The Massachusetts House Thursday night passed a massive, wide-ranging economic development bill that infuses $4.2 billion into the state economy in the form of tax relief, investments in health care and environmental programs, and support to businesses, as well as a slew of policy changes and earmarks for local projects and programing.
The bill would be paid for by a combination of $2.8 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars and expected state surplus money, and $1.4 billion in money the state borrows through bonds.
Much of the spending is meant to target “communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic,” Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat who is the House’s budget leader, said while presenting the bill Wednesday morning. “This is a well-rounded spending package that will help support major sectors of our economy and help us be more competitive with other states.”
In a two-day process of amending the bill, House members dispatched nearly 900 amendments by bundling some and leaving others out behind closed doors, then publicly passing multiple mega “consolidated” amendments. The amendments totaled $468 million in added funds.
The legislation serves as a vehicle for tax reform and relief, which was born out of pressure to help residents being squeezed by record-high inflation during “unsettling times,” Michlewitz said. The bill would give potentially millions of middle income taxpayers a one-time stimulus check of $250 or $500 for joint filers, but only for those who reported at least $38,000 in 2021 income, a caveat that has drawn scrutiny.
Mirroring tax breaks pitched by Governor Charlie Baker, it also would increase the deduction renters can claim, increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, increase the threshold on the state’s estate tax, and increase the state’s child and dependent tax credit.
That adds up to a total of nearly $524 million in permanent tax breaks and $510 million in one-time relief payments.
The bill included $100 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and $25 million to address food insecurity. It sets $350 million aside for “financially strained” hospitals, $165 million for nursing facilities, $15 million for reproductive health care providers, and $175 million for state parks and public recreation. An additional $300 million goes toward the state’s unemployment fund.
Lawmakers tucked policy changes into the legislation too, creating a controversial $5 million annual live theater tax credit, a major expansion of the Housing Development Incentive Program, a feasibility study on the future of the Hynes Convention Center that would delay Baker’s push to redevelop the prime Back Bay real estate, and, notably, authorizing the Massachusetts Lottery to sell products online.
Marlene Warner, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, said her group, which works to address gaming problems and addiction, said Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg has wanted online lottery products “for a long time,” and that she plans to send a letter expressing her concerns when the bill presumably will go to a joint conference committee with representatives and senators after the Senate is set to pass its own version early next week.
Warner said future legislation or rulemaking should create guard rails to encourage heathy gaming online, such as a dashboard to show customers how much time or money they have spent on the website or practice sites where customers can learn how to play the games.
“I think the Massachusetts State Lottery has a steep hill to climb to be prepared for their current products and future products to go online,” Warner said.
In a statement, Goldberg said her office “is prepared to implement a safe and reliable iLottery product for Massachusetts residents.”
One bundle of amendments the House passed Thursday was an $85 million assortment of earmarks to fund local projects, with bigger items including $8 million for riverfront upgrades in Revere, $5 million for the Martin Richard Foundation and Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester to renovate the Dorchester Field House in Harbor Point, $5 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute to pay its debt, and $1 million to repair and upgrade the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
Another “consolidated” mega-amendment added about $24 million in spending for local and statewide environmental and tourism projects, such as $1 million for projects at the Old South Meeting House and Old State House in downtown Boston, $2 million for a climate-resilient waterfront park in East Boston, and $2 million for upgrades to the New England Aquarium.
The largest consolidated amendment was a $250 million package that included $50 million for MBTA improvements in Norfolk County, $10 million to renovate the Huntington Theatre in Boston, and $10 million for low-income communities to build broadband networks.
That one passed around 9:30 p.m. Thursday, with no debate.
The bill notably does not include a suspension of the state’s gas tax, a provision that was pushed by many Republicans and business interest groups.
“We have not done what is politically expedient or a quick press hit,” Representative Mark J. Cusack, a Braintree Democrat and the House’s revenue chairman, said on the House floor Wednesday during the first day of debate. “We learned from state after state what works and what doesn’t, and that’s how we got here today.”
The pending final vote on the economic development bill comes as the chambers resolve differences in their budgets for the 2023 fiscal year, which began July 1. According to House and Senate budget chiefs, a compromise budget document will be released “in the coming days” and will be primed for a Monday vote.
“We’ve obviously got a time crunch here,” Michlewitz said. “We’ve definitely got some work to do, but I feel confident we’ll be able to get it done.”