Senate report may inform big spending decisions

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – From tax credits for anyone caring for a child or elderly resident at home to a public bank and low-income subsidies for broadband service, a Senate committee led by Sen. Adam Hinds produced a policy menu for the Legislature on Tuesday that Democratic leaders hope will guide Beacon Hill’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new 22-page report examined the vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19 in areas such as child care and housing, and considered ways to make Massachusetts a more equitable place to live and work.

Hinds and Senate President Karen Spilka took a break from their tour of intergenerational care facilities on Tuesday to release the report produced by the Senate’s Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post Pandemic Resiliency.

The group of seven senators looked at everything from the gap in access to high-speed internet to housing, transportation, child and senior care and the wealth gaps that exist between many white and minority communities. Hinds said the committee planned to continue to explore areas such as health care, climate change, environmental justice, voting systems and K-12 education.

“We’re not going back exactly to the old normal,” Spilka said.

The report was released the same day the Legislature held its final hearing focused on how to spend close to $5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Hind’s committee identified ways to spend billions of dollars on both short- and long-term priorities, suggesting some of it could come from the state’s budget surplus or its pot of ARPA money.

“These policy proposals and these policy recommendations will initiate and go through the debate process that is the heart and soul of our legislative process, but we are on the verge, as all of you know, of making many decisions on how to spend federal recovery funds so I am glad and thankful that this committee has done the work to identify the vulnerabilities, as well as the opportunities, that we face in this moment,” Spilka said.

Among the committee’s recommendations were to spend between $250 million and $400 million to close the digital divide between communities and families that lack access to high-speed internet, and therefore the same remote work options available to wealthier residents.

According to the committee, 92 percent of households earning more than $75,000 a year have access to reliable internet, while 40 percent of families earning less than $35,000 annually have a broadband subscription.

The committee called for $50 million to $100 million to be spent to guarantee low-cost broadband options for residents who qualify for MassHealth or SNAP benefits, $150 million to $200 million in grants to towns for broadband infrastructure projects, and $50 million to $100 million for a digital equity fund.

Hinds also said a “targeted” right-to-repair law could make it easier to unlock, fix and transfer ownership of computers and other digital devices and make them more accessible to low-income families.

To help close racial and ethnic wealth gaps, the report suggested piloting income supports for low-income families, which proved helpful during the pandemic when people needed assistance to pay bills and meet other needs. The committee said an expanded earned income tax credit or a refundable tax credit for caregivers could be one way to approach it.

The report also called for investing $250 million in workforce training and development, continued support for wealth-building programs like the BabySteps college savings program, $40 million in ARPA assistance to help theaters, conference centers and other businesses that rely on gatherings get over the COVID-19 hump, and consideration of a public bank.

A bank, the report said, would come with $500 million to $1 billion in startup costs, and could be used to support small and minority-owned business in communities that have traditionally lacked access to capital.

“The state’s recovery from the pandemic and our ability to build more resiliency for future pandemics will literally depend on us addressing inequality now,” Hinds said.

The Pittsfield Democrat said the report was the result of five public hearings and additional research supported by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University. He said it felt like the committee was catching up on decades of concerns over high housing and child care costs and wage stagnation that had not been addressed.

“Luckily, it feels as though we also have an unprecedented opportunity,” Hinds said, citing both the political will and the financial resources to take action.

To support the care-giving economy, the committee recommended using more than $300 million in ARPA Child Care Stabilization grants for hiring bonuses, loan forgiveness, training incentives and other benefits to build the workforce.

It also recommended a $3 increase in hourly wages for personal aides and home care workers at a cost of $50 million a year to recruit and retain professionals, and regulatory changes that would make the system more affordable. The report specifically noted the ratio of one caregiver to every three children as the lowest in the country, along with Kansas and Maryland.

The committee said that for $100 million to $150 million the state could offer refundable tax credits for anyone caring for a child, senior or family members with disabilities at home.

Spilka, in a speech in April, laid out her “moonshot” to reimagine an intergenerational care system that would support families, particularly women, who have been forced to give up careers to care for family members of all ages. She said now was the time to start investing in her idea and use $50 million in ARPA funding to turn family resource centers into hubs where residents could be linked with services and supports for all ages.

Some of the biggest investments proposed by the Reimagining Massachusetts committee came in the area of housing, with limited stock and soaring prices creating competition around job centers and the demand for larger homes with office space increasing during COVID-19.

In addition to $400 million to $500 million to support the construction of homes for rent and sale, the committee suggested using $250 million in ARPA funds to support programs like MassHousing’s downpayment assistance program. Short of a California-style ban on single-family zoning, the committee said additional local aid cold be dangled in front of cities and towns that reduce zoning barriers to facilitate more construction.

The report also recommended using $100 million to revamp the state’s rental assistance program by guaranteeing tenants facing eviction access to counsel and automatically connecting them with rental assistance programs.

Finally on transportation, the committee concluded that the commuter rail system needs a wholesale reimagining as remote work has changed ridership patterns and that policymakers should reconsider how much they rely on fares to finance the MBTA and other public transit.

The report concluded that greater subsidies for electric vehicles and congestion pricing could be helpful in meeting climate goals and pushing people back to public transit, and it suggested considering whether free bus fares or reduced fares for low-income riders would improve access.

Josh Ostroff, interim executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, called the report “thoughtful” and said his group has long supported many of the policy recommendations and hoped to see them reflected in the ARPA bill that will be debated in the coming weeks.

“For a modern statewide transportation network that contributes to recovery, it’s not enough to produce reports. We need action,” Ostroff said.

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