ARPA spending bill in works for the fall

Boston Statehouse

Gov. Charlie Baker met with Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano and said they discussed topics including COVID-19, the Legislature’s fall agenda, and the start of the school year. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Passing a bill to spend some of the federal funding allocated to Massachusetts through the American Rescue Plan Act before the Thanksgiving holiday is a “reasonable” goal, House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday.

“It would be my hope that we would agree where the money was going to be spent before Thanksgiving,” Mariano said after meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka. “I think that’s a reasonable attempt to set a timetable for this.”

With the State House still closed to the public, Monday afternoon’s meeting was the first in-person huddle between Baker and legislative leaders since July 26 and only the second of 2021.

The Legislature has a little over nine weeks before it breaks for its next recess ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday — legislative rules set Nov. 17 as the last day of formal lawmaking sessions until 2022.

House and Senate budget-writers have announced plans to hold at least three more hearings this fall on spending some of the $4.8 billion available in state ARPA funds, the next of which is scheduled for Sept. 21 and will focus on health care, mental health, substance use disorder, public health, and human services.

“We still have a couple hearings left, and we are waiting to hear from both folks in the administration and folks outside how best to use some of that money,” Mariano said, going on to describe passing a bill by Thanksgiving as not an “unreasonable goal.”

Discussing her plans for the fall legislative agenda, Spilka said she anticipates putting out a bill to “use some of the money, maybe not all.”

“As you all know, the federal government specifically gives the states several years to spend it, so that we will look to make sure that we use it as widely as possible,” she said. “But I do anticipate the ARPA funding being a big issue.”

As the Baker administration has repeatedly pushed for swift action on putting the ARPA money to work, lawmakers have rejected the governor’s approach in favor of hearing from the full membership of the 200-seat Legislature and the general public. Legislators have referenced using the funds for longer-term needs as well as immediate ones — in June, Rep. Dan Hunt, the chair of the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, said that Congress intended “a process to take place over four years.”

Baker filed a bill in June to spend $2.9 billion of the ARPA money on what he identified as urgent priorities, including housing, infrastructure and workforce training. The governor and his Cabinet secretaries have continued to tout that plan and call for quickly putting the funds to use.

Baker said Monday that he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito “are confident that the Legislature appreciates the urgency associated with this” and that they respect lawmakers’ interest in opening the conversation up to the public.

“I think from our point of view, there’s real opportunity here, and I know the Legislature at the leadership level and every other level agrees with that,” he said. “I think the question here is more about the details.”

Along with spending the ARPA funds, other items on Spilka’s fall agenda include election reform, the decennial redistricting process, and mental and behavioral health.

Mariano, too, expressed interest in some sort of health care legislation, saying he has “a number of different health care issues” on his list.

“Obviously my commitment to community hospitals hasn’t changed, and I’ll be looking at ways to do that and a number of other things,” he said.

Asked when the Senate plans to take up a sports betting bill, Spilka did not give a timeline and said she expected there would be “discussions among the senators about it.” The House passed a bill legalizing sports betting on July 22. Senators last session and so far this session have resisted calls to debate the matter.

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