House, Senate Dems Ready To Enact “Big Bill” Friday
The Massachusetts House approved a roughly $4 billion compromise spending bill on Thursday and legislative leaders appeared ready to push it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk on Friday when both branches are scheduled to hold sessions.
About 15 hours after a conference committee filed their accord to spend a significant portion of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and surplus state tax revenue, the House accepted the bill on an unrecorded voice vote and without debate during a lightly attended informal session.
A Senate vote to accept the conference committee report H 4269) is expected on Friday, and then final procedural votes could send the spending package to Baker.
Negotiators tasked with resolving differences between the underlying House and Senate spending bills (H 4234 / S 2580), both of which carried a bottom line of about $3.82 billion, announced an accord on Tuesday night and filed the 163-page legislation around 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Both the House and Senate met on Thursday, but the Senate adjourned until Friday without tackling the topic.
“I think that there were members, particularly in the Senate, that wanted to have an opportunity to read through the bill and make sure that we didn’t do it all today,” said House Ways and Means Assistant Vice Chair Rep. Paul Donato.
“I foresee that we’ll be enacting it tomorrow,” Donato told the News Service.
Legislative leaders had hoped to wrap up work on the bill by Thanksgiving, but needed a couple of extra weeks to reach consensus on a bill that has been eagerly anticipated by many stakeholders in line for a piece of the federal economic recovery aid.
The package would steer $500 million toward one-time bonus payments for lower-income essential workers who stayed on the job in-person during the state of emergency. It would also deposit $500 million into the unemployment insurance trust fund to relieve pressure on businesses who fund the system via taxes and had to absorb costs stemming from a wave of joblessness during the pandemic.
The bill features $530 million for housing initiatives, $400 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health supports and community-based primary care, $300 million for Medicaid home services, $260 million to support financially strained hospitals in areas particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and $200 million for local and regional public health systems.
“This marks a major step forward in the effort to transform our dangerously inadequate and inequitable local public health system,” said Maddie Ribble, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Public Health Association. The funding will move Massachusetts “closer to a 21st-century local public health system that our state can be proud of,” Ribble said, while urging lawmakers to also pass a bill creating minimum public health standards for every community.
The conference committee bulked up the spending package’s bottom line by roughly $180 million over the base House and Senate versions. As redrafted, the bill would use all of the state’s remaining fiscal 2021 tax surplus and would leave about $2.25 billion in ARPA funds remaining to be spent at a later date, according to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz’s office.
Baker pressed lawmakers in recent months to make swift use of the more than $5 billion Massachusetts state government received in ARPA funds, but legislative leaders instead opted to sweep the money into an account and decide its fate after a lengthy public hearing process.
Because the Legislature is in its seven-week holiday recess, both branches are meeting only in informal sessions, when a single member can halt any bill’s movement by objecting. However, the original spending bills passed unanimously in both the House and Senate and the bill, which is laden with earmarked local spending, is not expected to encounter opposition.
While the bill sailed through without any dissent from representatives, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized House leadership for advancing the measure during an informal session less than a full day after the conference committee filed its compromise.
“No one would have ever thought that an elected body of 160 House lawmakers would be stripped of their responsibilities in order to appease a particular Speaker, but that’s exactly what has happened,” MassFiscal spokesperson Paul Craney said in a statement. “Rank and file lawmakers need to ask themselves why they are even there if they are not even going to review budget items. The Massachusetts State House has been closed for over 600 days, and this is exactly the reason why — leadership prefers it. Constituents have no way of observing the behind closed doors deliberations that occur to determine how their tax dollars are spent in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.”
Calling it a “big bill,” Sen. Jason Lewis told the News Service Thursday that “there’s a lot of important appropriations in there, and we did want to just give senators a chance to read through it before the Senate takes it up tomorrow.”
Lewis added: “The Senate’s plan is to take it up first thing in session tomorrow. … And our plan is to get the bill onto the governor’s desk before the end of the day tomorrow.”