House Panel Extending Outdoor Dining In $1.6 Bil Proposal

State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy

House Dems Drop Several Of Baker’s Priorities

With state tax revenues crushing expectations but geopolitical turmoil creating economic uncertainty, the House on Wednesday will debate a $1.6 billion mid-year spending bill that would pour $700 million into COVID-19 controls like testing and vaccinations and extend relief to restaurants by allowing expanded outdoor dining options and to-go cocktail service to continue through next spring.

The bill represents a slimmed down version of what Gov. Charlie Baker filed last month and excludes $450 million that the governor proposed to extend stabilization grants for child care providers through the next fiscal year.

The House bill also nixed Baker’s proposal to put $50 million into the recruitment, training and salaries of guardians ad litem within the court system. The governor wants to mandate the use of the child advocates in every alleged case of child abuse or neglect in response to the disappearance of 7-year-old Harmony Montgomery, a child who had been in the care of the Department of Children and Families but went missing in New Hampshire after a Massachusetts court gave custody to her father, who had a long criminal history.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday morning polled a redrafted version of the governor’s bill (H 4479) in preparation for a debate on Wednesday afternoon when the House has a formal session planned.

While Baker’s bill proposed $2.4 billion in spending at a net cost of $1.6 billion to the state, the bill prepared by House leadership trimmed the bottom line to $1.6 billion at a cost of $842 million to the state.

The bill includes the $700 million requested by Baker for COVID-19 pandemic-related expenses, including $432.7 million for tests, $72 million for treatments, $45.4 million for expanded vaccine access, $25 million for personal protective equipment and $124 million for related future workforce costs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is projected to reimburse more than $440 million of those expenses.

The House bill also proposes to spend an additional $100 million to repair local roads from winter damage, $100 million in rental assistance, $55 million for rate increases for human service providers, $10 million to support the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees and $140 million to support staffing and program needs at private special education schools.

House officials said Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz chose to focus spending in the bill on fiscal year 2022 needs, and views other requests by the governor, such as $60 million for counseling, advocacy and intervention services for victims of crime until federal Victims of Crime Act resources are restored, as issues that would be more appropriately addressed in the annual fiscal 2023 budget.

After posting a surplus in fiscal year 2021, the state has continued to see strong revenue growth throughout fiscal year 2022, and collections are currently outpacing revenue projections through February by more than $1 billion, even after the Baker administration upgraded estimates by $1.5 billion.

With special pandemic authorization for outdoor dining set to expire on April 1, the House bill would extend that program through April 1, 2023. The state’s permission for restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails for take-out is also set to expire this spring, and the bill would extend that authorization from May 1 to April 1, 2023.

Baker proposed the use of guardians ad litem in all DCF cases that go before a judge as an “important way to make sure that the interests of the child are best represented when they’re in court,” but top House officials said they were bothered that the “best interest of the child” standard used by the court advocates can perpetuate systemic racism.

One senior House Democratic official, who asked to speak on background only, said Speaker Ron Mariano does not believe the supplemental budget is the “right vehicle” to address reforms within the Department of Children and Families or the courts, and indicated the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities is working on a “more comprehensive” approach.

That same House official said Baker’s proposed funding to extend Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) stabilization grants for child care providers through fiscal year 2023 would benefit private-pay child care centers without prioritizing the state’s most vulnerable children. Furthermore, it would rely on one-time federal resources that could create a “cliff effect” when the money runs out.

“The Education Committee and the Early Education & Care Economic Review Commission will soon make recommendations to expand access to high-quality, affordable early education and childcare in an equitable manner. We will use those recommendations as a framework moving forward,” the official emailed.

House leaders did support Baker’s recommendation to exempt recipients of COVID-19 bonus checks from paying personal income tax on the premium pay.

The Legislature last year created a $500 million bonus-pay program for low-income workers with state funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, and the administration said last month that the first round of $500 checks would be mailed to about 500,000 low-income workers by the end of March.

The income tax exemption would cost the state an estimated $16 million.

Secretary of State William Galvin is also seeking $5 million, which was not included in the House bill, as a downpayment on the $26.6 million he says he will be needed to cover the costs of printing ballots, producing mail-in ballot applications, postage, extended polling hours and envelopes for the November elections. The Legislature has yet to finalize legislation that would permanently authorize voting-by-mail and other election reforms.