Op-Ed by Representative Paul J. Donato

During this historic and unprecedented time, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a budget in a bipartisan effort which invests in programs and services throughout the Commonwealth.

The budget aims to address the far-reaching effect of the global pandemic by making targeted investments in housing, food security, and substance abuse addiction services, as well as domestic violence, sexual assault treatment and prevention programs. The budget also invests in programs that provide COVID-related support for students and increases funding for developmental services, early education and childcare, and public health.

The budget was crafted under difficult circumstances and is both fiscally responsible as well as one that invests in our people and communities. The budget includes many important initiatives designed to help working families, small businesses, and cities and towns. I invite you to read the following summary of the legislation.

The Legislature continues to further its commitment to cities and towns by investing $1.1 billion Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA). Continuing the Legislature’s support of targeted investments in education, this budget provides $5.283 billion in Chapter 70 education funding, an increase of $107.6 million over Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20). The education budget allocations include:

• $53 million in COVID-related student supports;
• $345.2 million for Circuit Breaker Special Education reimbursement;
• $117 million for Charter School Reimbursement; and
• $82 million for Regional School Transportation reimbursement.

Due to the pandemic, access to safe and affordable housing for many families across the Commonwealth has taken on new urgency. The budget represents the Legislature’s ongoing commitment to housing and homelessness funding. This year, the budget makes targeted investments into rental and housing assistance to support families, tenants and property owners during this time of crisis:

• $180 million for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters;
• $135 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP);
• $50 million for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), as well as emergency changes to the RAFT program to increase the maximum amount of rental assistance that a household can receive from $4,000 to $10,000 and allow eligible households facing a housing crisis to access both RAFT and HomeBASE;
• $80 million for public housing subsidies;
• $56 million for homeless individual shelters;
• $13 million for homeless student transportation;
• $12.5 million for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), which provides rental assistance to people with disabilities;
• $11 million for Department of Mental Health Rental Subsidy Program; and
• $8 million for unaccompanied homeless youth.

In addition, the budget includes protections to ensure tenants facing eviction better understand their rights and have the opportunity to slow any court process down if they are seeking financial assistance with their rent payments. To help oversee the state’s tenancy preservation efforts, the budget requires additional data and reporting and creates a task force made up of legislators, the administration, and court officials.

Keeping in mind the widespread economic effects of the COVID pandemic, this budget makes specific investments in labor and economic development programs that provide opportunities for the Commonwealth’s workers and its businesses. The budget maintains its support for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Partnership with an investment of $2 million—funding which has helped many Massachusetts manufactures retrofit their businesses into the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) market. Other investments include:

• $94 million for Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs);
• $46.4 million in new economic development funding including;
o $17.5 million for local Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
o $17.5 million for community development financial institutions
o $7.5 million for matching grants for capital investments by small businesses
o $3.85 million for small business technical assistance grants
• $ 46 million for Adult Basic Education Services;
• $20 million for summer jobs for at-risk youth;
• $15 million for a Community Empowerment and Reinvestment grant program to provide economic supports to communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system;
• $10 million Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund;
• $6 million for Regional Economic Development Organizations to support economic growth in all regions of the state;
• $5 million for Community Foundations to provide emergency economic relief to historically underserved populations;
• $2.5 million in Urban Agenda Grants; and
• $1.4 million for small business development.

The budget builds on the Legislature’s commitment to ensuring all children have access to high-quality early education and care (EEC) during this pandemic. The budget provides $25 million for a new Early Education and Care Workforce and COVID-19 Supports Reserve to provide classroom stabilization grants, incentive pay for providers, and support for increased operational costs due to COVID-19. In addition, the budget invests in those who work with children by increasing rates for early education providers by $20 million and provides $40 million for a new reserve to cover parent fees for families receiving subsidized childcare for the remainder of FY21. The budget also includes the following EEC investments and initiatives:

• $15 million for Head Start grants;
• $10 million for EEC Workforce Higher Education Opportunities;
• $2.5 million in early childhood mental health grants;
• $11 million for child care resource and referral agencies; and
• Establishes the Early Education and care Economic review commission to review childcare funding and make recommendations on policy changes to expand access.

