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Mass. lawmakers look to clear some big measures before holiday recess

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano at a press availability on October 18, 2021.
File photo
State House News Service
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano at a press availability on October 18, 2021.

Massachusetts lawmakers are looking to clear some big measures off their plates before the holiday recess begins this week. The pressure's on as they attempt to wrap up negotiations over how to spend at least $3.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act fundsm and take any additional votes that need to happen.

The formal session is set to end this year on Wednesday.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to discuss what is expected from lawmakers over the next couple of days.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: The big-ticket item here is the ARPA spending bill. We know the House and Senate were negotiating through the weekend after the Senate last week passed their version.

Both branches have now passed $3.8 billion plans to spend the federal rescue money and some state surplus money from last year.

While the bottom lines are the same, there are some differences in priorities, plus a number of earmarks for local projects that lawmakers in both branches have passed. And they're going to try and reconcile that by Wednesday, and put it on the governor's desk.

After that, House Speaker Ron Mariano is keen to take up a bill that would provide more oversight of major hospital provider expansions into the suburbs, and give the state more tools to regulate that.

Senate President Karen Spilka — who incidentally is traveling to the White House Monday for the signing of the federal $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — she will be back later Monday night. And the Senate is teeing up a vote on a major mental health access bill for Wednesday.

And then, you know, there's always some surprises, but the deadline is Wednesday to get anything major done that could have any opposition, or something that members would want to debate and vote on.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Some good news may have come for businesses. Last week, the state's Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund was expected to be running a more than $4 billion deficit at the end of the year. But it seems to have stabilized with far more money in its coffers than projected. What does the money in that fund support, and how did it get turned around?

Yeah, there are a lot of moving pieces here. This is the fund used to pay out benefits. Typically employers pay into this fund over the course of the year. In the good times, they're paying in. In the tough economic times, when people are unemployed, it starts moving the other way in the form of benefits.

During the pandemic, this fund was taxed heavily. But we now know that it has a balance of about $2.9 billion, which on paper looks very strong.

The catch is that a lot of that was borrowed over the course of the pandemic from the federal government, and will need to be repaid over the course of the next year or so.

While the strength of the fund signals a fairly strong economic recovery, and a good situation for employees, the state has tried to mitigate the impact on employers — the businesses who will have to replenish that fund when the money gets repaid to the federal government.

The Legislature has authorized the state to borrow up to $7 billion to mitigate the spike — the size of the payments that these businesses will have to pay in the coming years. But you know, a lot of it will depend how much of that gets used, what the economy looks like, what employment looks like — and whether or not the stimulus that the federal government is kicking in can really keep things moving.

Finally, COVID-19 cases are slowly creeping up again in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast. Just last week, the Essex County Jail saw a COVID outbreak of nearly 70 cases. Travel about 20 miles south to Beacon Hill, and Senator Diana DiZoglio is calling for the Statehouse to reopen to the public. What's the feeling of legislative leadership on this?

They're very cautious about doing this, even though I believe there's a report in the Boston Globe Monday that aside from Hawaii, Massachusetts is the only state in the country that hasn't figured out how to open its Capitol, the so-called People's House, to the public. 

The House and Senate and the administration have only just recently imposed their vaccine mandates on all employees and legislative leaders.

Moving ahead very slowly, very cautiously, trying to balance what they say is both the museum tourist attraction aspects of the building — but also the fact that it's a place where hundreds of people go to work every day in normal times. I think we're going to see a beginning of a gradual reopening, maybe for some people who have business in front of the Legislature, but we could be a ways away from the general public being allowed through the doors.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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