Politics

Charlie Baker has concerns about ‘red tape’ holding back spending bill’s direct payments to workers

“We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people."

Gov. Charlie Baker spoke to the media after he attended the 37th and 38th Annual Trooper George L. Hanna Memorial Awards for Bravery last week in Worcester. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

Certain essential workers in Massachusetts could get a direct payment of up to $2,000 early next year, under a $4 billion bill passed by the State House last week.

However, Gov. Charlie Baker is concerned the process is a bit too complicated.

With just a few days left to decide on signing the legislation, Baker told reporters Thursday in Boston that his biggest concern is that “there’s a lot of red tape,” specifically referencing a panel the bill would create to decide the direct payments’ eligibility requirements, distribution method, and exact size.

“There’s a 30-something-member commission that needs to be established to figure out what to do around premium pay,” Baker said.

“We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people,” he added.

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Currently, the language of the bill dedicates $500 million — or about an eighth of its spending — to the COVID-19 Essential Employee Premium Pay program.

The program would send payments of $500 to $2,000 to hundreds of thousands of employees in Massachusetts who worked in person — rather than remote —during the pandemic and made less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($38,640 a year for individuals or $79,500 for a household of four).

However, the bill tasks State House leaders, the governor, attorney general, state auditor, union, and a number of business, health care, and political groups with appointing a 28-person panel to figure out the rest of the details, like exact eligibility requirements and how the payments would be issued (the panel would also be tasked with tracking and collecting data on the eventual payments).

That panel would then make recommendations to the Baker administration, which would ultimately have the final say on eligibility rules, as well as be responsible for administering the program.

And one way or another, the bill requires that the payments be issued no later than March 31. The panel must be appointed by Dec. 31.

Baker, as he has repeatedly argued, says it would be quicker to allow his administration to handle the process itself.

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The Republican governor’s office noted Thursday that the premium pay advisory panel is just one of three new panels created by the legislation, which allocates $2.55 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds and $1.45 billion from the state’s budget surplus. There’s also a 22-member Behavioral Health Trust Fund and a 25-member Equity and Accountability Review Panel.

Baker’s office is also taking issue with the bill’s requirement of 38 new reports, as well as a nearly $200 million behavioral health trust fund, which the Legislature will have to appropriate for specific use a second time in the future.

After initially vying to spend the federal COVID-19 relief funds last spring, Baker has repeatedly criticized the State House for the delay in distributing the money in the midst of the pandemic.

“There are a lot of people and communities in Massachusetts who are anxious to see us put those dollars to work as quickly as possible,” Baker said Thursday. “We’re glad the Legislature eventually got us the bill. But we’re working through some of that stuff just to make sure it doesn’t create impediments to actually putting the money out the door.”

Baker has until Monday to decide on signing the bill or sending back amendments or vetoes to the Legislature, which is in informal session through the end of the year.

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