The Massachusetts House is readying a $1.6 billion mid-year spending bill that would further extend pandemic-era rules allowing restaurants to sell to-go cocktails and offer expanded outdoor dining until spring 2023, and pour hundreds of millions of more dollars into COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccine efforts.
The legislation is a mix of proposals aimed, in part, at closing potential spending gaps before the fiscal year ends in June. But it also marks another effort to keep — at least temporarily — changes that restaurant owners called crucial lifelines during the throes of the pandemic and now stand weeks away from expiring.
The Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker last spring had opted to allow restaurants to sell to-go beer, wine, and cocktails through May 1, while extending the time towns and cities could allow for expanded outdoor dining at restaurants until April 1.
The bill released Tuesday — and which could emerge as early as Wednesday for a vote in the House — would extend those changes until April 2023.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman, indicated lawmakers are hesitant at this point to make the rules permanent, particularly absent broader changes on the local level in handling outdoor dining. But the changes have also proven popular, particularly in allowing to-go cocktails.
“It seems to have worked,” the North End Democrat said. Allowing them permanently, he said, is “something we can talk about in the future.”
In releasing the bill, House leaders scaled back a $2.5 billion mid-year spending plan Baker filed last month, eliminating proposals he sought including an extra $100 million for local roads and bridges and $150 million in grants for climate change resiliency projects.
But lawmakers embraced Baker’s proposal to carve out hundreds of millions of dollars that the Republican said would “sustain our efforts to respond to COVID-19.” That includes nearly $433 million for testing, $72 million for COVID treatments, and more than $45 million for vaccination sites and clinics.
Baker last month signed a separate bill that dedicated another $101 million toward the state’s COVID efforts in the midst of the Omicron surge. Of that, $76 million was designed to help fund masks, COVID-19 vaccines, and rapid tests, particularly for schoolchildren, teachers, homeless shelters, and others.
It also included various extensions to other emergency-era rules allowing for remote notary services and reverse-mortgage counseling. That bill also moved the state’s primary election to Sept. 6.
The bill released Tuesday also features a grab bag of other spending and policy proposals, including:
- $100 million toward rental assistance, a pot of money that legislative officials say will help bridge a gap created by dwindling federal funds;
- $10 million to help resettle any Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country following Russia’s invasion;
- $100 million to help fund winter road repairs in towns and cities (but not the additional $100 million in local road funding Baker had proposed);
- And language to exempt the $500 bonus payments going out this month to hundreds of thousands of low-income workers from the state’s personal income tax.
The bill, should it pass the House, would then head to the Senate.
The legislation would lean on more than $750 million in expected federal reimbursements, and would be buttressed by the state’s better-than-predicted tax revenues, which are trending more than $1 billion above what state officials expected to collect at this point in the year.
Still, Michlewitz cautioned against the state overextending itself until it has a complete picture of the year’s tax revenues and any potential economic fallout from the war in Ukraine.
Some Republicans — including gubernatorial candidates Chris Doughty and Geoff Diehl — have called on the state to suspend the taxes it imposes on gasoline sales as the average prices climb past $4 and to record highs. Baker, too, has suggested it’s something he may consider “if we were to do something short term.” Massachusetts currently imposes a 24-cent tax per gallon.
Prices could also climb higher after President Biden on Tuesday said the United States will ban all Russian oil imports in an effort to exacerbate the toll on Russia’s economy in retaliation for its invasion. On Twitter, Baker called Biden’s decision “the right move . . . to further punish Russia for this atrocious invasion.”
“[B]ut inflation and rising prices are real concerns for residents,” he added, before prodding lawmakers to embrace $700 million in tax breaks he’s proposed.
The House did not include any gas tax relief in its spending bill, and Michlewitz argued lawmakers still likely need a better understanding of the factors driving the dramatic increases. He said suspending the tax could also impact the state’s ability to borrow in the future.
“I don’t think we want to risk messing with our bond structure,” he said.