The state Senate’s leadership offered a glimpse at its priorities for $5 billion in federal stimulus funds on Tuesday, in a new report packed with policy and funding suggestions for life after the pandemic.
The report outlined several key missions, from bridging the digital divide for low-income residents to spurring new residential construction, as lawmakers advance discussions about how best to deploy that American Rescue Plan Act money and the state’s budget surplus. Legislative leaders want an agreement in place by the end of November on how to spend at least some of the state’s $5 billion pot. Senate President Karen Spilka made it clear that this report would be a springboard for these discussions in the Senate.
“The areas that came up for attention were about removing obstacles for work, confronting generations of wealth gaps and income gaps, and trying to learn some lessons from previous downturns,” said state Senator Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who chaired the committee charged with “reimagining” the state after the pandemic is over. “State policy, when it’s done right, can be transformative.”
Here are the most interesting takeaways from his committee’s report:
On some key priorities, Senate leaders and Governor Charlie Baker aren’t far apart. The governor has been frustrated by his inability to gain more support in the Legislature to move quickly on his proposal in June to spend $2.9 billion of the $5 billion in rescue plan funds. Baker would spend $1 billion on housing production and home-buying assistance and $240 million on skills training. But it turns out, these are priorities for Spilka, Hinds, and their colleagues as well.
The Senate report’s workforce training number, $250 million, is almost exactly the same as Baker’s allocation. Senate leaders particularly want to focus on English language and software instruction, and to pair unemployed residents with career coaches. Like Baker, the senators want to see a large scale investment in existing programs that would add to local housing stock, with an emphasis on affordable units. And like Baker, the senators want to provide financial help for struggling downtown areas.
The concept of a state owned bank is gaining momentum. Tucked in this Senate report is the suggestion that a public bank could help improve access to capital for small businesses, particularly those owned by people of color in underbanked neighborhoods. The idea of forming a state bank has been kicking around Beacon Hill for years but has not gained much traction. This version suggests a public bank with an express mission to support “racial and ethnic equity.”
It may cost $500 million to $1 billion upfront, but that money would serve as an investment that could allow the bank’s operational revenue to pay for itself. One alternative to an entirely new institution would be to fortify Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp., a quasi-public agency that Baker used to distribute more than $700 million in aid to small businesses during the pandemic.
Some sectors of the economy, such as the live-event industry, may need further subsidies. The report primarily looks at long-term investments for a postpandemic economy. But there are examples where senators see the need to help bridge short-term gaps to enable businesses to survive the ongoing pandemic. In particular, the Senate panel recommends using $40 million from the rescue plan funds to help what it dubs the “gathering economy” — businesses that support large in-person conferences, concerts, and cultural performances.
Improving broadband access takes more than just laying wires in the ground. As a senator from the Berkshires, Hinds is well versed in the struggles to “wire” all the rural towns in Western Massachusetts. Hinds said state officials have already made significant progress in this regard, and hope to have some form of high-speed Internet service in all towns by the end of 2022. The bigger concern, Hinds was surprised to learn, is among lower-income residents, particularly those in urban areas, who simply can’t afford the monthly bills. To address this, the Senate panel wants to expand public broadband subsidies for low-income residents and to create a “digital equity fund” that would provide grants to cities, nonprofits, and advocacy groups that are trying to improve broadband access.
The Senate president is furthering her concept of intergenerational care centers. In April, Spilka talked to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce about an idea she called “intergenerational care centers,” one-stop shops for families seeking help for care with kids, elderly, or people with disabilities. This report offers more clarity on that vision. Rather than supplant state-funded Family Resource Centers, the senators would convert them into hubs for information about intergenerational care, to help caregivers find support and to add more services. (The Senate panel suggests $50 million of rescue plan funds to spur these changes.) Also, state officials could encourage senior living and early education centers to be built alongside elementary or high schools, to share facilities and improve connections between the generations.
It’s time to electrify the state’s transportation network. Advocates have long called for diesel-powered trains in the MBTA’s commuter rail fleet to be switched to electrified vehicles, to reduce pollution and improve flexibility. But Hinds said the state should also consider ways to encourage the conversion of school and mass transit buses, as well as package delivery vans and trucks. The report suggests implementing a congestion pricing system that charges less for electric-powered vehicles. This shift to electricity can be incredibly expensive. But if there ever was a time to try, Hinds said, this is it.