BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker has been in the driving seat to the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, but state lawmakers are looking for more oversight.
A newly created House and Senate oversight committee will have authority to "monitor and investigate" the state's response and recovery. Meanwhile, a new Senate committee announced Thursday will focus on post-pandemic related issues.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said while Baker has far-reaching powers under the state's public health crisis, the Legislature has a role to play in providing a check on the executive branch and overall pandemic-related spending.
"There needs to be more oversight going forward," Lovely said. "We want to be strong partners with the administration, but we also need checks and balances."
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said the new committees will give lawmakers the opportunity to come up with a structured, long-term plan for dealing with myriad impacts of the pandemic.
"There certainly is an oversight role," he said. "But I view this more as the Legislature developing its own capacity to address some of these issues and being more engaged in the process."
Legislative leaders haven't announced who will serve on the newly created oversight committees, but lawmakers are jockeying behind the scenes for appointments.
Under his state of emergency declaration, Baker has had near autocratic powers to unilaterally direct the government's pandemic response. In the past year, he has issued more than three-dozen executive orders and directives — from the closure of schools, day care centers and other non-essential businesses to a stay-at-home advisory -- to prevent the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, the Legislature was largely hobbled at the outset of the pandemic, prevented from meeting in person to debate and enact emergency legislation. It took weeks before the House and Senate came up with a system to vote on bills remotely. The process is lumbering along as the new session gets underway.
To be sure, legislative leaders have done little to oppose Baker's orders and have focused on passing laws to support and expand many of his executive actions.
But the directives handed down by the governor function essentially as temporary laws, bypassing the Legislature's traditional role in the policymaking process.
Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, said Baker hasn't sought input from legislators on COVID-19 guidelines and suggests more oversight is "sorely overdue."
One issue that's likely to be at the top of the agenda for the new oversight committee is the state's problem-plagued rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, she said.
"It is unacceptable how far behind we are, compared to other New England states, in the distribution of this vaccine," she said. "We need clear communication and increased information, and I am hopeful a COVID-19 legislative oversight committee will prove helpful in making that happen."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.