Politics

Charlie Baker signs $4 billion spending bill and moves to speed up direct payments for workers

"We could send out $500 checks to almost 1 million Massachusetts residents as soon as possible."

Gov. Charlie Baker takes questions about COVID-19 testing at a State House press conference Monday in Boston. Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe

After months of wrangling and waiting, Gov. Charlie Baker has signed nearly all of a sprawling $4 billion bill to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds and some of the state’s budget surplus on everything from housing to health care to direct payments for low-wage workers who were on the frontlines of the pandemic.

The legislation wasn’t exactly what the Republican governor wanted, and it came months later than he would have preferred.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Baker said the bill “falls far short” of the $1 billion investment he had called for to address the state’s housing shortage. And he vetoed several provisions that he said would have further delayed the distribution of funds.

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But the vast majority of the omnibus spending bill was signed into law.

Baker said the legislation “directs billions of dollars in relief toward those hardest hit” by the COVID-19 pandemic and that the “important investments” would accelerate the state’s economic recovery and “provide long-lasting benefits to infrastructure, healthcare, education systems, and small businesses.”

“We are eager to put it to work,” echoed Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

The bill allocates $2.55 billion of the $4.85 billion the state has remaining from the $5.3 billion it received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in May. It also uses $1.45 billion of the state’s $5 billion budget surplus from the 2021 fiscal year.

On the spending sign, it invests nearly $1 billion in the health care industry, including money to bolster addiction and mental health treatment, relief of financially strained hospitals, and money to modernize local health boards.

There’s over $500 million for housing, including new housing production and public housing maintenance, as well as $65 million in homeownership assistance focusing on first-time homebuyers in communities of color (which was about a fifth of what Baker proposed).

The bill also spends hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure, schools, and economic development — including $500 million to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund and another $500 million to send one-time direct payments between $500 and $2,000 to low-wage residents who worked in person during the state’s 16-month COVID-19 state of emergency.

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Baker signed the direct payments program into law, but he did veto one sticking point: a 28-person panel that his administration would have been required to consult before distributing the payments.

Baker, who has repeatedly complained that the Legislature was taking too long to allocate the ARPA funds, expressed concerns last week about the panel creating too much “red tape.” And in his signing letter Monday, he said it was designed in a way that was “virtually guaranteed to significantly hinder the disbursement of the funds.”

While the bill requires the payments to be sent out by the end of March, the panel could both delay and create a time crunch for the payments.

“Various organizations are responsible for naming members of the panel, but it is unclear whom they are expected to inform of their appointment decisions,” Baker wrote. “No one is empowered to call the first meeting of the panel, no chairs are named, and no deadlines apply to the panel.”

The bill gives ultimate responsibility for the direct payments program and deciding who’s eligible to the Baker administration. However, the governor wrote that the Executive Office for Administration and Finance still must “wait for the panel to coalesce and make recommendations, incorporate those recommendations into decisions about eligibility, and then design the means to identify and pay eligible recipients by March 31, 2022.”

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“Accordingly, we are vetoing those provisions of the bill,” Baker wrote.

During an interview Sunday with WCVB, House Speaker Ron Mariano defended the creation of the advisory panel, saying it was intended to “make sure that this money gets into the hands of the people who need it most.”

However, in his letter Monday, Baker urged the Legislature not to override his veto of the panel, warning that his administration would “immediately” begin the process of defining eligibility and distributing funds.

“We could send out $500 checks to almost 1 million Massachusetts residents as soon as possible,” Baker said. “Reinstituting the panel-driven process envisioned by the Legislature will simply disrupt the rollout midstream.”

Baker also proposed to amend a provision in the bill that creates a nearly $200 million behavioral health trust fund and 22-member commission, which his office says amounts to “double appropriation,” meaning the Legislature is tasked with deciding how exactly to spend it a second time.

While Baker said he supports the end-purpose of the trust fund, he wrote that the Legislature’s language creates “a lengthy bureaucratic process that will unnecessarily delay the delivery of critical funding to Massachusetts residents with behavioral health disorders and behavioral health care providers who have already been waiting far too long.”

Instead, he proposed giving Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders say over how to spend the trust fund and giving the commission an advisory role.

“The Advisory Commission should be just that: advisory, not the first step in a second round of an already protected appropriations process,” Baker wrote.

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Baker also vetoed language in seven line items because he said it was “unduly burdensome” or overly restrictive of the number of beneficiaries of a program.

It’s unclear if the State House will move to override any of Baker’s vetoes — but it won’t happen this year.

Because the State House is currently in informal session, any override votes — which would require Democrats to take advantage of their veto-proof supermajority — can’t happen until lawmakers formally reconvene in January.

According to the State House News Service, both Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday afternoon that they’re reviewing the governor’s amendments and vetoes and considering their options.

“We have requested a timeline from the Administration on when they would be able to get the money out to essential workers so we can make an informed decision,” Mariano, who reportedly met with Baker shortly before the signing was announced Monday afternoon, said.

In his signing letter, Baker did not give an exact timeline on the distribution of the direct payments. With regards to the entire $4 billion bill, he wrote that the administration was “eager to begin quickly deploying these resources to the individuals and communities that desperately need them.”

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