Baker budgeting based on COVID-19 lessons

Boston Statehouse

Gov. Charlie Baker. (Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS/File 2020)

BOSTON (SHNS) – New positions at the state laboratory and public health hospitals and continuation of a $10 million grant program supporting local boards of health are among Gov. Charlie Baker’s recommended spending in a fiscal 2022 budget that he said aims to “ensure that public health during a pandemic continues to be there for us.”

As COVID-19 vaccines gradually become available in Massachusetts and many people hope for an end to the pandemic on the horizon, Baker’s $45.6 billion budget — which clocks in at about $300 million less than this year’s budget and does not include new taxes on residents — includes spending in several areas that have been spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baker’s budget (H 1) funds the Department of Public Health at $707.1 million, an allocation the governor said includes money for “key” new positions at the state public health lab.

“Obviously the state lab’s been busy,” Baker said. “We expect it will continue to be going forward.”

This year’s budget appropriated a little more than $769 million for the public health department, and the fiscal 2020 budget included almost $693 million.

Under Baker’s plan, the DPH would receive $50.3 million for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and survivor services, and for emergency residential services for victims and their children.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health response measures, such as quarantining and social distancing, have created new challenges for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said.

Polito, who chairs the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, said it is critical to respond to those issues. The administration said the budget includes a total of $96 million for sexual assault and domestic violence prevention services across different accounts.

After a year that’s driven most government services, at least temporarily, into the virtual realm, the budget proposes $138.8 million in spending by the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security, including money for managing a new cybersecurity operations center, centralized software, and a security-incident management platform for threat-monitoring and analytics, Baker’s office said.

The budget for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency would roughly double under Baker’s budget, to $4.1 million. State finance officials said the pandemic and the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas disaster underscored the importance of MEMA’s ability to respond rapidly, and that the agency can function better when operating from its own reserves rather than going through a lengthy process to secure reimbursement from the federal government.

“MEMA has played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic, including PPE warehousing and distribution, did an incredible effort standing up and supporting food security efforts across our state,” Polito said. “This money will allow the agency to do more frequent and in-depth reviews on emergency management plans, increasing trainings and exercises, and staffing and warehouse critical commodities.”

Baker said the state is set to soon receive $450 million for rental assistance and eviction diversion support through the most recent federal relief package and said that money “should be a terrific asset” toward housing stability efforts.

A state eviction moratorium lapsed in October, and Baker opted not to further extend it, instead putting forward a $171 million plan that aims to help keep tenants in their homes and support landlords.

Marie-Frances Rivera, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the administration is “taking a risk by relying on one-time federal funds to address a housing crisis that existed before COVID, but has been made more acute by the pandemic.”

The fiscal 2022 budget recommends $195.9 million to fund the emergency assistance family shelter system, for a $15 million increase over this year, and $135 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program to support an estimated 9,771 vouchers, according to Baker’s office. Baker is also proposing $16.3 million for the residential assistance for families in transition program and $26 million for the HomeBASE housing assistance program.

Like he did last year, Baker included language in his budget that would allow Lottery players to pay using debit cards, though the prohibition on credit card Lottery sales would remain.

“We’ve learned a number of lessons in COVID, and one is how quickly you can adopt being a cashless society,” Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan said.

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