The budget continues to dedication substantial resources toward supporting public higher education and increases scholarship funding for students. These investments include:

• $286 million for state universities;
• $307.7 million for community colleges;
• $560 million for the University of Massachusetts system;
• $120 million in scholarship funding; and
• $4.8 million for the STEM Starter Academy, to support underrepresented students in STEM fields at community colleges; and
• $2 million to ensure high school students with intellectual disabilities have continued access to higher education opportunities during this time of need.

Funded at $19 billion this fiscal year, MassHealth is the largest investment the Commonwealth makes in its most vulnerable residents, including children, seniors, low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness. The budget also invests in critical health and human services agencies and providers including:

• $501.1 million for Adult Support Services;
• $307 million for the Department of Children and Families for social workers, family support and stabilization, and foster care and adopted fee waivers;
• $94.8 million for children’s mental health services;
• $36.4 million for early intervention services;
• $30.4 million in emergency food assistance;
• $25.8 million for funding to support expanded access to mental health services, including $10M for the Behavioral Health, Outreach, Access and Support Trust Fund and $10M for a new inpatient mental health acute care beds grant program to expand access to critical mental health services; and
• $17.5 million for Family Resource Centers to meet increased demand for services.

In addition to these health care investments, the conference report includes provisions that prohibit insurers from denying coverage for mental health services and primary care services solely because they were delivered on the same day in the same facility.

Highlighting the urgent need to strengthen public health infrastructure at the local, state and regional level to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the budget includes targeted investments aimed at redoubling our efforts and pushing forward with a proactive public health response to defeat this horrible virus. The budget includes:

• $10 million for grants to support local boards of health to combat COVID-19;
• $1.7 million for the State Action for Public Health Excellence (SAPHE) program to support a more effective local and regional public health delivery system; and
• $1 million for a COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plan program, focused on equitable vaccine distribution.

Keeping in mind those affected by domestic violence, the budget establishes a grant program to provide domestic violence advocate services across the state to connect survivors with essential services.

In order to support programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the budget increases funding for developmental services to $2.1 billion and includes $239 million for community day and work programs across the Commonwealth. The budget also includes the following investments:

• $237 million for state-operated residential services
• $78 million for family respite services; and
• $38.5million for autism omnibus services.

The budget furthers the Legislature’s ongoing commitment to fight the opioid epidemic. To provide assistance to those who are battling substance addiction, the budget increased funding for the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services to $169 million while offering continued support for step-down recovery services, jail diversion programs, and expansion of access to life-saving medication.

Food insecurity has become one of the most prevalent consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting children, adults and seniors alike. To that end, the conference report prioritizes access to food resources across the Commonwealth. Food insecurity investments include:

• $30 million for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program;
• $13 million in Healthy Incentives Programs to ensure vulnerable households have continued access to food options during the pandemic; and
• $1.2 million for Project Bread to support the Child Nutrition Outreach Program and the Food Source Hotline.

The budget includes funding for the judiciary and ongoing criminal justice reform, including a $762.9 million investment in the trail court and to support for criminal justice reform implementation. The budget also includes $29 million for civil legal aid to provide representation for low-income individuals via the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and invests in community-based re-entry programs and a pre and post-release services grant program.

The budget calls for $312.6 million in spending for environmental programs, which aim protect the Commonwealth’s natural resources. These investments include:

• $70.4 million for the Department of Environmental Protection, including additional funding for a PFAS-specific team to remediate water contamination in the Commonwealth;
• $51.5 million for state parks and recreation;
• $40.1 million for the Department of Agricultural Resources, including $1.4M for mosquito spraying to mitigate the risk of the Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus;
• $16.1 million for fisheries and wildlife protection;
• $8.5 million for agricultural resources;
• $2.6 million for ecological restoration; and
• $500,000 for the Commonwealth’s endangered species program.

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