Massachusetts): Would require higher education institutions to provide flexibility in graduation requirements for students who have been diagnosed with an intellectual or developmental disability.
  • HD.2416 (Massachusetts): Would encourage increased college completion by creating a Finish Line Grant program to provide scholarships to cover the cost of tuition and fees for one year in programs leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree..
  • H.377 (Vermont): Would create a public-private partnership with Advance Vermont to increase postsecondary attainment in Vermont.

State Budgets and Governors’ Priorities

Some New England states have pursued innovations through their budget processes and governors’ priorities. For example:

Connecticut

SB.881, proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont, would include, among other things, a direct admittance program and would establish FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement.

Lamont proposed a $44 billion two-year budget. Budget priorities include hiring more state troopers, improving the state’s education system, enhancing workforce development, boosting transportation, upgrading the state’s broadband capacity and fighting COVID-19.

Maine

Gov. Janet Mills, in her state-of-the-state address, introduced two major proposals.

To accelerate Maine’s economic recovery, get people back to work and diversify Maine’s economy, Mills also announced that, in the coming weeks, her administration will present to the Legislature a “Back to Work” bond proposal. The proposal draws on Maine’s 10-year Strategic Economic Development Plan as well as recommendations from the governor’s Economic Recovery Committee. The proposal would prioritize:

  • Expanding broadband. $30 million to expand broadband across Maine, building on the governor’s successful efforts last year to secure $15 million in new funding for broadband.
  • Developing the workforce. $25 million for equipment for Maine Career and Technical Education programs and a partnership with Maine’s Community College System to train skilled workers to fill jobs in high-growth industries.
  • Supporting innovation in “Heritage Industries.” $50 million for Maine farmers, foresters and fishers to increase local processing infrastructure, improve access to markets and invest in innovation to modernize and add value to products grown, caught and cultured in Maine.
  • Increasing childcare. $6 million for grants and low-interest loans to renovate, expand or construct childcare facilities and increase the availability of childcare slots, with half of that money going to underserved communities in rural Maine.
  • The Back to Work proposal will also include investments in roads and bridges, working lands and waterfronts, research and development, and energy efficiency.

The governor also announced the launch of a pilot of the Maine Career Exploration Program, a key recommendation of Maine’s 10-year Economic Development Plan in Franklin and Somerset counties to provide scholarships and paid internships for local students with local employers. Internships will be in the trades, healthcare and other fields. The goal is to ensure that 100% of Maine students have the option for a six-month paid internship between their junior year of high school and one year after high school graduation.

Massachusetts

The state’s financial health is stronger than initial estimates suggested.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s State of the Commonwealth address focused on how Massachusetts has and continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not provide details about legislation on which the governor may be working.

The Legislature is prioritizing bills to better serve the Commonwealth’s diverse populations and support their success in higher education.

New Hampshire

The biggest news from the Granite State is Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement in his budget proposal (HB.2) for a “fully unified and merged New Hampshire College and University System” to bring “11 separate system (sic) together as one.”

The proposal includes:

  • The merger of the two boards of trustees
  • Each university and college would “still maintain their own campus, their own brand”
  • According to the governor, the defining characteristic of the new system will be “allowing students the ease of creating their own pathway in education.”

Similar to Connecticut, New Hampshire is considering legislation (SB.147) that would require high school graduates to complete the FAFSA and mandate high schools to provide sufficient resources for students and parents to understand and complete the application.

Rhode Island

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s State of the State address was a farewell speech, as she shortly thereafter became U.S. commerce secretary. A large portion of her speech was spent reflecting on her policy priorities over the past six years. On education, the governor underscored her most memorable education-related accomplishment: the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program, which offers all high school graduates two years of tuition-free college at the Community College of Rhode Island. She thanked House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio for introducing legislation last week that would make the program permanent.

Vermont

Gov. Phil Scott highlighted investments in public health, economic relief, housing and more over the course of the pandemic. He asked the Legislature to collaborate with his administration and build on that progress to address disparities in education and childcare, promote economic opportunity and job growth, and make Vermont more affordable for working families.

Scott acknowledged the challenges Vermont faces as a result of its aging population and shrinking workforce—specifically citing Vermonters who have left the state to attend college elsewhere. He called for policies that support the state’s economic growth, saying, “We need more taxpayers, not more taxes.”

Stephanie M. Murphy is the associate director of policy research and analysis at NEBHE.

 

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