COVID spending bill grows to $101m, passes within hours

Testing, mask money quickly heads to Baker’s desk

A $55 MILLION COVID-related spending bill ballooned into a $101 million bill under an agreement reached between House and Senate negotiators, which lawmakers sent to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk just hours after the compromise was announced.  

Initially, the House had proposed spending $55 million on expanding COVID testing sites, increasing vaccination rates among children, and buying high-quality masks for public schools. The Senate increased the size of the bill to approximately $75 million, with more money earmarked for vaccine education and community health centers, and a provision sending masks to health care workers and schools.  

The final bill includes both bodies’ priorities, plus another $25 million to continue the state’s COVID-19 paid sick leave program. 

In a joint statement issued Thursday morning, House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said the bill that emerged from negotiations “directs $101 million to address critical, time-sensitive needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The House and Senate took the bill up immediately on Thursday in informal sessions, giving lawmakers little time to review it. Most informal sessions are lightly attended, and roll call votes are not taken. The opposition of a single senator can derail a bill’s passage.  

Michlewitz and Rodrigues said in their statement, “We appreciate the input we have received from so many of our respective colleagues throughout this process and we look forward to getting this bill to the Governor’s desk today to ensure these emergency response funds and important policy measures can take effect immediately.” 

The House passed the bill without discussion.  

In the Senate, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr raised concerns that the bill had been negotiated informally by Michlewitz and Rodrigues, without a full conference committee. “I am concerned with transparency and the ability for members and the public to read the contents of the bill — the spending amount of which has increased considerably,” Tarr said during debate. After Tarr called a half-hour recess to review the bill, senators returned and passed it without opposition.  

House Minority Leader Brad Jones said in an email that the bill was previously debated and approved unanimously in both the House and the Senate, so members are familiar with its broad parameters. The one new item was the paid sick leave appropriation, which was agreed to in consultation with the Baker administration. Jones said there is some check on the process, since Baker has line-item veto power over a budget bill. “The bill is narrowly drawn to address many critical COVID-related needs, so I have no objections to letting the bill proceed in an informal session, knowing that Governor Baker retains the power to veto or amend sections of the bill should any concerns arise,” Jones said.  

The compromise was announced around 10:45 a.m. and sent to the governor soon after 2:30 p.m., according to a State House News Service transcript of the proceedings. 

The 33-page spending bill contains $50 million for COVID testing. This includes traditional PCR testing at community health centers, urgent care centers, and other locations. It also covers buying rapid tests for schools, nursing homes, homeless shelters, home health care workers, and small businesses.  

That line item earmarks $5 million to increase vaccinations among children, $5 million for community health centers to run testing and vaccine clinics in communities with low vaccination rates, and $7 million to assist community groups in vaccine outreach. It requires state officials to work with arts and cultural organizations to develop vaccine education campaigns. It also requires the state to develop and implement a vaccine equity plan focused on distributing vaccines in minority, low-income, and immigrant communities. Staffing has become a barrier to expanding vaccination and testing sites, and the bill directs the public health department to create a list of volunteers who can administer vaccines. 

Another $25 million is set aside for buying and distributing masks to school children and faculty, nursing home staff and residents, early intervention workers, and homeless shelters. The state already has a stockpile of personal protective equipment, and this provides money to buy more masks for more people.  For example, the state currently distributes masks to teachers, but not students. 

The bill also requires state health officials to post publicly on a website guidance on mask usage, including the protection different types of masks provide from COVID-19. It requires officials to regularly post and update information about guidelines related to COVID-19 testing, quarantines, and isolation periods. 

In addition, lawmakers added $25 million to recapitalize the state’s COVID-19 paid sick leave program, which requires employers to give their workers paid time off for COVID-related reasons and reimburses them.  

Lawmakers also added $1 million to support what Rodrigues and Michlewitz called “a robust information and awareness campaign” about the unemployment overpayment waiver process. The Department of Unemployment Assistance accidentally overpaid around $2.7 billion in unemployment benefits and is now asking recipients to repay the money. People can appeal, and individuals with financial hardship can request a waiver. This money would raise awareness of those processes. The bill also requires state officials to report in detail on the extent of the overpayments and how cases were resolved.  

Many of the bill’s expenditures are likely to be reimbursed by the federal government. 

The bill also extends various COVID-related policies, including allowing notarizations by videoconference; letting retired public employees do COVID-related work without affecting their pensions; relaxing quorum requirements for town meetings and allowing virtual town meetings; authorizing remote corporate board meetings; and allowing remote mortgage counseling. 

The bill creates some liability from civil lawsuits for health care professionals performing COVID-related duties, as long as they are acting legally and in good faith and the actions were not due to gross negligence or recklessness. 

The bill sets September 6, 2022 as the date for this year’s state primary. Once the bill becomes law, candidates can begin collecting signatures to get on the ballot. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Paul Craney, a spokesperson for Mass Fiscal Alliance, a conservative-leaning advocacy group that has been critical of the legislative process, said it is “par for the course” for the Legislature to pass a budget bill in informal sessions with minimal notice, while the State House is still closed to the public. “They have a reputation that they constantly live up to of being the most opaque civic body in America,” Craney said. “It really can’t get much worse than it is.” 

This is not the first time the final version of a budget bill has passed in informal sessions. In December 2021, the Legislature passed a $4 billion compromise American Rescue Plan Act spending bill in lightly attended informal sessions. But, as the State House News Service reported, that was a slightly longer process. That bill was released from a committee Wednesday evening, voted on in the House Thursday, then the Senate Friday.