In Newsletters, The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

Greetings all,

I write with big news about public health and American Rescue Plan Act funds. 

On Wednesday, the Senate voted to pass S.2564 – An Act relative to immediate COVID-19 recovery needs, which allocates close to four billion dollars worth of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and surplus FY21 revenue funds. I write to take you through what’s in this bill, tell you where my team and I focused, and share what’s next.

Let me say first that our district’s advocacy for the priorities of our people made ALL the difference. You are active, smart, passionate — and loud enough to be heard in Boston. Bravo!

Work is underway right now to reconcile this Senate bill with the House’s version. And while I’m delighted about some major wins in the Senate’s bill, I also congratulate House colleagues on their powerful work, including a much higher funding level for public higher education, which I’ll be fighting for in the final bill.

Local and Regional Public Health

I’ve written to you previously about the challenges facing our local public health system, and about the work of advocates, legislators, and local health officials to provoke strategic state action on the recommendations of the Special Commission on Local and Regional Public Health.

That action came on Wednesday morning, when the Senate began its debate of ARPA amendments by considering an amendment I had filed, #320 – Transform Local and Regional Public Health. I spoke about the need for a transformation in the Commonwealth’s system of local public health. You can view my remarks here. The amendment was based closely upon the State Action for Public Health Excellence legislation (SAPHE 2.0) which I filed with Representatives Denise Garlick and Hannah Kane. The amendment language can be viewed here.

If enacted into law, this language would mean that a person’s zip code would not determine what public health protections they are afforded. It would mean that when another pandemic comes, our municipal officials will be better prepared. It would mean that we’d set public health standards for communities for the first time, coupled with state support for local public health work, now and going forward.

Advocacy from our region was key to making this transformation possible, as well as a commensurate transformational financial investment (read on, below).

$250.9 million for local and regional public health

This ARPA financial investment works with the legislative language to transform the way our Commonwealth delivers local public health services. Funds will provide direct aid to communities with the least ability to meet minimum public health standards, enact workforce development and training initiatives, and transform public health data systems. 

This funding will be expended over five years and once this funding is gone, the state will need to continue to provide funding so that municipalities can meet and deliver nationally-recognized public health standards and protections.

This investment is part of a broader $1 billion investment in the legislation to support the state’s healthcare system and confront the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

$7.5 million for regional storm damage disaster relief in partnership with Sen. Adam Hinds

In July, municipalities in Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester, and Berkshire counties were hit by severe rainstorms that caused over one million dollars in damages in certain towns. Franklin and Berkshire counties exceeded the damage cost threshold necessary to trigger Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding reimbursements, however because other counties did not meet the damage threshold, FEMA reimbursement was not triggered and municipalities received no federal funding for expenses incurred due to storm damage. 

Here, again, I want to thank the local officials who invited me to their communities to see the damage first-hand, tracked costs, submitted expenses, saved receipts, and made sure that I knew about the impact of this disaster and disaster response on their already stretched municipal budgets. You can see me talk about this here.

In the days and weeks leading up to the debate, I worked with Sen. Adam Hinds to ensure that Senate leadership understood the enormous costs facing small western Massachusetts towns that would otherwise need to borrow and incur interest payments as a result of this storm. In the end, our advocacy was successful, and an amendment filed by Sen. Hinds, which I co-sponsored and we both fought hard for, was adopted to secure $7.5 million in reimbursements for towns impacted by these storms. Deeply grateful for Adam’s leadership and our strong bond for our region:

$1.5 million for the Water & Energy Testing (WET) Facility at UMass Amherst

Water and sewer infrastructure is one of the top needs in the Commonwealth given the way it restricts economic development in our region and given the need for potable water. This bill invests $175 million in water and sewer infrastructure, which will flow through existing state programs to municipalities. My job will be to ensure that western Massachusetts gets our fair share of this funding.

I also hear from constituents weekly with concerns about drinking water contamination. I was able to secure an amendment for the Water Energy & Testing (WET) Facility at UMass Amherst. The WET Facility provides statewide water testing services, including conducting PFAS sampling for the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) free Private Well Testing program. Unfortunately, right now the WET Facility cannot take on any additional research efforts given significant space constraints at its current facility. Plans have been developed for expanding the WET Facility’s space to allow for additional water research, and this funding will help to kick start that expansion.

Expend funding for healthy soils carbon sequestration solutions

The bill also includes $125 million in funding for environmental infrastructure, summarized below. I wanted to ensure that some of this money could be expended for healthy soils solutions. Last session, a bill I filed to establish a Healthy Soils program was passed into law, and because this amendment was adopted, ARPA funds can now be spent for this purpose.

