Bill Would Extend Food Aid, School Meals, to-Go Cocktails in Mass.

The spending bill also includes $68 million for an early education grant program.

Massachusetts lawmakers approved a spending plan Thursday that would extend programs launched during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic including outdoor dining regulations, remote access to public meetings and support for assisted living residences.

The $389 million supplemental budget also includes $130 million to help extend enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP food benefits — long known as food stamps — just as the federal government is ending the extra money provided to low-income people since the start of the pandemic.

The spending bill also includes $68 million for an early education grant program, $65 million for the continuation of free school meals, $45 million for emergency shelter assistance, and more than $40 million to support affordable housing for immigrants and refugees.

The proposed spending targets parts of the state's safety net where funding and capacity are running thin. Like Gov. Charlie Baker did before he left office, Healey has warned that an influx of migrants has contributed to surging demand for emergency shelter. A program offering all students meals in schools needs more money to keep running through the end of the year, she says, and the hundreds of thousands of Bay State families who receive SNAP benefits are in line for a sharp decrease in their monthly aid in April now that the federal government ended a COVID-related expansion.

Another popular pandemic-era innovation — allowing the to-go sale of beer, wine and cocktails — would be extended for a year under the bill.

Up to two takeout cocktails per entree can now be sold in Massachusetts restaurants, and local owners said they hope it helps them turn a profit during the pandemic.

Another portion of the bill would create the permanent ability to perform notarization services electronically. Secretary of State William Galvin has voiced concerns about the proposal, particularly related to its timing, implementation and oversight.

Several state commissions would see their deadlines punted under the legislation. A panel examining a passenger rail extension to western Massachusetts would get another three months, until June 30, to file its final report.

The legislation now heads to Democratic Gov. Maura Healey for her signature.

The Associated Press/State House News
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