BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)–For Boston University climate scientist Michael Walsh, the $4 billion COVID-19 relief spending package that’s on the cusp of being sent to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk could be a huge windfall.
Walsh, a researcher and environmental engineer with the Institute for Sustainable Energy, set up a corporation — Michael Jay Walsh LLC — this past July, registered in Somerville. It now stands to receive $150,000 for the purpose of studying the consumer impact of a transition to thermal energy in Massachusetts. The money was earmarked for Walsh by Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, who said he interviewed Walsh at length, and was impressed by the work he did as a lead researcher on the Carbon Free Boston report. It is one of hundreds of earmarks tucked into the plan to spend American Rescue Plan Act funding that lawmakers aim to put on Baker’s desk by the end of the week.
The long-awaited compromise over how to spend ARPA and fiscal 2021 surplus funds came together this week in a manner that the saw the bottom line of the final bill grow by about $180 million beyond what the House and Senate had initially proposed to spend.
The growth of the bill was due, in part, to a decision by top Democrats to accept hundreds of earmarks sprinkled throughout the respective bills passed by House and Senate lawmakers. Senior officials in both branches said all earmarks from both bills were included in the final package. “COVID had far reaching implications on not just every sector of our economy, but every sector of the commonwealth. Every city and towns faced dramatic impacts from COVID and while not every earmark may say COVID in it, or be described as COVID relief, there are a lot of things in this bill that will help build back recovery in those communities. The people that know that best in each of those communities are the people who represent them,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said.
Michlewitz said in most cases the bill reflects the higher value for earmarks included in both bills, estimating the total value of earmarks to be in the range of $200 million to $300 million. He said many of the earmarks were funded with state tax surplus dollars, and not ARPA funding.
Examples of earmarks include $150,000 to remodel the historic Lexington Depot community building to improve public access for the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, $300,000 for the Boch Center to make capital improvements to safely reopen the Wang and Shubert Theaters in Boston, $250,000 to help the town of Belmont design a new skating rink, and $85,000 for the Brookline Chamber of Commerce to expand its Discover Brookline website. One of the larger earmarks is $50 million for the MBTA to make economic development improvements to transit stations in Norfolk County, which also happens to be where House Speaker Ron Mariano, of Quincy, resides.
Earlier this week, Mariano said the earmarking in the bill might wind up being the reason the House and Senate are able to pass this final bill during in an informal session, rather than wait until January when they could hold a roll call. The House advanced the conference committee report without objection on Thursday, and the Senate will try to do the same Friday.
“One of the things we did by combining the budget and the ARPA money is there are some earmarks in there that everyone wants to see happen, so I think there’s enough in there to get everybody on board,” the speaker said, adding, “We don’t really anticipate anyone falling on their sword.”
While the final earmarked total was not immediately available, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation previously counted 415 earmarks added by the Senate worth $122.9 million in new spending, while the House spread $154.4 million in new spending through its bill with 411 amendments. While there was some overlap between the two bills, MTF said many were unique to each branch. Some have questioned the propriety of spending COVID-19 recovery dollars on such local projects, particularly after cities and towns received their own direct ARPA aid. But others argue that this is exactly how Congress intended ARPA money to be spent.
Barrett said the money he earmarked for Walsh to study the consumer impact of transitioning to heat pumps goes hand in hand with the $5 million he secured for the Clean Energy Center to hire a research team to analyze the design and operation of networked geothermal demonstration projects approved by the Department of Public Utilities.
He said he worried that if he had just proposed putting the study out to bid it could get lost in the upheaval of a Cabinet “exodus” if Baker decided, which he did on Wednesday, not to seek a third term. “I had never understood the money to be intended for something intimately related to the pandemic itself,” Barrett said. “This is the sort of initiative that you imagine being undertaken in the middle of a crisis like the one we’re experiencing with the climate.”
Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, called the earmarking an “insult to the taxpayers.” “Lawmakers are basically treating COVID-19 relief money as just another budget for their pork pet projects that will be funded next year during an election year. The biggest missed opportunity in this ARPA bill is the unemployment insurance fund for businesses,” he said.
The final bill allocates $500 million to help fortify the fund used to pay unemployment benefits, but employers are potentially on the hook to repay billions more over the next 20 years to cover the debt racked up during the height of the pandemic. Baker proposed to use $1 billion from the federal pot for UI relief.
Craney said the $500 million investment is “not even close to enough.” “The best way to reinvigorate the economy is by letting small business flourish and hire more people, but instead it’s going for a pier in Hull and a turf field at Brad Jones’s high school,” he said. Craney was referring to the $150,000 earmark in the bill to rebuild the public boat ramp at the A Street pier in Hull, and $100,000 to replace the turf field carpet at the Arthur Kenney field in North Reading, part of House Minority Leader Brad Jones’s district.
Baker’s approach to the bill, if and when it does reach his desk, remains a giant question mark. The governor has in the past attempted to veto all earmarks from annual budget bills, especially during lean times. The Legislature, however, typically has the votes to override him.
Rep. Sheila Harrington, a Groton Republican, said representatives were asked to submit their top priorities during the development of the House bill, but not everyone got everything they wanted. One earmark Harrington sought and didn’t get in the House bill was $50,000 for a gazebo in the Townsend common, but Sen. John Cronin was able to secure the money in the Senate’s version, and it was included in the compromise.
Harrington said she understands how setting aside money in a COVID-19 relief bill for a gazebo might look out of place, but she said her rural communities don’t have community health centers or other pandemic infrastructure to direct money toward. Additionally, she said the gazebo is a historic structure that must be restored in a precise, but expansive, manner. “It’s a big thing for that community. I can see how people maybe wouldn’t think it should be a priority, but it wasn’t as big a ticket item as some other earmarks,” she said.
Massachusetts Municipal Association President Geoff Beckwith said he wasn’t concerned about the decision to allow earmarking in the bill. “I think the magnitude of earmarking seems pretty reasonable in terms of the scope of the entire legislation,” Beckwith said.
Beckwith also said spending on local parks, or gazebos, is not inconsistent with the desire of Congress to use some of the money to create outdoor spaces where people could gather more safely as a community. He said many of these projects would never get done without federal money because of local budget constraints. “It’s not just about a particular structure. It’s about making sure the community has structures in place that reduce isolation during a public health crisis,” Beckwith said. “What the earmarking does is say, ‘Hey, we want our community to be included in this way,’ that spells it out.”