Baker sees “Red Tape” in premium pay panel

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)–With only days left for Gov. Charlie Baker to act on a $4 billion spending proposal that uses some of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation, the governor said Thursday that he’s most concerned about the “red tape” in the legislation.

House and Senate lawmakers sent Baker a $4 billion bill last week that uses $2.55 billion in ARPA funds and $1.45 billion in surplus state tax revenue. The bill also creates three new panels with a total of 75 members that are centered around behavioral health, premium pay, and accountability.

“It’s a big bill, obviously. It’s got billions of dollars in it and a lot of complexity. I think the thing we’re most concerned about at this point is not so much the money, but there’s a lot of red tape baked in there,” he said Thursday at an event in Boston. “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 and putting it to work for people and communities here in Massachusetts.”

Lawmakers also allocated $500 million for a premium pay program to grant bonuses of between $500 and $2,000 to essential, lower income employees who worked in-person during the COVID-19 state of emergency. A proposed 28-member Premium Pay Advisory Panel would make recommendations to the administration and finance secretary on issuance and eligibility for those bonuses.

The language for a Premium Pay Advisory Panel originated in the Senate’s original version of the bill and prevailed during conference committee negotiations. Baker pointed to the panel when asked what kind of red tape he saw in the bill (H 4269). “There’s a 30-something member commission that needs to be established to figure out what to do around premium pay,” he said. “We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people.”

Under the bill, the deadline for direct payments to eligible essential workers is March 31, 2022.

Baker has until Dec. 13 to sign the bill, return it with amendments, and announce vetoes. A spokesperson for House Speaker Ronald Mariano said “if the governor sends anything back, we will review it.”

A spokesperson from Senate President Karen Spilka’s office told the News Service that the branch’s approach to allocating ARPA funding is “centered on equity and helping and helping those people hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.” “Gaining valuable feedback from the public was an integral part of that process,” the spokesperson said. “The final bill, which includes a commission to consult on premium pay allocation, is further reflective of our approach to include those most impacted by this public health crisis in decision-making around our recovery process.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said the most notable difference between the House and Senate versions of the ARPA spending proposal was the proposed timeline and process for providing premium pay to essential workers. “Like the Senate version, the final language creates a Premium Pay Advisory Panel to assist with program design,” the organization said in a summary of the bill. “However, the final version does not explicitly authorize the bonus payment to be provided as a tax credit, as the Senate proposed, and establishes a March 31st deadline for payments.”

The Legislature’s ARPA bill sets up two other committees and requires 38 new reports.

The 22-member Behavioral Health Trust Fund and Advisory Committee would make recommendations to the Legislature on the disbursement of funds aimed at “addressing barriers to the delivery of an equitable, culturally competent, affordable and clinically-appropriate continuum of behavioral health care and services,” according to the bill text.

Another 25-member Equity and Accountability Review Panel is tasked with creating a “user-friendly tracking system and website” for the public to track in near real-time the amount and percentage of federal funds spent in communities that were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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