It’s official. Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday signed a $3.76 billion state economic development bill into law. The money will be used to expand broadband access and provide winter fuel assistance, among other priorities.
An earlier version of the spending plan, worth more than $4 billion, stalled on Beacon Hill over the summer. Lawmakers scrambled after Baker announced a plan to issue some $3 billion in tax refunds because of an obscure law that caps state tax revenue growth.
Unlike the earlier version, this economic development measure does not include proposed tax cuts for low-income households, renters, parents or investors. But it keeps funding for other priorities like the MBTA and MassHealth, the state's health insurance program for children and low-income residents.
Here are some other highlights:
- Affordable housing: At least $300 million will go toward building new affordable housing. This will mostly be in the form of grants for developers that build a certain amount of income-restricted units.
- Gateway cities: The measure sets aside $50 million dollars for developers to build in gateway cities. To qualify for this funding, developers must be “socially and economically disadvantaged or disproportionately impacted by the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic.”
- Businesses: At least $153 million is going to businesses that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of that money has been earmarked for hotels and movie theaters. And $45 million will go to businesses that “focus on reaching underserved markets” as well as businesses owned by women, people-of-color, immigrants or veterans.
- Hospitals and community health centers: At least $350 million will go to “fiscally strained” hospitals. Many hospitals have been suffering from chronic worker shortages and a dip in revenue. Another $100 million will go directly to community health centers, which typically serve populations with limited access to private health insurance.
- Service workers and child care providers: The measure dedicates more than $200 million to boost wages and benefits for human service workers. These are people who work directly with elderly clients, young children and people with disabilities. Another $150 million will be used for early education and day care centers. This will continue a stabilization grant program, which has been in place since July 2021.
Advocates and community groups hailed the signing of the spending plan. Funding for development in gateway cities was one of several items championed by the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA), a nonprofit that focuses on advancing Black-owned businesses. Kareem Kibodya, BECMA’s policy and advocacy co-lead, said the measure will help developers of color be more competitive.
“Often enough, we are the ones working in these buildings, but we're not the ones designing and developing. So that's one that I'm very excited for,” Kibodya said.
He also praised the inclusion of funding for businesses focused on underserved communities and those helmed by people of color.
A MassINC poll found that entrepreneurs of color have more difficulty accessing capital to expand or start businesses. Kibodya said this is a small step toward addressing that inequity.
Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, which includes 52 organizations across the state, said his members badly need the support outlined in the measure.
Curry said the demand for community health centers has soared during the COVID pandemic. At the same time, the centers have been “bleeding staff.”
Although the entire health care industry is facing a severe worker shortage, community health centers are at a disadvantage, he said, because they can’t offer the same salaries as big hospitals.
The money from the economic development measure will help community health centers retain workers and expand services such as cancer screenings and check-ups, which many patients have put off since the start of the pandemic.
“It's the piece that keeps me up at night,” Curry said. “That higher rates of cancer and high rates of death will be seen in communities of color as a result of people not getting care and not getting their disease diagnosed and managed in the last two and a half years."
Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU local 509, which represents service workers, said the additional funding for human service workers and child care workers "goes a long way to to show that we prioritize that work."
MacKinnon said, on average, the lowest paid workers in human services make roughly $16 to $17 per hour. This led to an exodus of workers during the pandemic, prompting many day care and other centers to shut down or reduce services.
“You can make more money at Target,” MacKinnon said. “Our goal in this is to make sure that everyone gets at least $20, and even $20 an hour is probably not enough.”
MacKinnon called the economic development effort “the start of some transformative funding.” But, he added, the industry needs a more permanent stream of state funding to attract enough workers.