BOSTON (SHNS) – The Senate next week will debate a $3.67 billion plan to spend federal relief and state tax surplus dollars that would inject $1 billion into the state’s health care system and authorize $500 million in bonus pay for low-income, essential workers as lawmakers in the House and Senate race to finalize a massive spending package before the looming mid-November recess.
The plan, in both its bottom line and general investment strategy, looks much like the $3.82 billion bill that passed the House last week with American Rescue Plan Act and surplus money being directed toward health care, housing, economic development and climate change mitigation.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said there were “little differences around the edges,” but that leadership of the two branches were largely in agreement on the framework of the spending package as they work to get a bill through the Senate and wrap up conference negotiations with the House before the Legislature recesses on Nov. 17.
“We’re heavier on behavioral health and mental health. We’re heavier on the production side of housing, but we’re not far off from one another,” Rodrigues told the News Service in a phone interview. “We share similar values and similar interests in where we’re going to invest this money.”
The bill, which was released Wednesday afternoon by Senate Ways and Means, proposes to put about $1 billion into health care, $1.7 billion into economic and workforce development, $600 million into housing and $450 million to combat climate change.
The proposal would also establish commissions tasked with oversight of the spending to ensure that it gets distributed equitably and reaches communities, organizations and people most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before either branch released full spending plans, leadership of the two branches agreed to invest $500 million in unemployment insurance relief for businesses and $500 million in premium pay for essential workers who remained on the job throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both bills would also make $200 million in tax relief available to small business owners who had to pay personal income taxes on previous state and federal relief grants.
The differences between the two bills start to show up with the Senate’s proposed investments in health care. The Ways and Means bill proposed $400 million for behavioral health, exceeding the $250 million set aside by the House, and includes $122 million for loan repayments to help recruit and retain 2,000 workers.
The Senate also proposed to put $450 million into climate change mitigation and the environment, with $175 million for water and sewer infrastructure, as opposed to $100 million in the initial House bill.
To balance out the higher investments in some areas, Rodrigues noted that the $200 million in assistance for acute care hospitals strained by the pandemic was about $50 million less than in the House bill and the committee also recommended less than the House in homeownership assistance.
“There are always tradeoffs when we’ve committed to trying to arrive at more or less the same bottom line,” Rodrigues said.
The House added about $170 million through amendments to the bottom line of its bill over the course of two days of debate, and Rodrigues said the Senate Ways and Means bill has built in a cushion of about $280 million to accommodate increases through the floor debate.
“We don’t have to spend all the way up. Our goal would be to spend about what the House spent and to give us some room for conference,” Rodrigues said.
Sen. Jo Comerford earlier this week also previewed the Senate’s push to spend at least $250 million on local public health infrastructure, including improved data collection systems, workforce training and financial support for communities with fewer resources to devote to public health than wealthier communities.
The final proposal carves out $118.4 million from the $250 million for public health infrastructure and data sharing and $95 million for direct grants to local board of health to be prepared for future public health threats.”
The bill proposes to spend up to $2.5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds and up to $1.45 billion in fiscal 2021 surplus revenue, which would still leave about $2.35 billion for the Legislature to spend at a later date.
Rodrigues said there was no timeline for “bite number two of the apple,” except for the June 30, 2022 deadline to allocate the state surplus and the Dec. 31, 2024 deadline to authorize ARPA spending.
Democrats caucused Wednesday morning where leadership briefed senators remotely on the substance of the bill. Rodrigues was in Florida where he and Senate President Karen Spilka are among the state officials taking part in meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The plan for the Senate was to set a deadline on Wednesday for amendments to be filed by Friday, with the debate scheduled to begin next Wednesday.