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Mass. May Use ARPA Money for Lower Transit Fees, Broadband

To address racial and ethnic disparities, Massachusetts lawmakers are considering reducing Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority fares and shoring up Internet infrastructure with American Rescue Plan Act funds.

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(TNS) — As Massachusetts lawmakers this fall decide how to spend about $5 billion in federal COVID relief aid, one Senate committee is considering reducing MBTA fares, bolstering broadband infrastructure and supporting first-time homebuyers — among a suite of other proposals to overcome racial disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.

The broad policy framework released Tuesday from the Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency might take years to come to fruition, depending on its trajectory in other committees on Beacon Hill.

But the Commonwealth is now facing an “unprecedented opportunity” to close yawning equity gaps among communities of color, said Sen. Adam Hinds, who chairs the committee.

“The implication of not taking action is that we are not prepared for the next pandemic and the next economic downturn,” Hinds told MassLive. “We wanted to look at vulnerabilities, and also how do we make sure we’re prepared for future shocks to the system?”

The committee’s report — which recommends using the influx of funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, plus last year fiscal year’s surplus and other budget allocations — is based on priorities gleaned through multiple public hearings, Hinds said.

Low-income residents in all corners of Massachusetts lack Internet access, and about 750,000 households don’t have a computer, according to the report shared with MassLive.

The resiliency committee recommends that Massachusetts invest about $150 million to $200 million to help cover local infrastructure needs, including Wi-Fi and fiber-optic networks. Residents who are eligible for MassHealth or SNAP benefits would automatically qualify for low-cost broadband options, according to the report, which would cost the state between $50 million and $100 million annually.

Those same residents should get reduced MBTA fare cards, similar to benefits already available to seniors, people with disabilities and some younger riders, according to the report. In another approach, the MBTA could offer free frees to households below 200% of the federal poverty line.

The initiative would cost about $100 million annually, Hinds said.

“It speaks to utilizing this moment when we do have extra resources and revenues,” Hinds said. “If ever there was a time to try this, it’s now.”

In its report, the committee unveiled a string of rental relief and housing supports efforts, including using $250 million in ARPA funds to support first-time homebuyers. The report states “deliberate action” is needed to overcome the legacy of redlining and other discrimination.

Hinds said the committee also suggested a new approach for protecting tenants during eviction proceedings, with an annual cost of about $100 million.

Tenants would be guaranteed access to legal counsel and get connected to rental assistance programs, according to the report. Courts would also be required to better track race and ethnicity data, helping policymakers document and tackle persistent disparities.

Caregiving is another priority for the resiliency committee, Hinds said. It reflects the disproportionate impact working mothers encountered when child care centers shuttered during the pandemic, as well as “the inability to safeguard nursing home residents,” the report states.

Proposals encompass $300 million for child care stabilization grants; refundable tax credits for caregivers that would cost between $100 million and $150 million annually; and an initial $50 million investment for intergenerational care hubs, linking together services for children, seniors and people with disabilities.

Workforce participation — and overcoming disparities among which residents and communities are able to work from home safely — is another focal point of the committee, Hinds said. The reports notes that Massachusetts residents who earn over $100,000 are twice as likely to hold remote-friendly jobs than those who earn less than $50,000.

The report proposes spending between $500 million to $1 billion on a public bank with “an explicit mission to support racial and ethnic equity ... by making loans to municipalities and diverse applicants with higher risk profiles.” Or, the report states, Massachusetts could increase funding to existing programs that support small businesses in underserved communities.

Investments in workforce development, stable income support for households, and college bonds can also help overcome “the scourge of inequality” in Massachusetts according to the report.

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