LEGISLATIVE BUDGET WRITERS on Monday released a $1.1 billion supplemental budget bill, giving perhaps the clearest picture yet of the extraordinary amount of money government is spending on the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Charlie Baker in May had requested $1 billion for a COVID-19 reserve to cover the expenses that the state already incurred, an authorization he said will allow the state to request reimbursement from the federal government.
Baker’s bill released no details on what the money was being spent on. The bill released by the House Ways and Means Committee, however, spells out clearly where the money is going. The bill also authorizes the state to spend another $100 million over the next year for coronavirus response. That money is also expected to be reimbursed by the federal government.
In an unusual move, the supplemental budget was agreed on by House and Senate budget-writers in advance, which means it will likely be able to be passed more quickly, without back and forth negotiations between the two bodies. House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said in a joint statement that the House and Senate “have collaborated to produce a supplemental budget framework that will allow us to maximize federal financial support to reimburse for COVID-19 response costs and provide critical resources for our most vulnerable populations.”
“The priorities included within this supplemental budget — funding for personal protective equipment, emergency child care, health care supports for community health centers and behavioral health services, housing and homelessness supports, and food security— reflect the advocacy of the members of both chambers to urgently address the challenges facing our Commonwealth during this difficult time,” Michlewitz and Rodrigues said.
The $1 billion line item in the supplemental budget provides some insight into the staggering sums the state is currently spending on its COVID-19 response. It generally details expenses made in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The biggest expense is $350 million for personal protective equipment. Baker has been openly frustrated about the struggles the state has gone through obtaining personal protective equipment for health care workers. In one well-publicized instance, Patriots owner Robert Kraft used the team plane to import 1.2 million medical masks from China. Hospitals are relying on the state for help because their own supply chains are taxed. As of June 16, state government had distributed nearly 6 million masks, 7.8 million gloves, and 650,000 gowns.
With health care workers facing significant risks – and nursing homes and other care settings reporting staff shortages as employees get sick – the state has been paying increased rates for human services, home care and group home workers. That is expected to cost $247 million this year.
There is $111.4 million that has been given to hospitals and health care providers.
Another $85 million was spent setting up temporary field hospitals, like those at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and Worcester’s DCU Center.
The budget includes $81.6 million for childcare expenses, including standing up emergency childcare, continuing state subsidies paid for childcare centers that accept low-income children, and providing reopening grants to state-subsidized centers.
It also includes $44 million to stand up a contact tracing initiative; $16 million for housing-related costs; $30 million to reimburse health care providers for caring for uninsured patients who cannot pay; and $15 million for behavioral health services.
The state is also earmarking $20 million to address racial disparities in health care during the pandemic.
Looking ahead, the expenditures envisioned over the next year address some of the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on families.
The budget envisions spending more than $35 million on housing-related services, such as a program that will help families at risk of becoming homeless because of the pandemic. This is expected to be a major problem once temporary moratoriums on evictions expire, when many families are likely to have unpaid rent they cannot make up.
There is money for early intervention services for children via telehealth, and for several food-related programs to address hunger as adults lose jobs and children are not getting fed in school. The bill earmarks $10 million for small business loans and $10 million for foundations that help people in poverty.
The bill also establishes a fund, which will be fully controlled by the Secretary of Administration and Finance, in which to deposit and then spend money received by the federal CARES Act, without further action by the Legislature.
While all the expenses should be reimbursed by the federal government, state budget officials say they are still working out the details of how that will work. For example, FEMA reimburses states 75 percent of most emergency costs. Some of the additional costs can be reimbursed by other federal funds – for example, money earmarked for childcare – and the state has money from the CARES Act, including money from a federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, that can be used for expenses that would not otherwise be covered.
Of approximately $2.7 billion in CARES Act funding received by the state, Boston got $121 million, Plymouth County got $90 million, and the state distributed $502 million to other cities and towns. A small amount of other money has been earmarked – for example, Baker said he will use $11 million to combat food insecurity. But state budget officials say they are still figuring out how to spend the rest of the money, as they work to figure out what expenses are eligible, and what can be reimbursed through other federal programs.