Coronavirus spending bill sent to Baker
THE LEGISLATURE SENT Gov. Charlie Baker a $1.1 billion supplemental budget bill on Thursday, an indication of the staggering sums the state is spending responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 57-page bill also includes around $35 million –– 24 pages worth –– of local earmarks, inserted by lawmakers looking to help their constituents, mostly with coronavirus-related expenses.
While earmarks are a common part of state budgeting, the sheer volume of the earmarks included in the supplemental budget bill may be due to the lack of an annual budget, and a lack of state resources, which gives lawmakers fewer vehicles through which to get district projects funded. But it also means projects are getting funded in a more ad hoc way, rather than through standard budgeting channels.
Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the pandemic has created a lot of financial needs, and no one knows when the state budget will be passed. There is also likely a fear of future funding cuts, given the state’s dismal revenues. “People probably want to try to secure money so they’re putting it into the supp budget,” McAnneny said.
Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative advocacy group, noted that it is an election year. “They want to bring home their pet projects to their constituents in an election year…so they can look good and get some good press,” Craney said.
Baker has the authority to veto individual line items in a budget bill, and has at times used that authority to eliminate earmarks.
Most of the earmarks are for coronavirus-related expenses. Food pantries want money to distribute more goods, nonprofits want money to provide housing-related legal services or buy books for children, municipalities want to offer internet hotspots to students or upgrade technology to live-stream meetings. The earmarks include $250,000 for the troubled Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to buy personal protective equipment and make technological and infection control upgrades.
But the earmarks also address issues that are not unique to one town and could potentially be dealt with through broader statewide initiatives – health departments seeking money for contact tracing or coronavirus testing, schools seeking money for health and safety upgrades, and communities seeking money for masks and hand sanitizer.
Lawmakers have said previously that all the money appropriated by the bill is expected to be reimbursed by the federal government.
More broadly, the bill authorizes $1 billion that was actually spent in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30. This includes $350 million for personal protective equipment – a massive expense, which left Baker repeatedly frustrated with supply chain difficulties. There is $111.4 million for payments to hospitals and health care providers; $247 million to increase wages for front-line human service providers; $85 million for field hospitals; $44 million for community tracing efforts; and $81.6 million for various daycare and early childhood programs, among other expenditures.
Looking ahead, the bill contains some coronavirus-related money that will be needed in fiscal 2021, since lawmakers have yet to pass – or even propose –– a full-year budget for the year that started July 1. The state is still operating on a one-month budget.
That includes around $37 million for housing-related programs. While the state has a temporary eviction moratorium in place, that is set to expire next month and could result in a wave of evictions if tenants cannot catch up on back rent. The state created a new program to provide rental assistance to families at risk of becoming homeless.
Another $15 million will go toward food assistance programs, including meals for children. Other earmarks will go to early intervention services delivered via telehealth, an expansion of summer jobs for at-risk youth, small business grants, nonprofit grants, and assistance for those who are out of work.
There is also $5 million for Secretary of State William Galvin to send out applications for mail-in ballots for this year’s elections.
The budget bill would establish June 19, or Juneteenth, a day commemorating the abolition of slavery, as a state holiday.
It creates a public-private trust fund to benefit early education and care providers, who have faced enormous fiscal challenges due to the shutdowns and new guidelines governing how many children they can serve. It also requires the state to collect and make public information about COVID-19 cases among children in childcare.