Yesterday, the Senate passed a comprehensive $4.4 billion economic development bill that invests equitably in local communities and in people across the Commonwealth.
I was proud to secure 11 amendments to the bill totaling $1 million in appropriations and $4 million in bonding authorizations. The bill that came to the Senate floor also included multiple provisions from An Act Supporting the Commonwealth’s Farmers, which I filed at the start of the two-year session. During debate, a bill I filed was also adopted as an amendment to scale back the Commonwealth’s Medicaid estate recovery requirements to the federal minimum, a win for hundreds of thousands of MassHealth recipients over the age of 55.
Policy wins to support western Massachusetts farmers
The provisions in the bill that I initially filed with Rep. Blais as An Act Supporting the Commonwealth’s Farmers include sections to create a circuit rider position within the Department of Agricultural Resources, who will make visits to farms at no-cost to enable more farmers to take advantage of state grants and resources and to help farmers better navigate the policies that regulate their industry. Another provision allows farmers to operate microbusinesses on land in horticultural use without increasing their tax burden. Additionally, the bill changes the deadlines for farmers to apply for active use taxation programs so that farmers are not required to complete applications to have their farms or forests taxed as farms or forests during their busiest seasons. A final provision from An Act Supporting the Commonwealth’s Farmers which was included in the bill creates a commission on agricultural equity which is tasked with making recommendations on generating greater equity through the policies, programs and investments that regulate and support agriculture in the Commonwealth.
I spoke to these provisions during debate.
Major policy win for people receiving MassHealth benefits
Among the policy amendments adopted was one I filed, which was similar to the text of An Act protecting the homes of seniors and disabled people on MassHealth, a bill I share with Rep. Christine Barber. Under current law, when people who received MassHealth benefits over age 55 die, their heirs are responsible for paying back to the state the value of the health care benefits they received. My amendment will scale back Massachusetts’ so-called estate recovery provisions to the federally required minimum. The MassHealth estate recovery law affects seniors, people living with disabilities, and the lowest income Massachusetts residents, often requiring the sale of the family home to pay back the unexpected health care bill the family receives after a loved one passes away.
I would like to see the federal government end all estate recovery, permanently. We don’t demand repayment for benefits received through any other social safety net program, so why do we do it for Medicaid? However, until the federal government eliminates this policy, or better yet, we move to a single payer health care system, I am pleased that we are one step away from scaling back the state’s estate recovery policy to the absolute minimum.
Bringing funding home
Among the funding earmarks I secured are the following Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district priorities:
- $275,000 for repairs due to storm and fire damage at Smith Vocational High School
- $200,000 for municipal school infrastructure improvements in the town of Shutesbury
- $200,000 for the Massachusetts Food Trust Program based out of the Franklin County CDC
- $175,000 for the Collaborative for Educational Services for a diverse teacher initiative
- $100,000 for Baystate Health’s new Family Medicine Residency Program in Greenfield
- $1 million bond authorization for a school-based health center at Smith Vocational High School
- $1 million bond authorization for affordable housing in the town of Athol
- $1 million bond authorization for improvements to Avenue A in the town of Montague
- $1 million bond authorization for a performance shell in downtown Amherst
The bill includes a broad-based tax relief package that will result in permanently lower taxes for many households, as well as rebates for hundreds of thousands of residents who are grappling with inflation and rising costs. The bill also includes investment in health care, housing, early education, agriculture, and tourism – a full summary of the bill is below.
The House passed its economic development bill earlier this month. A conference committee will now be appointed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.
This legislation includes $501 million in comprehensive tax relief for lower-and middle-income families, children, seniors, and renters and $510 million in one-time payments to middle-income filers. Notably, $250 in direct relief payments would be sent in September 2022 to all single-filing taxpayers who earned between $38,000 and $100,000 in 2021, and $500 would be sent to married couples who earned between $38,000 and $150,000 that same year. Businesses would see relief through an investment of $100 million in the state’s Unemployment Compensation Fund.
