The Massachusetts State Senate on Thursday passed a $1.65 billion supplemental budget for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). The legislation makes investments in the state’s long-term COVID-19 response; addresses staffing shortages in schools; provides support for home and community-based services, assistance and protections for families experiencing housing and energy insecurity; funds winter road improvements; extends outdoor dining services as well as beer, wine and cocktails to-go, and provides for the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees in Massachusetts. Notably, the bill also would divest the state pension fund from Russian assets in response to the Russian war in Ukraine.
“The Massachusetts economy has significantly outperformed expectations over the past few years, and it is because of our hardworking residents that we are in a position to make significant investments in this supplemental budget across education, housing, healthcare, energy, and infrastructure,” said State Senator Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth).
Despite bipartisan support, the Senate rejected an amendment (11 in favor – 29 opposed) put forward by Senator O’Connor and the Senate GOP that would have suspended collection of the 24-cent gas tax through September 5th. The amendment also would have given the Department of Revenue 30 days to notify the state comptroller how much tax revenue was lost during that period, and then allow the comptroller to transfer an equal sum to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to replace any lost revenue. According to the most recent AAA report, Massachusetts gas prices are averaging $4.26 per gallon.
“At a time when we have record inflation and gas prices have risen dramatically due to international conflict, I believe we had an opportunity to give back to those same people that have made our economy strong by temporarily suspending the gas tax,” said O’Connor. “With almost two-thirds of the U.S. population living paycheck-to-paycheck, those few dollars saved at the pump could make a big difference in a household budget. States across the nation – red states, blue states, and purple states – are taking action on this issue and I’ll continue to work with my colleagues to provide relief from high gas prices.”
Responding to COVID-19
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and ensure robust preparation in the event of a future variant outbreak, the bill invests $700 million for the state’s COVID-19 response. This funding would ensure the continued no-cost availability of crucial services offered to residents during the pandemic, including on-site testing, vaccinations, and treatment, as well as public health staffing needs resulting from COVID-19.
To further protect families facing housing challenges, the supplemental budget extends through March 2023 several protections for tenants experiencing COVID-19-related financial hardship, including extending the requirement that a court grant a continuance in an eviction case for nonpayment of rent when the tenant has a pending rental assistance application.
The supplemental budget also extends popular pandemic-related provisions including outdoor dining services, and beer, wine and cocktails to-go through April 2023. The legislation also extends COVID-19 related bonuses for members of the Massachusetts National Guard.
Responding to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
The supplemental budget responds to the Russian Federation’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent violence against Ukrainian civilians. An amendment unanimously adopted on the floor of the Senate requires the Commonwealth's Pension Reserves Investment Management (PRIM) Board to divest any holdings from companies officially sanctioned by the Biden administration or incorporated in Russia. The supplemental budget also allocates $10 million for the Office of Immigrants and Refugees to support the resettlement of international evacuees, including Ukrainian evacuees.
Housing and Energy Assistance
The supplemental budget includes several provisions relating to housing stability and support for individuals currently experiencing or near homelessness. The Senate proposal includes $100 million for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program which provides eligible families with funds that they can use to keep their housing or obtain new housing. One amendment added to the budget on the Senate floor would increase the cap of the RAFT program to $10,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year. Another amendment clarifies existing law to ensure that in all eviction cases where the only valid reason for the eviction is nonpayment of rent, that the tenant has access to protections. The supplemental budget also dedicates $20 million to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides crucial assistance to families facing high utility bills. To increase oversight, the bill also directs the department of housing and community development to make detailed quarterly reports on the state's eviction diversion initiative.
The supplemental budget allocates $2.8 million for rates at shelters for homeless individuals and also ensures that down payment assistance funds received from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency or the Massachusetts Housing Partnership will not be considered taxable income.
Health Care & Mental Health
The bill allocates $346 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding for Home- and Community-Based Services (HCBS) resources to ensure that eligible Medicaid users throughout the Commonwealth are able to receive health care and medical services in their own homes or local communities. Alongside this investment, the bill also appropriates $55 million in state resources to support reimbursement rates for human and social service providers that have also been doing crucial work during the pandemic. To address the crisis of mental health care, the bill also dedicates $10 million to suicide prevention and intervention services, focused on staffing and other resources at crisis centers, and the establishment of a statewide 988 suicide prevention hotline.
An amendment adopted to the supplemental budget allocates $24 million of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds specifically for the creation of new behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment beds.
In response to reports of staffing shortages in public schools, the supplemental budget includes a provision authorizing the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to issue emergency educator licenses until 180 days after the end of the public health emergency. For private special education schools operating under Chapter 766, the budget allocates $140 million to fill immediate staffing needs.
Other funding items of note include:
- $100 million for a new Winter Road Recovery Assistance Program for cities and towns to repair potholes and roads and bridges worn down by adverse weather conditions.
- $20 million for Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) funding which supports no-cost counseling, advocacy, and intervention services to victims of crime, thereby covering the immediate needs of the Victim and Witness Assistance Board as they are experiencing a shortage of federal funding
- $10 million for Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC)
- $8.4 million for Department of Children and Families foster family rates
- $8 million for Early Intervention staff stabilization supports
- $5 million for state election costs
- $5 million for the Department of Mental Health to expand clientele housing supports
- $1.8 million for mental health services for international evacuees resettled in the Commonwealth
- $1.7 million for state park investments, including water safety initiatives
- $609,000 for additional staffing to implement the Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy legislation, which was passed early in the session
- $500,000 to expand the capacity of the Commission on the Status of Women
A version of this legislation having previously passed the House of Representatives, the differences will need to be worked out by the branches before advancing to the Governor’s desk.