Mass. House leaders propose up to $ 2,000 for low-income workers who show up in person during pandemic emergency



The approach reflected the variety of competing demands that lawmakers have said they face. Representative Daniel J. Hunt, who chairs the federal House stimulus committee, said that between half a dozen hearings and hundreds of meetings, House officials faced more than $ 30 billion. dollars in claims.

“While this bill is not a panacea, we believe it specifically targets, through a cornucopia of funds, the issues that we have identified over the past six months that need them most. “said Hunt, a Democrat from Dorchester.

House leaders said they expected to vote on the 37-page bill later this week, followed by a vote in the Senate in the coming weeks.

The plan is the first indication of how legislative leaders intend to spend part of a state’s $ 1.5 billion surplus and $ 4.9 billion in so-called ARPA funds: about $ 600 million would be spent on housing programs; An additional $ 500 million would be used to help strengthen the state’s indebted unemployment insurance trust fund; hospitals “in financial difficulty” would get $ 250 million; and $ 150 million would help those in need of training or more education re-enter the workforce, among other proposals.

Notably, that would leave an estimated $ 2.75 billion unspent between the two pots of state and federal money, which legislative leaders said they would reconsider.

“Our goal is to responsibly fund priority areas that will stand the test of time and to bring about systemic and equitable change,” said Speaker of the House Ronald Mariano, who, along with other legislative leaders , has resisted calls from Baker and others to speed up federal spending. stimulus fund after they arrived in May.

“Part of the benefit of being deliberative is that we can take a break, see what this money is doing and what impact it is having on our economy and make some additional decisions,” Democrat de Quincy said.

One of the main areas of spending is “wage premiums” for low-income workers. Almost $ 500 million would be made available to those who are up to 300% above the federal poverty line and who worked in person during the state’s 16-month COVID-19 state of emergency.

Premiums would vary between $ 500 and $ 2,000, depending on the number of eligible workers. The exact guidelines people are eligible for would likely be defined later, lawmakers said.

“We didn’t want to make him too generous,” said Mariano. “We wanted to benefit the people who stayed at their posts throughout the pandemic – the people who worked in nursing homes, who drove buses, who worked in supermarkets.”

As part of the half a billion dollars, the bill commits $ 40 million for similar bonuses of up to $ 2,000 for “frontline state employees” who were required to work in person during the winter. 2020 to 2021, although who might qualify was not immediately clear.

The House proposal also includes tax breaks worth $ 200 million for small businesses that have paid personal income taxes on state and federal grants or loans they received during the pandemic.

The plan includes a host of small funds: $ 10 million to help educators of color obtain a license, $ 5 million for the state inspector general to create a public database to track federal funds, or $ 12 million to help resettle Afghan refugees. in Massachusetts.

The plan differs in many areas from what Baker proposed in the spring, when he asked for $ 1 billion for housing initiatives, an additional $ 1 billion for infrastructure projects and $ 240 million for programs. workforce development, among other funding rounds.

Under the House plan, $ 350 million would be spent on infrastructure and development, including $ 100 million to help the state’s marine and offshore wind development. Lawmakers said the state could potentially see another federal injection if Congress passed a $ 1 trillion infrastructure that has already authorized the US Senate.

Baker has also asked for a $ 1 billion injection for the UI trust, but House leaders are proposing half of that.

Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would extend the cost of what’s called a two-decade credit rating to cover $ 7 billion in unemployment benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But businesses had asked for more help to ease their burden, with a trade group representing small businesses saying the unemployment insurance system was in “crisis.”

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, Speaker of the House Budget, said legislative leaders, including in the Senate, accepted the $ 500 million contribution after reviewing 15 other states with similar deposits, which , he said, averaged half a billion dollars.

Combined with the tax break proposed by the bill, Michlewitz said he believed it was a “significant amount of money to help solve some of the problems the business community has been facing. “.

Baker, who has said he wants an invoice to reach his office by next month, said many parts of the invoice “thematically” line up with what he was looking for. But he declined to address several details of the bill beyond the $ 500 million UI proposal, saying he hopes it’s a place to start.

“The employer community was generally looking for more. We were too, ”said Baker.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said on Monday that lawmakers should do more to tackle what he called fraud and “government-triggered” layoffs during the pandemic.

“Small employers will be disappointed if this turns out to be the only government action,” Hurt said.

Lawmakers had taken a slower approach to appropriating the funds in recent months, moving billions into a segregated fund they control while holding a series of hearings to assess ideas on how to spend them.

In the meantime, they have set aside $ 200 million in federal aid for Baker to spend in the short term, with his administration devoting the vast majority to financially troubled hospitals, to fill staff shortages in psychiatric facilities for patients. hospitalized and invest in workforce development.

Almost $ 200 million also went to various locations: four communities that received significantly less than neighboring towns under the federal COVID-19 relief act received $ 109 million; $ 75 million has been budgeted for a COVID-19 leave program; and Baker administration officials used $ 10 million to pay for the state’s immunization lottery program.

The Chairs of the Legislative Assembly’s budget committees – Michlewitz and Senator Michael J. Rodrigues – said in a statement on Monday that the two chambers agreed to invest $ 500 million each in bonuses and the trust fund. special unemployment insurance, although any other difference would have to be negotiated. before an invoice reaches Baker.

Lawmakers have a lot of leeway when it comes to actually committing federal stimulus funds, which must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

Matt Stout can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @mattpstout.



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