Politics

Massachusetts has $5.3 billion to spend. The question is who gets to do it.

Charlie Baker is at odds with State House leaders over their move to take control of the windfall of pandemic relief.

Gov. Charlie Baker during a taxiway groundbreaking ceremony last week at the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport in Westfield Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen / Pool

Massachusetts has $5.3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds — $5,286,067,526.40, to be exact — that the state needs to spend within the next two and a half years.

The one-time windfall of money, which comes from the American Rescue Plan passed by congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden, is intended to boost the recovery from the pandemic and its economic fallout.

But now, top State House leaders are competing with Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration over who, exactly, has the power to spend it.

Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka announced plans Tuesday to allocate the money into a “segregated fund,” a move that would officially give state lawmakers authority over how the aid is allocated.

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“These funds are designed to address the profound needs of our communities, as well as provide the tools necessary to ensure a steady and equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions,” Mariano and Spilka said in a statement.

With the legislature about to begin negotiations on the state’s fiscal year 2022 budget “shortly,” Mariano and Spilka said that control over the federal relief funds, which would be allocated separately from the budget, would “ensure that we maximize the impact of these one-time dollars.”

“A public legislative process will allow all communities, especially those impacted the most by COVID-19, to help determine where investments are most needed,” they said. “These investments may potentially be spread out over a number of years to ensure our continued economic vitality.”

According to CommonWealth magazine, the $5.3 billion is currently in a federal grants fund controlled unilaterally by the Baker administration.

And the Republican governor would like to keep it that way.

After the announcement by Mariano and Spilka, Baker’s office made a point to note that the federal money does not require legislative appropriation and that the administration was “ready to work with municipal, non-profit, private sector and legislative partners” to invest it “quickly.”

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The state received the money on May 19 and has until 2024 to use it. However, according to Baker, some of the funds — which can go toward anything from “urgent” COVID-19 response efforts to systemic inequalities that exacerbated the pandemic in some places — have earlier deadlines.

During a press conference Wednesday, the governor also noted that his administration had already committed to allocating $100 million from the state funds to four mid-sized cities — Chelsea, Everett, Methuen, and Randolph — that had been hard hit by the pandemic but “horribly under-reimbursed” by the American Rescue Plan’s federal funding formula for direct municipal relief. Baker suggested that the Legislature’s move to take spending control of the money was unfairly delaying the additional relief funds for those four cities.

“We have 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts; 347 of them have gotten their money, right?” he said. “There are four communities that haven’t … and all four of those communities are communities that were really hit hard by COVID, and they’re exactly the kind of communities that deserve our support. We would have just moved ahead and put the money out.”

The clash comes after some local officials complained about being sidelined by Baker’s administration during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

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Baker said Wednesday that his office plans to discuss the funding dispute with State House leaders. The move to put the $5.3 billion into a segregated fund also elicited concern from members of the state’s congressional delegation who had worked on the original federal relief bill.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley — who had pressured Baker for the $100 allocation for Chelsea, Everett, Methuen, and Randolph — said the additional funds for those four cities should be distributed immediately.

“The flexible federal relief funding in the American Rescue Plan we helped secure is currently in the state’s coffers,” they said. “While state leaders determine allocation of the rest of the $5.3 billion in funding, we should immediately distribute to Chelsea, Everett, Methuen, and Randolph the $100 million dollars committed to them. We must keep this promise now.”

Baker, however, said Wednesday that Mariano and Spilka “made a point” with their announcement to include the entirety of the state’s allocation.

“It wasn’t 5.2 million. It was 5.3 [million],” he said. “We’ll raise this issue with them. I hope they see it the way we do.”

Mariano and Spilka argue they aren’t the ones holding up the funds. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the two Democrats noted that Baker received the funds on May 19.

“Like our delegation, we have a sense of urgency regarding providing coronavirus relief to our hardest hit communities,” they said. “We are glad the Governor, who has been in receipt of these funds for two weeks, is now joining the Legislature in this sense of urgency.”

While they said the legislative process would better ensure that the “unique needs” of all Massachusetts cities and towns are met, Mariano and Spilka said they agree that communities “disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and left behind by a flawed funding formula, like Chelsea, Randolph, Everett, and Methuen, should — and will — receive additional financial support.”

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Pressley’s office says the delegation, which was somewhat concerned about the Legislature taking control of the funds, did receive commitments from State House leaders regarding the $100 million allocation but declined to detail specifics. It remains unclear when that money will be distributed. But according to Mariano and Spilka, putting the money through the legislative process will ensure that “no one is left behind.”

“Our communities and residents know their deepest needs firsthand, and we must offer them the opportunity to participate in a democratic process to ensure the funds are distributed equitably,” they said.

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