The Massachusetts Legislature is moving forward with a bill to move this year’s primary election date to Sept. 6 and allocate $55 million for COVID-19 spending needs, as the state battles a surge of cases driven by the Omicron variant.
The bill was approved Tuesday by the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is expected to be considered by the full chamber on Wednesday and the state Senate next week. It would put tens of millions of dollars toward COVID-19 spending needs, including $30 million to boost testing resources and $25 million to purchase and distribute high-quality masks like N95s and KN95s for children and school staff.
Massachusetts has broken numerous records for new cases of the virus over the past few weeks as the highly contagious new variant sweeps the country. But coronavirus levels in the Boston region’s waste water data, seen as an early indicator of the virus’s course, continued to fall last week.
Of the money set aside for testing, $5 million is tagged for boosting vaccination rates among children ages five to 11 in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. The bill would also require state officials to distribute masks by Feb. 28, and the state would seek reimbursement of those funds from the federal government.
House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano said Tuesday that the legislation aims “to ensure that the uptick in cases does not prevent critical day-to-day obligations from taking place.”
“The steps this legislation takes are critical, and as Massachusetts continues to deal with the Omicron variant, the House stands ready to provide the necessary support,” Mariano said in a statement.
The Senate is expected to take up the measure early next week, Democratic leaders said.
Moving up the state’s primary has become routine business in the Legislature. Under current state law — which states that primary elections should be held seven weeks before the general election barring conflicts with a religious holiday — this year’s vote would fall on Sept. 20. But Secretary of State William F. Galvin, Massachusetts’ top election official, has said an earlier date is crucial for ensuring ballots are ready in time for military and overseas voters.
The bill would not allow for mail-in voting, an option in place for much of the pandemic that state lawmakers allowed to lapse in December. Top Democrats in both the Massachusetts House and Senate have signaled support for making it permanent, but the chambers have yet to pass such a bill.
Galvin said Tuesday he was pleased the Legislature is “finally” moving to shift the primary date up. But he said he still hopes lawmakers will embrace at least a temporary reinstatement of expanded voting by mail through June with municipal elections beginning in towns in March.
“This is something I will try to do in the Senate,” Galvin said of advocating for language to be added to the bill. “I am concerned, and I want to make sure it’s in place for the municipal elections. They need to have it on the books in February. . . . I don’t think the municipal elections should be held hostage by [uncertainty over an extension].”
The measure would also extend certain other pandemic-era regulations, allowing for remote notarization and flexibility on open meetings laws.
State Senator Michael Rodrigues and state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, who chair their respective chambers’ ways and means committees, said in a joint statement they intend to “swiftly pass this bill and get it to the Governor’s desk.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed reporting.
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