Governor welcomes state aid from feds
CASH-STRAPPED MASSACHUSETTS residents may need to hold on for at least another month until help comes from Washington. US Rep. Richard Neal, appearing at a State House briefing Monday afternoon with Gov. Charlie Baker, said the next federal COVID-19 relief package is expected to pass the House “in the second or third week of March.”
Neal joined Gov. Charlie Baker at a State House Press conference on Monday afternoon, and outlined the details of what he calls the “stability” bill.
“I often hear people say stimulus. This is about stability,” said Neal, emphasizing how crucial the legislation will be to struggling families.
The chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee said President Biden is set on keeping the $1.9 trillion price tag for the package, which will include $1,400 checks intended to supplement $600 the federal government sent out to individuals in December. A blueprint of the bill will be released by the committee Monday evening.
According to Neal, a Springfield Democrat, three quarters of Americans polled support the package, although Republicans are working to lower its cost. Neal said he prefers bipartisanship on the bill, but said “speed is of the essence“ and that he supports Biden’s plan for a large price tag.
“We intend to go big,” said Neal, adding that the Ways and Means Committee will draft $941 billion of the bill between Wednesday and Friday of this week. Neal said the Cares Act saved the American economy last year, and a significant new aid package is crucial.
He set April 1 as the day that Americans should begin to feel financial relief.
One issue still in play is possible income restrictions on who gets stimulus checks. Neal said Biden is considering whether people with incomes over $65,000 should qualify.
The Democratic plan would establish an enhanced child tax credit that would provide families with $3,600 per child under six, and $3,000 for those 6 to 17, split into monthly payments of about $300 for a full year.
Baker and Neal both emphasized the importance of new federal aid to state and local government.
The bill would give $350 billion to state and local governments to help with COVID-19 related issues. Republicans are trying to eliminate that in a counter proposal, but Biden hasn’t budged.
Baker said state finances are “feeling the burden” of the pandemic, noting that state tax revenue for the year has been unpredictable, and that his proposed budget has a smaller bottom line than the previous fiscal year’s budget. The budget Baker filed in January uses $1.6 billion from the state’s rainy day fund, a drawdown that he hopes can be tempered by an infusion of federal aid.
“There are still substantial financial challenges we face as a Commonwealth and that other states across the country are facing as well,” Baker said, “It would be critical from our point of view for Congress to pass significant relief swiftly to help us beat down the pandemic, and just as importantly, get our economy back on track.”
The $900 billion COVID-19 relief package passed in December contained no financial aid for state and local governments after that provision was axed by congressional Republicans.
The recovery package will include funds for a national vaccination program.
In responding recently to criticism of the state’s vaccine effort, Baker has placed blame on the limited federal allocation of vaccines and how much advance notice the state gets of the size of its weekly allocation.
As of Monday, 859,118 COVID vaccines have been administered in the state, and 1.25 million doses shipped to providers.
Asked what’s been missing in the vaccine rollout, Neal said money and “greater coordination” with states and local government. Massachusetts ranks in the bottom half of the country in terms of shots administered per capita, and was plagued by complaints about its scheduling website for people over 75 when it went live. The state has since launched a telephone hotline for seniors to use to schedule appointments.
Neal said Biden intends to get 300 million people vaccinated by summer, noting that 35 million people had received shots as of last Thursday, the same day the country reached its single–day high of 2 million vaccinated.
The relief bill also includes $130 billion intended to improve education, funds for food insecurity and housing assistance, business relief, and a boost in unemployment monies. Current unemployment benefits expire March 14, and would need to be extended by Congress through legislation.
Neal said the bill would include a supplemental boost of $300 to $400 a week in unemployment benefits.
“While hundreds of thousands of residents have returned to work over the last few months, there are still way too many people out of work through no fault of their own,” Baker said.
Massachusetts is down 330,000 jobs from this time last year, although the unemployment numbers have improved since last spring, Baker said.
The Cares Act was passed in March 2020, and the next stimulus package wasn’t approved until December due to resistance from Senate Republicans. That meant some unemployment benefits expired, said Neal. He attributes some of the economic slowdown to the time between the two economic relief packages.