A spending bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Nov. 10 to close the books on fiscal 2020 includes a number of key items that affect local governments.

The budget law (Chapter 201 of the Acts of 2020) authorizes $425 million in direct appropriations, mainly for already-incurred MassHealth costs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor rejected, and returned with proposed amendments, language approved by the Legislature to set up a special trust fund to hold any opioid lawsuit settlement amounts received by the Commonwealth.

Chapter 201 includes $727,170 to reimburse cities and towns for the mandated part of early voting costs for the March 3 primary election. The law matches the certification by the Office of the State Auditor of total costs and allocation amounts to individual cities and towns. The auditor is expected to survey city and town clerks early next year to assess additional reimbursable early voting and vote-by-mail costs for the Nov. 3 and other 2020 elections (after deducting any CARES Act reimbursements). Reimbursements would be subject to state appropriation.

Chapter 201 reappropriates substantial unspent balances from last year for use in fiscal 2021 to help balance the budget, including $11.9 million for special education circuit breaker reimbursements.

Chapter 201 also extends the special rule adopted earlier this year that allows cities and towns to make payments for certain school-based contracted services (such as transportation) even when services are not delivered as originally contracted.

The law also amends the so-called tolling provisions enacted earlier this year that allowed municipalities to delay public hearings on applications for permits or approvals for construction projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pause on required municipal actions on permits and quasi-judicial public meetings and hearings ended on Dec. 1.

When the tolling provision was first enacted, the ending was set at 45 days after the end of the public health emergency. Cities and towns that are unable to meet remotely due to lack of broadband or technology and are unable to hold in-person meetings due to public health orders regulating gatherings may apply to the secretary of Housing and Economic Development for relief from the constructive approval deadlines on or subsequent to Dec. 1.

Written by