BOSTON – Lawmakers suspended a long winter break this week after failing to reach agreement on a plan to spend billions of dollars in pandemic relief, drawing criticism from Gov. Charlie Baker and others.
The House and Senate have approved plans to spend more than $ 3.82 billion in federal pandemic relief funds and excess cash to provide frontline workers with bonus checks and make investments major in health care, housing, workforce development and environmental protection.
A centerpiece of the two relief plans calls for spending $ 500 million on bonus checks for workers who have remained at work throughout the pandemic.
But a six-member legislative committee tasked with resolving differences between the two bills could not reach agreement on a final package before lawmakers suspended for a seven-week break in formal sessions.
Governor Baker scammed lawmakers for violating the plan without finalizing it, saying the decision to hold hearings and lengthy deliberations on the spending plan “created a huge backlog in the use of taxpayers’ money.”
Baker said Massachusetts lags behind other states when it comes to financial aid on the streets.
“A further delay will only continue to leave residents, small businesses and hundreds of organizations excluded from the support the rest of the country now draws on to recover from this brutal pandemic,” Baker said.
But lawmakers are defending the decision to hold hearings on the allocation of pandemic relief funds and say more time is needed to finalize the final spending plan.
Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, Deputy Chair of the Legislative Assembly’s Joint Ways and Means Committee, said distinguishing between the two spending bills will take time, but it is convinced that a final package will soon see the light of day.
“We’ve had a lot of hearings and brought a lot of people around the table to find out what the needs are, so it’s going to take a little while to reconcile the House and Senate bills to make sure we meet those needs. needs, ”she said. noted. “We have to follow a fair and deliberative process, but I hope it doesn’t take too long.”
Representative Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, said it was important for lawmakers to “listen to the people and hear where they think the priorities should be for spending the money,” but acknowledged that the process review “took a long time”.
She, too, is optimistic that legislative leaders will reach consensus on a final spending program.
“It’s a big push to fix this problem in a matter of days,” she said. “They are going to need more time to do this.”
Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, said he believes Baker should “hit the brakes” on the pressure to spend the money with an additional $ 9 billion going to the state through a new law on infrastructure signed by President Joe Biden this week.
“We might run into a problem where paved roads today will have to be dug later to install new water and sewage or broadband systems,” he said. “We cannot afford this kind of wasted inefficiency. “
Spending envelopes approved by the House and Senate included $ 500 million to help replenish the state unemployment trust fund and $ 200 million in tax relief for small business owners who paid taxes. on pandemic relief money.
The measures also included funds for hospitals with a safety net, public health systems and mental health services that are struggling to meet growing demand.
The House and Senate plans call for bonus checks for frontline workers, which would range from $ 500 to $ 2,000, depending on income.
One-time payments would be limited to workers who earned up to 300% of the federal poverty line – or $ 79,500 for a family of four – and stayed on the job during the state of emergency, from March 10 to March 31. December of last year. .
But the lack of agreement on a final package means those checks likely won’t be issued until next year.
Massachusetts received about $ 5.3 billion in direct funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden.
Baker argued with legislative leaders over control of the money. He tabled legislation in August calling for spending $ 2.9 billion of ARPA funds on housing, the environment, transportation and other priorities.
Legislative leaders held public hearings on the governor’s proposal, but ultimately decided on their own plans.
Under the ARPA Act, funds provided to states and local communities must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
The two proposals approved by the Legislature would leave about $ 2.5 billion in ARPA money and excess revenue to be used in the future.
Certainly, the panel working on the differences between the bills could emerge with a final proposal during the winter recess, which could be put to a vote in informal sessions attended by a handful of lawmakers.
Delays in approving a final spending bill have even become political fodder ahead of next year’s elections.
Republican Geoff Diehl, a former lawmaker running for governor, called on legislative leaders to call a special session to resolve differences between bills.
He said the concern is that legislative leaders could push through controversial changes to the plan in informal sessions, without public debate.
“Taxpayers need big spending decisions made in the light of day, and voters deserve to know how their lawmakers vote on important matters,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state’s Republican Party blamed the delay for spending relief money on Democrats to “bicker” over local allocations for pet projects that were added to bills via the amendment process.
“Instead of using it to reduce the debt of over $ 78 billion, Democrats are more interested in finding new ways to make their home districts bigger,” MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons said in a statement. communicated.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for newspapers and the North of Boston Media Group websites. Email him at [email protected]