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Lawmakers detail ARPA priorities

Payments for low-income workers in the mix

Anna Lamb

The Massachusetts House of Representatives voted last week to approve HB 4219 — a comprehensive $3.82 billion spending plan aimed at aiding industries and individuals impacted by COVID-19.

The funds available to lawmakers are a combination of money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and state surplus from last year, which House leaders have proposed spending on initiatives including small business relief, child care, housing, climate, environmental programs and education. Originally a $3.65 billion plan, days of behind-the-scenes negotiating added an additional $174 million to the bottom line before passing 159-0 Friday evening.

Over 1,000 amendments were added to the original outline, then lumped into four enormous “consolidated amendments” that took nearly two days to pass.

Notably, a large chunk of the bill’s spending comes in the form of a $500 million “premium pay program” that would put money directly into the pockets of low-income essential workers who continued their jobs throughout the pandemic. Each worker would receive bet ween $500 and $2,000, depending on how many people are eligible.

Low-income workers who earn up to 300% of the federal poverty limit and who worked in-person throughout the governor’s state of emergency will be able to apply.

“A consistent theme we heard from these hearings was the need for this one-time revenue to go towards areas and communities that have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, told his colleagues Thursday. “These communities were hardest hit by COVID, and it is only appropriate that the lens in which we view these funds be towards filling the needs of these communities.”

The bill comes months after the state received ARPA funding, kicking off debate on what the money would be best spent on. Lawmakers have been in no rush to roll out their plan, however, citing an ongoing crisis with complex impacts.

“We truly took our time to meet with people and be thoughtful. And I think that’s reflected in this bill,” said state Rep. Daniel Hunt, chair of the House federal stimulus committee. He went on to praise House Speaker Ronald Mariano, saying, “I thank you for being deliberate in this process, Mr. Speaker. It gave us a better bill.”

Hunt, in his address to the house floor, said lawmakers have heard more than 1,200 pieces of testimony relating to expenditure.

Other notable spending as part of the House bill comes in the form of almost $900 million in economic development spending, including a $500 million unemployment fund to offset the assessments charged towards employers. More than $90 million was added during the amendment process.

Another large piece of the pie is the more than $600 million allotment for various housing spending, including $11 million in additional funds added after the amendment process. HB 4219 includes several large expenditures for home buying programs, affordable housing, supportive housing and improvements to public housing.

The bill also sets forth $400 million for environmental and climate spending for resiliency projects, water and sewer upgrades, targeted investments in gateway cities and in parks and recreation facilities; $250 million for hospitals; $125 million for “cultural and tourism aspects” and $70 million for struggling nursing homes.

For education, around $300 million is being put toward school repairs and the installation of HVAC air filters in schools and other building upgrades.

The proposal also includes $200 million in tax breaks for small businesses that paid personal income taxes on state or federal relief awards over the last year and a half.

Senate leaders, who have already agreed to make the unemployment funding and bonus payments key features of their bill, now have the responsibility of coming up with their own spending plan before a finalized version can make its way to the governor’s desk. It’s unclear when that may happen, though lawmakers technically have more time under the federal law to commit ARPA funds. Under the agreement with Washington, officials have until 2024 to commit the federal stimulus funds and until the end of 2026 to spend them.

Formal legislative sessions end for the year on Nov. 17.