Politics

Baker administration knocks State House leaders for ‘massive delay’ in spending COVID-19 relief funds

"Massachusetts was already behind most of the country in utilizing these funds before the latest setback."

Gov. Charlie Baker Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

Massachusetts received several billion dollars in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funding last spring from the American Rescue Plan Act. At the time, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration expressed hope it would be “quickly” invested.

They’re still waiting.

Despite hopes to spend the money before Thanksgiving, the state’s House and Senate leaders were unable to reach a deal on a nearly $4 billion compromise bill to invest most of the ARPA funds, as well as much of the state’s budget surplus from the last fiscal year, before the end of the formal legislative session Wednesday night.

The lack of a deal comes after State House leaders wrested control of the ARPA funds from the Baker administration in June, and it pushes action on the legislation into at least December, if not the new year. And the Republican governor is lamenting what he says is just the “latest setback.”

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“The Baker-Polito Administration believes the Legislature’s original decision six months ago to freeze these funds and subject them to the legislative process created a massive delay in putting these taxpayer dollars to work,” Terry MacCormack, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement Thursday.

Pointing to a funding tracker from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Baker’s office says that Massachusetts appears to be one of the states with the least amount of ARPA money spent to date (in total, the state has spent just shy of $400 million of the $5.3 billion it received to fund things like relief to hard-hit communities, the ongoing pandemic response, and the state’s VaxMillions Giveaway).

“Massachusetts was already behind most of the country in utilizing these funds before the latest setback, and further delay will only continue to leave residents, small businesses and hundreds of organizations frozen out from the support the rest of the country is now tapping into to recover from this brutal pandemic,” MacCormack said, urging lawmakers to “move quickly.”

Baker had proposed a plan in June to unilaterally spent $2.8 billion of the ARPA funds on housing, infrastructure, and economic development, which he argued would invest the money more quickly in the wake of the pandemic.

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However, State House leaders said it would be better to put the money through the legislative process, holding hearings with testimony from experts and community members to determine how it would be spent.

Both the House and Senate had passed bills in recent weeks to spend the majority of the ARPA and surplus money broadly aimed at stimulating the economy and providing relief to workers and small businesses.

While the two bills had some big similarities, such as one-time direct payments for frontline workers and reimbursements to the state’s unemployment insurance fund, they differed on spending levels on everything from public health infrastructure to water infrastructure to mental health to education, according to the State House News Service.

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz told the service that the differences were so many that it made it was “very challenging” to reach a middle ground in the three working days since the Senate passed their bill. The House passed their version in late October.

“We’re just too far apart today to say that we’re going to get this done before the end of the evening,” Michlewitz said.

The legislature could still negotiate and pass the bill during the informal session in December; it would need unanimous approval, and both bills did pass their respective chambers unanimously. Otherwise, lawmakers would have to wait to take up the legislation when formal sessions resume in January.

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Either way, the delay hasn’t only caught the ire of the Republican governor.

Ben Downing, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former state senator, also criticized the lack of “urgency” from the Democrat-led legislature.

“Instead of moving swiftly to pass a spending bill allowing for the distribution of ARPA funds across the state, the legislature last night failed to deliver concrete relief to the people of the Commonwealth,” Downing said in a statement, calling the lack of action “typical of a Beacon Hill too often content with the status quo.”

Downing, whose more forceful criticism is usually directed at Baker, also said the governor was “all too eager to sit back and pass the buck once it’s too late for everyday residents,” even though the Republican had pushed to directly spend the funds.

Downing added that the “business as usual” approach of passing the legislation in informal session — in which legislation can be blocked by a single lawmaker, Democrat or Republican — “only ensures that the most transformational elements will be left on the chopping block.”

“The people of Massachusetts should not be kept waiting,” he said.

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