The bill would further provide permanent tax relief by:
- Increasing state matching of the earned income tax credit (EITC) from 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the federal credit, which supports low-income families
- Increasing existing child and dependent tax credits from $180 to $310 per child or dependent and removing the cap on the number of eligible children and dependents
- Increasing the rental deduction cap from $3,000 to $4,000, supporting renters
- Increasing the senior circuit breaker tax credit cap from $1,170 to $2,340, supporting senior citizens and individuals who care for them
- Exempting estates valued under $2,000,000 from the estate tax and eliminating the ‘tax cliff’ by establishing a uniform credit of $99,600
The bill invests $965 million for health and humans services programs, including:
- $400 million for hospitals that have become fiscally strained during the pandemic
- $250 million for rate increases for human service providers
- $195 million for nursing facilities and rest homes
- $80 million for Community Health Centers
- $22.5 million to reduce gun violence and related trauma throughout the Commonwealth, including:
- $5 million for a grant program to support school safety infrastructure improvements
- $2.5 million to provide behavioral health-related supports and resources in schools to reduce instances of gun violence
- $17.5 million for reproductive and family planning services
It also invests $610 million for environmental and climate resiliency initiatives, including:
- $150 million for the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust
- $125 million for the conservation and improvement of publicly owned lands, and otherwise conserved lands
- $125 million for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to accelerate the transition to and expansion of renewable energy
- $100 million to promote and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, through the MOR-EV program as well as expanded electric vehicle charging infrastructure
It further invests $400 million for promoting the production of affordable housing, including:
- $150 million to support the production of workforce housing
- $150 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund
- $100 million for the CommonWealth Builder Program
The bill also includes a significant investment of $150 million for early education and care providers through the continuation of the Commonwealth Cares for our Children (C3) stabilization grant program.
The bill also creates a new scholarship program, funded at $50 million, to promote the attainment of debt-free higher education for students pursuing careers in high-demand industries, such as health care, education, and cybersecurity.
The bill authorizes $1.4 billion in capital expenditures, including:
- $400 million for the MassWorks Infrastructure Program, which provides grants to municipalities and other public entities for infrastructure project
- $373 million for the Massachusetts Technology Park Corporation (MassTech), which strengthens the competitiveness of the tech and innovation economy in Massachusetts by driving strategic investments and partnerships, including:
- $75 million for a robotics capital program
- $25 million for a program to support minority owned and operated start-ups
- $268.8 million for housing related investments, including:
- $95.2 million for housing authority capital improvements
- $73.1 million for the Housing Stabilization and Investment Trust Fund
- $29.5 million for the Housing Innovations Trust Fund
- $11.7 million for the development of low- and moderate-income housing
- $50 million for matching funds to improve broadband infrastructure
- $50 million for a program to revitalize underutilized properties
- $30 million for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative, which supports innovation within the state’s manufacturing industry, including by offering technical assistance to manufacturers and attracting talent from outside of the state
- $24 million for the Scientific and Technology Research and Development Matching Grant Fund
- $10 million for the Rural and Small-Town Development Fund
- $10 million for Tourism Destination Development Grants
- $5 million for community planning grants
Additional Policy Items
The bill also establishes the following new programs and institutions:
- A Center for Employee Ownership within the Massachusetts Office of Business Development (MOBD), as well as an advisory board on employee ownership to advise the Governor and the director of the Massachusetts Center for Employee Ownership on issues and policy matters pertaining to employee involvement and ownership
- A Cybersecurity Center and a Center for Advanced Manufacturing within the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative
- A trust fund for the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which codifies into law a program that allows people to use SNAP benefits to buy healthy, local fruits and vegetables
A number of notable amendments were adopted during the floor debate, including those that would:
- Assist small business owners by creating one simplified portal where businesses can apply for state grants
- Provide Massachusetts consumers with a ‘right to repair’ their cell phones, by requiring manufacturers to make the documentation, tools, and parts needed to repair devices available to consumers and independent repair shops
- Support the Commonwealth’s veterans by increasing the annual payment for disabled veterans and their surviving families to $3,000
- Establish a Hunger-Free Campus Initiative to address food insecurity on college campuses
- Support families that have experienced housing insecurity by allowing certain tenants who have been evicted to seal the records of their eviction case
- Ensure students can obtain academic transcripts for the courses they have completed and paid for, rather than having their entire transcript withheld for outstanding fees
- Expand the ability of homeowners to add accessory dwelling units to their property as an innovative way to address the housing crisis
- Allow restaurants to offer ‘happy hour’ discounts on alcoholic beverages if a town approves this policy via local option
- Allow state candidates for public office to use campaign funds for expenses related to child care services
- Expand the ciders that are eligible for the reduced cider tax rate, by raising the ABV limit from six per cent to eight and a half per cent
- Empower farmer distilleries to sell wine and distilled products