Senate report could shed light on major spending decisions


BOSTON (SHNS) – Tax credits for anyone caring for a child or elderly resident at home at a public bank and low-income subsidies for broadband service, a Senate committee led by the Sen. Adam Hinds on Tuesday put together a policy menu for the legislature that Democratic leaders hope will guide Beacon Hill’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New 22 page report examined the vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19 in areas such as child care and housing, and considered ways to make Massachusetts a more equitable place to live and work.

Hinds and Senate Speaker Karen Spilka paused their tour of intergenerational care facilities on Tuesday to release the report produced by the Senate Committee on the Reinvention of Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resilience.

The group of seven senators looked at everything from the high-speed Internet access gap to housing, transportation, child and senior care, and the wealth gaps that exist between many white and minority communities. Hinds said the committee plans to continue exploring areas such as healthcare, climate change, environmental justice, voting systems and K-12 education.

“We’re not exactly going back to the old normal,” Spilka said.

The report was released the same day the Legislature held its last hearing focused on how to spend nearly $ 5 billion of American Rescue Plan Act funds. Hind’s committee identified ways to spend billions of dollars on short- and long-term priorities, suggesting that some could come from the state’s budget surplus or its ARPA pot of money.

“These policy proposals and policy recommendations will initiate and pass through the process of debate which is the heart and soul of our legislative process, but we are on the verge, as you all know, of making many decisions on how to spend the federal clawback. fund, so I’m happy and grateful that this committee has done the work to identify the vulnerabilities, as well as the opportunities, that we are facing right now, ”Spilka said.

Among the committee’s recommendations were spending between $ 250 million and $ 400 million to bridge the digital divide between communities and families that lack high-speed internet access, and therefore the same remote working options available to residents. the most rich.

According to the committee, 92% of households earning more than $ 75,000 per year have access to reliable internet, while 40% of families earning less than $ 35,000 per year have a broadband subscription.

The committee called for $ 50 million to $ 100 million to be spent to secure low-cost broadband options for residents eligible for MassHealth or SNAP benefits, $ 150 million to $ 200 million in grants to cities for projects to broadband infrastructure, and $ 50 million to $ 100 million for a digital equity fund.

Hinds also said a “targeted” right to repair law could make it easier to unlock, repair and transfer ownership of computers and other digital devices and make them more accessible to low-income families.

To help bridge the racial and ethnic wealth gap, the report suggested piloting income supports for low-income families, which proved useful during the pandemic when people needed help paying their taxes. invoices and other needs. The committee said an expanded earned income tax credit or refundable caregiver tax credit may be one way to tackle it.

The report also called for investing $ 250 million in workforce training and development, continued support for wealth-building programs like the BabySteps college savings program, $ 40 million in ARPA assistance to help theaters, conference centers and other businesses that rely on gatherings overcome the COVID -19 bump, and take a public bank into account.

A bank, according to the report, would cost between $ 500 and $ 1 billion in start-up costs and could be used to support small businesses and minority-owned businesses in communities that traditionally lack access to capital.

“The recovery of the state from the pandemic and our ability to build our resilience in the face of future pandemics will literally depend on our ability to tackle inequality now,” said Hinds.

The Pittsfield Democrat said the report was the result of five public hearings and additional research supported by Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis. He said he felt the committee was catching up with decades of concerns about high housing and childcare costs and wage stagnation that had not been addressed.

“Fortunately, it looks like we have an unprecedented opportunity as well,” said Hinds, citing both the political will and the financial resources to act.

To support the care economy, the committee recommended using more than $ 300 million in ARPA childcare stabilization grants for hiring bonuses, loan cancellation, retirement incentives. training and other benefits to strengthen the workforce.

It also recommended a $ 3 increase in hourly wages for personal aides and home care workers at a cost of $ 50 million per year to recruit and retain professionals, and regulatory changes that would make the system more affordable. . The report specifically noted the ratio of one caregiver to three children as the lowest in the country, along with Kansas and Maryland.

The committee said that for $ 100 million to $ 150 million, the state could offer refundable tax credits to anyone caring for a child, senior or family with disabilities at home. .

Spilka, in a speech in April, presented his “moonshot” to reinvent an intergenerational care system that would support families, especially women, who were forced to give up their careers to care for family members. all ages. She said now is the time to start investing in her idea and use $ 50 million in ARPA funding to transform family resource centers into centers where residents can be connected with services and supports for. all ages.

Some of the largest investments proposed by the Reimagining Massachusetts committee have come in housing, with limited inventory and rising prices creating competition around employment centers and demand for larger homes with office space. increasing during COVID-19.

In addition to $ 400-500 million to support the construction of homes for rent and sale, the committee suggested using $ 250 million of ARPA funds to support programs like the Downpayment Assistance Program. by MassHousing. Barring a California-style ban on single-family zoning, the committee said additional local aid would be suspended outside towns and villages that are lowering zoning barriers to facilitate more construction.

The report also recommended using $ 100 million to revamp the state’s rent assistance program by guaranteeing tenants facing an eviction access to a lawyer and automatically connecting them to housing assistance programs. rent.

Finally, with regard to transport, the committee concluded that the commuter train system needs a major overhaul, as remote working has altered user patterns and that policymakers should reconsider to what extent. they depend on fares to fund the MBTA and other public transportation.

The report concluded that increased subsidies for electric vehicles and congestion pricing could be helpful in meeting climate goals and pushing people back to public transport, and suggested examining whether bus fares free or reduced rates for low-income users would improve access.

Josh Ostroff, acting executive director of transportation for Massachusetts, called the report “thoughtful” and said his group had long supported many policy recommendations and hoped to see them reflected in the ARPA bill that will be debated in the next few months. weeks to come.

“For a modern state-wide transportation system that contributes to the recovery, it’s not enough just to report. We need action, ”Ostroff said.

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