The Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday unveiled its version of a $3.66 billion bill backed by a combination of federal stimulus money and state surplus funds, kick-starting a two-week sprint to get a spending package that a top lawmaker says promises “generational change” to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
Similar to the House, which passed its own $3.8 billion package last week, the Senate proposal sets aside a half-billion dollars for bonuses targeted for essential, low-income workers and $600 million toward housing initiatives, among other priorities.
The bill relies on up to $2.5 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and $1.4 billion in surplus funds left over from last fiscal year. And both versions touch a sprawling number of areas, from community colleges and upgrading school HVAC systems to pumping hundreds of millions toward Massachusetts hospitals.
The proposals are landing months after the state first received more than $5 billion in federal stimulus cash, and Baker proposed his own plan for putting it to use, primarily targeting housing and infrastructure needs with $1 billion apiece in federal funding.
“I think we struck the right balance,” said state Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chairman, “to ensure we’re not spreading the money so thin that . . . there’s no change, but also to try to touch as many buckets as possible.”
The chambers appear to be in agreement on two major pillars. Both bills are expected to set aside $500 million to fund one-time bonuses to essential workers, with another $500 million slated to be infused into the state’s in-debt unemployment insurance trust fund.
Under the House proposal, the “premium pay bonuses” would be targeted for low-income essential workers. The bill would set aside $460 million for those who make up to 300 percent above the federal poverty limit and worked in-person during the state’s 16-month COVID-19 state of emergency, with bonuses ranging between $500 and $2,000 depending on how many workers qualify.
House officials said there have been studies showing there are up to 800,000 front-line workers in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t clear how many could ultimately qualify. At 300 percent above federal poverty levels, an individual with an annual income of $38,640 could be eligible, as could a family of four whose income is $79,500.
The Senate adopts that structure, while also creating an advisory panel to help determine who would ultimately be eligible. The Senate would also allow the Baker administration to structure the payment as a one-time refundable tax credit, with any amount that exceed the person’s tax liability paid to them without interest. Senate officials said the language in intended to provide flexibility in administering the money.
Both bills also would set aside another $500 million that would be infused into the state’s in-debt unemployment insurance trust fund, or about half as much as Baker and business leaders had called for.
The chambers’ versions largely hew to similar priorities, but the Senate deviates in some places. Its plan includes $400 million toward behavioral health initiatives — about $150 million more than the House — and dedicates $122 million of it to expanding loan repayment programs for behavioral health professionals.
It also would carve out millions more for local and public health agencies, setting aside nearly $251 million to help local officials and boards who were at the forefront of the state’s response to COVID-19 but often were understaffed and overwhelmed during the crush of the pandemic.
The Senate plan also featured a range of policy sections, some of which had not surfaced in the House.
That includes a proposal to create a $500,000 pilot program that would give $5,000 scholarships to police recruits who enroll in a state Municipal Police Training Committee program. The goal of the program is to help “promote diversity” among police recruits and offset costs for otherwise “underrepresented and economically-disadvantaged individuals enrolled in the training program,” according to the bill language.
Senate officials said officers typically pay out of pocket, or have the costs deducted from their paycheck, arguing it can preclude “lower-income” residents from joining police departments.
The Senate is slated to debate and pass its version starting next Wednesday.
Time is key. The Legislature is scheduled to break from formal sessions on Nov. 17, and legislators and Baker have all pushed to finalize the bill and send it to his desk by then.
Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, and other legislative leaders are spending the rest of the week in Tampa, where the National Conference of State Legislatures is holding a legislative summit. Rodrigues said it also gives him and his House counterpart, Representative Aaron Michlewitz a chance to huddle together about the package.
“He’s literally on a plane heading down here,” Rodrigues said by phone. “We know we have a short turnaround.”
The minutiae of the proposals will also need reconciliation. The House, for example, added $173 million to its original $3.65 billion, the bulk of which — $154 million — was intended to backstop hundreds of proposed earmarks. The largest, according to an analysis done by the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, would put $50 million toward what the bill calls “economic development improvements to transit stations in Norfolk County,” without specifying what the projects may be.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka framed the package as a vehicle to bring lasting changes to the state.
“At this critical juncture, we must not lose sight of the big picture,” the Ashland Democrat, who is also in Florida this week, said in a statement. “We need to address immediate and critical needs in mental health care access, food security, the struggles of small businesses and access to housing.”