$1 million for regional and district priorities

I filed a number of additional amendments seeking to fund critical needs in the district. Many were successful (but some were not). The amendments that were successful secured direct spending to our district, including:

  • $370,000 for Rural Development Inc. to develop more affordable housing in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region
  • $221,500 for the Franklin County Regional Housing & Redevelopment Authority to repair, renovate, and improve affordable housing in Orange and Bernardston and support the Greenfield Housing Authority and Gardner Athol Area Mental Health Association’s operation of Winslow House in Greenfield
  • $128,500 for supportive housing for homeless individuals with complex needs in Northampton
  • $100,000 for the Town of Bernardston for municipal needs
  • $100,000 for the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District
  • $30,000 for Community Action’s Three County Continuum of Care to operate a domestic violence-related housing search program
  • $25,000 for Craig’s Doors in Amherst to prevent homelessness 
  • $25,000 for the Center for Human Development to prevent homelessness in the Greenfield area

Let me say thank you to Pamela Schwartz of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness for her sage counsel on sheltering and housing priorities, as well as all the providers working day and night in our region. Let this funding be a down payment on much larger funding from state agencies which we’ll work together to bring home.

Some brief, additional highlights of the Senate’s ARPA bill include:

Economic Recovery and Workforce Development 

The Senate’s ARPA spending plan invests $1.7 billion to support workers, businesses, and communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

  • $500 million towards premium pay bonuses for essential workers, up to $2,000 per worker, providing much needed relief to the workforce who served on the front lines during the pandemic,
  • $200 million in tax relief for small-business owners who otherwise would be required to pay personal income taxes on state or federal relief money, and
  • $500 million for the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, providing necessary relief to small businesses. 
Housing 

The spending plan acknowledges the critical role that housing plays in economic recovery. Over a year and a half into the pandemic, access to stable and affordable housing remains at the forefront of the state’s strategy to ensure economic security for those who call the Commonwealth home. The ARPA spending bill allocates $600 million for investments in affordable, accessible housing, as well as supportive housing. Housing investments include: 

  • $150 million for supportive housing, including $75 million for individuals who are chronically homeless, and $20 million, added by amendment, to increase geographic equity and accessibility related to the continuum of long-term care services for veterans not primarily served by the Soldiers’ Homes in Chelsea or Holyoke,
  • $150 million for public housing authorities to maintain and upgrade existing infrastructure, and
  • $125 million for affordable rental housing production and preservation for the workforce and low- and moderate-income individuals.  
Climate Preparedness 

The Senate bill invests $450 million to combat climate change through mitigation initiatives, strengthen environmental infrastructure and fix aging water infrastructure. Environment and climate investments include: 

  • $15 million for parks and recreational assets, 
  • $10 million for clean energy retrofitting in affordable housing units, 
  • $7.5 million, added by an amendment which I supported, for community colleges to help train underserved populations for green jobs, 
  • $175 million for water and sewer infrastructure investments through the Clean Water Trust, and 
  • $125 million for environmental infrastructure grants, including the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program.   
What else?

The following are a few more highlights of the Senate bill. Once there is a final bill that has been reconciled with the House’s version, I will send that text as well.

  • $10 million added by amendment for regional tourism councils,
  • $14 million for agricultural economy supports,
  • $60 million for food security infrastructure,
  • $75 million for equitable and affordable broadband access and infrastructure improvements to close the digital divide, and
  • $75 million for Mass Cultural Council grants to support the cultural sector.
What’s next?!

The House of Representatives passed similar legislation to allocate ARPA funding on October 29 and now the differences in the bills passed by the House and Senate must be reconciled before final legislation can be sent to the Governor. The goal is to get a final bill to the Governor’s desk next week.

When this current ARPA work is complete, the state will still have about $2 billion in ARPA funds left to spend. As we head into the new year, the Fiscal Year 23 budget process will begin. President Biden also recently signed an infrastructure bill which is estimated to send around $12 billion in infrastructure funding to Massachusetts. You can be sure I’ll fight for our district’s needs at every twist and turn, all along the way.

Up next for the Senate: Mental health. Legislation called the Mental Health ABC act is coming to the floor of the Senate and the deadline to file amendments is today.

Please know it is a deep honor to work on behalf of our beautiful district. We send our love to you,

Jo, Jared, Brian, Elena, Sam, and Cameron

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