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From essential worker bonuses to $25 million for trees, Mass. spending plan spreads COVID money far and wide

House and Senate negotiators released details of the $4 billion package that could be on Baker’s desk by the end of the week.

Lawmakers on Beacon Hill unveiled details of a $4 billion COVID relief spending plan on Wednesday night. If approved by the House and Senate, it could be on Governor Charlie Baker's desk by the end of the week. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe StaffSuzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

House and Senate negotiators on Beacon Hill filed a $4 billion state spending plan Wednesday night that would set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for various causes ranging from housing to healthcare to workforce training, in a broad effort to help Massachusetts recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, the outcome of months of public hearings and private negotiations, would draw roughly $1.5 billion from surplus money left over from the last fiscal year, along with roughly $2.5 billion from the federal stimulus legislation known as the American Rescue Plan Act, according to Senate Ways and Means chairman Michael Rodrigues. This would leave nearly another $2.5 billion in ARPA funds for the Legislature to deploy at a later date.

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Lobbyists and other advocates were worried that the approval of this package would be put off until the new year after the House and Senate couldn’t reach a deal before wrapping up formal sessions for the year in mid-November. But late on Tuesday, an accord was announced, and now it appears that the legislation is quickly heading to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk for his signature.

With lawmakers only meeting in lightly attended informal sessions until January, unanimous consent is needed to advance the bill, but negotiators are confident that will happen. The House is due to pass the measure on Thursday, with the Senate expected to follow on Friday, sending it to Baker by the end of the week. Baker is expected to sign it.

The House and Senate had already agreed to spend $500 million to help replenish the state’s unemployment insurance fund — to reduce the costs to employers following the flood of pandemic-related layoffs in 2020 — and another $500 million in one-time payments to lower-paid essential workers during the pandemic. Both allocations remained in place in the final version.

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The one-time bonuses could range between $500 and $2,000 in size for workers in a variety of industries deemed essential during the pandemic — such as those in healthcare, food production, or transportation — and could be available to households earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or nearly $80,000 for a family of four. State officials and an ad hoc advisory panel will need to determine details but the money must be distributed by March 31.

The biggest sector to benefit from this legislation is healthcare, with $400 million for mental and behavioral health, in part to help recruit more workers to that field, $250 million to help cash-strapped hospitals, and $200 million for local and regional public health efforts (including nearly $100 million for improving systems for data sharing). The bill also includes more than $500 million for housing, including money for new construction, apartments run by housing authorities, first-time homeownership, and the chronically homeless.

As is typical with most big spending bills, legislative leaders packed this one with a laundry list of allocations for pet projects — everything from $500,000 for a rail trail in Lawrence, to $400,000 for improved ferry service in Quincy, to $300,000 for construction of a museum in Worcester to honor cycling great Major Taylor, to $100,000 for tourism and marketing efforts in the Springfield area.

“They’re going to want to deliver that bacon, so to speak, back home,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said of state lawmakers. “I think the earmarks probably helped get this over the goal line.”

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Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said he was glad to see House and Senate leaders reach an accord. The legislation addresses three key priorities for the chamber: bolstering the unemployment fund, expanding workforce training, and opening up more slots at vocational-technical high schools for students. There is at least $100 million in the bill for voc-tech schools and similar high school programs, and a variety of workforce initiatives that include $100 million for career and technical training and apprenticeships, $15 million for cybersecurity training, and $7.5 million for training for “green jobs” such as installers of equipment that reduce pollution.

“Every industry I talk to speaks about workforce shortages and difficulties in hiring,” Rooney said. “We need to make sure we’re creating a pipeline of workers for what are very good-paying jobs, at the end of the day [particularly] in life sciences and labs.”

Rooney and other business lobbyists had pushed for more money to reduce the burden on businesses for unemployment insurance costs — seeking as much as $2 billion at one point. But it became a tough case to make because the Baker administration had not provided current information for how much the unemployment fund needs to be stabilized.

“I’m still sensing there’s a need for more,” Rooney said. “I hope in future rounds, either through ARPA or budget surplus money, that more money is applied to the unemployment trust fund, that it’s not left on the backs of employers, especially small businesses, when they’re trying to recover.”

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Environmental groups, meanwhile, had pressed legislators to fund climate resiliency efforts and water and sewer work, along with requests to beef up state spending on parkland and conservation. The final tally on this front, among other things, included $100 million for water and sewer projects, $100 million for environmental infrastructure, and $90 million for port work primarily geared toward the offshore wind industry. There’s even $25 million to plant trees.

“This is a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity that can’t really be missed from a climate perspective and a public health perspective,” said Sam Anderson, director of legislative and government affairs at Mass Audubon.

Matt Stout and Larry Edelman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.