Senate Matches Healey’s Tech Funding Ask
Thursday Debate Planned On Expanded Budget Bill
3/6/23 4:03 PM
MARCH 6, 2023.....Top Senate Democrats packed nearly $200 million more in borrowing into a House-approved spending bill, seeking to weave more matching funds for federal microelectronics grants into a measure responding to the emergency shelter crisis and a looming dropoff in food aid benefits.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday recommended a new draft (S 23) of a supplemental budget Gov. Maura Healey filed last month and teed it up for a vote Thursday.
Senators bumped up the bill's bottom line to $366.7 million plus $814.3 million in bonds, an increase over the $353 million appropriation and $635 million in borrowing the House approved last week, and in the process moved to include all of the money Healey sought to help Massachusetts compete for federal dollars newly available under the CHIPS and Science Act.
Both bills would deploy $130 million in state dollars to keep Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at an elevated level for a few months now that the federal government has ended a pandemic-era expansion. They would also steer $65 million toward preventing a universal school meals program from running out of money before the school year ends and $85 million to expanding emergency assistance shelter capacity amid a surge in demand.
Senators bulked up their proposal by dipping back into a separate, $987 million "immediate needs" bond bill Healey filed in January to fund housing and economic development programs, some of which the House wove into its version of the bill.
The Senate redraft calls for $200 million in borrowing to provide state matching funds for competitive federal technology and innovation grants, including programs available under the CHIPS and Science Act. Healey sought that money in her bond bill and has continued to tout it as a top priority, describing it as a way to build on the state's history of innovation.
"I don't want us to just be competitive. I want us to win. I want us to win these federal funds," Healey said last week. "We've led the nation for so long in technology and innovation, life sciences. We just have a history here, and I want us to continue to lead by winning. So it's not just about competing, it's actually winning."
A roughly similar line item in the House bill includes only $50 million, one-quarter of what Healey requested. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said last week the full amount, plus other money Healey sought that did not make it into the House's redrafted spending bill, "are certainly being considered for something potentially down the road, but we haven't gotten there yet."
Other additions to the Senate bill include $30 million in bonds to compete for federal broadband expansion grants and $7 million in spending on "coordinated wraparound services" such as medical screenings and legal referrals for new immigrants and refugees arriving in Massachusetts.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee dropped two other proposals from the House bill. One would direct $2 million to the NAACP Boston branch to prepare for the organization's national conference in Boston this summer, and the other would provide $1 million in community development grants for municipalities and regional groups.
Both the House and Senate versions also call for spending $1 million on a public awareness campaign about so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which opponents contend mask anti-abortion agendas by posing as reproductive health centers. The Legislature included a similar proposal in a massive economic development bill it sent former Gov. Charlie Baker in November.
Baker vetoed that funding, and lawmakers did not attempt an override.
"The information required to be published by this earmark is already publicly available from the state," Baker wrote at the time.
Like the bill the House approved, the Senate redraft would extend several popular pandemic-era policies. Public bodies, agencies and commissions would be allowed to hold their meetings remotely until March 31, 2025, two years later than the current expiration for that policy.
Both versions would authorize another year of expanded outdoor dining, pushing the expiration from April 1, 2023 to April 1, 2024, but the Senate spiked a House-approved section similarly extending by one year the ability for restaurants to sell takeout beer, wine and cocktails.
A Senate Ways and Means Committee summary said the redrafted bill would authorize notaries public who are physically located in Massachusetts "to conduct remote online notarization through the use of communication technology."
The Senate teed up its redrafted bill for consideration during a formal session Thursday. Amendments are due by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Lawmakers will need to resolve the differences in total bonding dollars and whether to keep to-go alcohol in place for another year before they can send a final bill to Healey, who called for prompt action when she filed the baseline time-sensitive spending on Jan. 30.
While they work to plug short-term holes with state dollars, legislative leaders are grappling with big questions over how much they should commit to replacing pandemic-era federal aid programs that are expiring or shrinking.
"We have to be mindful of the fact that the economic picture is changing, and we're going to be expected to pick up a lot of programs that people are used to having," House Speaker Ron Mariano said last week. "The problem is going to be: we may not be able to afford them."
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