BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–The eyes of the Legislature are on Gov. Charlie Baker as lawmakers wait to see how he deploys the $2.55 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money they’ve allocated and whether he puts forward his own plans for the unspent balance before coming up with their own plans to spend more of the federal money.
Democratic lawmakers last year seized the reins of ARPA spending away from the Republican governor but are not in a rush to dip into the roughly $2.3 billion in ARPA money that was not spent in the COVID-19 relief package that Baker signed into law last month, Rep. Dan Hunt, the Dorchester Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, said Tuesday morning during a MASSterList and State House News Service virtual webinar that drew more than 400 online participants.
Instead, legislators want to see just how Baker implements the initiatives and deploys the earmarked funding in the first ARPA bill as a way to “educate the next round” of ARPA spending. Hunt added that there is “a lot in flux” between the latest omicron surge in coronavirus activity and the uncertainty that has clouded the economic outlook for about two years. “I think at this point, we’re just trying to get a sense of where we are with COVID-19 and get a sense of what we hit on in the first bill and where we missed, and there’s an opportunity for people to continue to submit testimony,” he said.
Referring to Baker’s State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night, Hunt added, “So right now we’re in a listening pattern. You know, we could see something from the governor tonight and then we’ll get our direction from there.” Hunt did not say specifically whether the House would pursue a public hearing process similar to the months-long one the Legislature undertook before crafting its first ARPA spending bill but suggested that the Legislature will seek out at least some input before the next round. “Not everyone was heard in that first process,” he said. “It’s not always possible for everyone to access government and the speaker specifically wants to make sure that we continue to do that.”
Generally speaking, ARPA money must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. But other participants in Tuesday’s event said it was important for the Legislature to get ARPA money out the door much sooner than the deadlines.
“To bring us back into context, people are still suffering in our state,” MassBudget President Marie-Frances Rivera said. Rivera also highlighted comments Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation Executive Vice President Doug Howgate made about creating a “long-term plan for the next three or four years” by ramping up investments in existing programs, starting pilot programs for newer initiatives and also thinking about big-picture ideas for the future. “What you said, Doug, is right on. How are we piloting programs now in the short term that we can continue to invest in over the long term and continue to grow? And in addition to those programs, we’ve also seen that through the federal funds that have gone directly into people’s pockets — programs like increasing SNAP benefits or matching the EITC — the money that goes directly into people’s pockets … also works in making sure that people are OK day-to-day, are able to feed their families and have a roof over their heads.”
Lizzi Weyant, deputy executive director of public affairs and advocacy at the Metro Area Planning Council, reiterated something that municipal officials told Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito late last year: Cities and towns are reluctant to spend their own ARPA money because they don’t want to use it on something the state might decide to fund itself. “I do think it’s important that the Legislature act sooner rather than later on these dollars,” Weyant said. “We heard a lot from our cities and towns that we serve at MAPC, 101 cities and towns of metropolitan Boston, but also from our sister planning agencies across the commonwealth that municipalities were often waiting for the Legislature to act because they were hesitant to spend their local dollars if the state dollars were going to come in and make investments in the same things.”
She added, “If we’re going to continue to try to give some certainty to our municipalities, it’s important to actually make those investments sooner rather than later.”
But decisions over the remainder of the ARPA allocation won’t be all that the Legislature has to consider in the coming months. State tax collections for fiscal 2022 through December were $2.67 billion higher than after the first six months of fiscal 2021 and the governor will kick off the fiscal 2023 budget cycle Wednesday with his final annual budget filing. On top of that, more than $8.6 billion is headed the Bay State’s way over the next five years as part of a new federal infrastructure package.
Hunt said House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka are having discussions about how the Legislature should proceed, but the fifth-term Democrat said that the two branches are working together better than they have since he succeeded Marty Walsh in the Legislature. “I will say that the relationship between the House and the Senate is as good as I can recall,” Hunt, who joined the Legislature in 2014, said Tuesday morning.