ARPA bill grew to $3.82B before House passage

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (State House News Service) – A major spending bill allocating federal COVID-19 relief funds and surplus state tax revenues cleared the House on Friday evening by a vote of 159-0 after lawmakers added nearly $174 million via the amendment process.

The bill began with a bottom line of $3.65 billion and representatives took a handful of votes to add on tens of millions of dollars more, much of it earmarked for local programs and projects, through four mega-amendments compiled outside of public view based on the 1,126 individual amendments filed earlier in the week. The bill’s final bottom line increased to $3.82 billion.

House and Senate leaders have already agreed on two key features of the bill — a $500 million deposit into the state’s unemployment trust fund and another $500 million for one-time bonus payments to low-income essential workers who remained on the job in-person throughout the COVID-19 state of emergency.

Otherwise, it’s unclear how closely aligned the spending will be between the House plan and the proposal that Senate Democrats are expected to soon put forward, and how much negotiating will need to take place before lawmakers can ship a final version to Gov. Charlie Baker.

Baker had prodded lawmakers to quickly put the state’s billions of dollars in American Rescue Plan Act money to work, but the Legislature opted to gather public input at a series of hearings before crafting a bill.

With formal sessions for the year set to end Nov. 17 under joint legislative rules, House and Senate leaders have not indicated if they aim to get a final bill on Baker’s desk or into private conference committee negotiations before the winter recess.

“We have been continuing to talk with our Senate counterparts and I think that there are some things we will have to work out and we’ll see what proposals they put to the floor maybe next week or whatnot,” House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz told the News Service. “I think that after they get done we’re going to try as hard as we can to get it to the governor’s desk as quickly as we can.”

Michlewitz said lawmakers received feedback and testimony from nearly 400 people and organizations, including the governor. Rep. Dan Hunt, who chairs the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, cited more than 300 meetings with advocates.

Michlewitz, a Democrat from Boston’s North End, called the resulting bill “a truly equitable spending package.”

“A consistent theme we heard from these hearings was the need for this one-time revenue to go toward areas and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic,” he said. “These communities that were hardest hit by COVID, and it is only appropriate that the lens with which we view these funds be toward filling the needs of these communities.”

Before amendments were tacked on, the bill contained $777 million in economic development spending, $765 million for health and human services, $750 million towards workforce development, $600 million for housing and homeownership, $350 million toward environmental and climate change mitigation, and $265 million for education.

Rep. Kate Lipper-Garbedian, a Melrose Democrat, addressed her colleagues for the first time to highlight a provision, backed by $10 million, that will expand eligibility for special education services to students who turned 22 during the pandemic. She said students with disabilities are eligible for K-12 services until they turn 22, but the disruption and suspension of those services left some young adults cut off from programs like vocational and life-skills training.

Elected last year in a special election, Lipper-Garabedian was sworn in during a socially distanced State House ceremony on March 25, 2020.

“Many of us in this chamber have had COVID babies. Some of us have had COVID puppies,” she said Thursday. “I’m pleased to have been your first COVID rep.”

The House Ways and Means Committee’s bill features $200 million in tax relief for small-business owners who paid personal income taxes on state or federal relief money, $12 million to aid the resettling of Afghan refugees, and $5 million for Inspector General Glen Cunha’s office to create a public website and database tracking the number of contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses and the flow of funding to disproportionately impacted communities.

The bill included $20 million to improve technical infrastructure at community health centers, and through the amendment process representatives added $15 million for “programs that promote primary care workforce development, recruitment and retention at community health centers.” Other health investments lawmakers noted included $250 million for financially strapped hospitals and $70 million for nursing homes.

Environment and climate spending represents another sizable chunk of the bill with more than $400 million total following the adoption of a mega-amendment. Rep. Carolyn Dykema said areas that will see new investments include combined sewer overflow issues, climate resiliency, offshore wind development and PFAS mitigation.

“Water infrastructure upgrades and the mitigation of contaminants like PFAS can be extremely costly for our municipalities, and providing this relief to cities and towns who are already facing challenging financial times is badly needed,” Dykema, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, said Friday.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized what it called a “closed doors” negotiating process on the four mega-amendments that House lawmakers added to the spending bill. Spokesman Paul Craney said the branch “once again proved to the rest of the world why they maintain the top spot as the most secretive and opaque legislative body in America.”

“Regular people have no way of knowing the deliberations behind how their tax dollars are spent in the Massachusetts House of Representatives,” Craney said in the statement released Friday afternoon.

Lawmakers held six public hearings ahead of crafting the $3.82 billion proposal where hundreds of people and organizations, including Baker, testified on areas where the funds should be spent.

House leaders left themselves a sizable pot of money to be spent at a future date. The base bill left unallocated about $2.4 billion in ARPA money and roughly $350 million of the state’s fiscal year 2021 surplus.

With nearly $174 million added to the bill, Michlewitz said “most of the work that was done” via the amendment process did not touch the additional ARPA funds the House had left aside and primarily drew from the fiscal 2021 surplus revenue.

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