Legislature sends $1.1 billion proposal to Healey

By CHRIS LISINSKI and SAM DORAN

State House News Service

Published: 03-24-2023 3:41 PM

BOSTON — The House and Senate worked together on Thursday to place on Gov. Maura Healey’s desk a bill featuring $388 million in spending directed at what the Senate’s budget chief called “time-sensitive, urgent” needs along with $740 million in borrowing plans.

Explaining the 49-page bill, Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues highlighted $85 million for emergency family shelters, $130 million to provide enhanced nutrition assistance benefits for three months, $65 million to cover school breakfast programs through the rest of the fiscal year, and $2 million “to reimburse victims of the so-called SNAP benefit theft that many of our constituents have been victims of.”

The bill contains $740 million in borrowing authorizations, including $400 million to recapitalize the MassWorks infrastructure grant program, $104 million for the Clean Water Trust Fund, and $125 million “to ensure that the state has matching funds for us to compete with federal grants that have been recently passed by Congress,” Rodrigues continued.

As it emerged from informal House-Senate negotiations on Thursday, the bill — which could become the first major measure Healey signs into law — contained a one-year extension of the pandemic-era policy allowing restaurants to serve to-go cocktails, something the Senate had left out of its initial version.

Rodrigues said lawmakers also pulled in some language from Healey’s newest supplemental budget bill, which was just filed last week, dealing with policy areas affected by the upcoming sunset of the COVID-19 public health emergency like ambulance staffing and dialysis treatment staffing.

The legislation landed on Healey’s desk nine weeks after she filed a $987 million “immediate needs” bond bill (H 51) and nearly seven weeks after she filed a $282 million spending bill (H 47) aimed at school meals, emergency shelter and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Legislative leaders did not convene a public hearing to vet or solicit feedback on either bill, and they wound up combining pieces of each — plus the governor’s newest spending proposal — into a single vehicle as it moved through the process.

The proposed spending targets parts of the state’s safety net where funding and capacity are running thin. Like Gov. Charlie Baker did before he left office, Healey has warned that an influx of migrants has contributed to surging demand for emergency shelter. A program offering all students meals in schools needs more money to keep running through the end of the year, she says, and the hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts families who receive SNAP benefits are in line for a sharp decrease in their monthly aid in April now that the federal government ended a COVID-related expansion.

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Top Democrats packed more spending into the measure along the way to its passage. The final bill features $68 million to extend pandemic-era Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) child care provider grants and $16 million for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program.

The compromise bill includes $400 million in bonds for the MassWorks grant program, which is effectively out of money following the last round of annual awards announced in October, plus $125 million to put state dollars on the table for competitive federal grant applications.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr lamented one piece of the Senate version that was left on the cutting room floor: data reporting to track types of shelter being provided to families, who Tarr said are “once again being forced to live in hotels and other less-than-desirable settings.”

The Senate language would have required the Department of Housing and Community Development to report quarterly to the Ways and Means committees on “total and per-household costs of shelter provided under this item, broken down by type of housing arrangement.” Tarr said the housing of families in hotels was “alarming” and data would have allowed lawmakers to “understand the dynamics of that situation and undertake any appropriate interventions.”

Other sections of the bill would keep several pandemic-era policies in place, many of which have proven successful or popular over the past three years and were poised to expire at the end of the month. Municipal governments and other public entities would be able to continue holding meetings remotely and in hybrid formats until March 31, 2025. Expanded outdoor dining options could remain in place through April 1, 2024, as could the ability of restaurants to offer beer, wine and cocktails for takeout — a policy, opposed by package store industry leaders, that the Senate did not include in its bill.

Another portion of the bill would create the permanent ability to perform notarization services electronically. Secretary of State William Galvin has voiced concerns about the proposal, particularly related to its timing, implementation and oversight.

Several state commissions would see their deadlines punted under the legislation. A panel examining a passenger rail extension to western Massachusetts would get another three months, until June 30, to file its final report.

The bill also revives and extends the State Seal and Motto Commission’s lifespan until just before Thanksgiving, giving the panel until Nov. 15 to file its report with the Legislature. The commission was created by lawmakers in January 2021 to recommend changes to the official state emblems, but was slow to set up its internal operations and expired in December 2022 without reaching a conclusion.

Asked by the minority leader for a snapshot of the state’s revenue surplus picture, and how the supplemental budget would affect it, Rodrigues employed some “simple back-of-the-envelope calculations” and said the state is “about 990 — say a billion — dollars to the black” before factoring in the spending bill.

“We, round figures, reduce that by the $400 million we’re spending today, so round numbers, about $600 million in available surplus with a little over the quarter of the fiscal year still yet to go,” Rodrigues reported.

The Westport Democrat recounted that the state’s revenue numbers dropped below benchmark in January for the first time in 30 months, and that while February saw a rebound, people “really shouldn’t put much credence in February because it’s such a small tax collection month.”

“The big month will be coming in April, of course,” he said. “That’s the month that we’re all waiting for.”

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