BOSTON (SHNS) – Municipal leaders urged lawmakers on Friday to revive Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to allocate billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief in the next five weeks, warning that punting decisions about how to use the pot of aid will blunt its ultimate impact.
A stream of mayors and town managers called on the Bonding Committee to reverse a decision representatives made earlier in the committee process to strip out all of the $2.3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding from Baker’s economic development bill, leaving about $1.2 billion in bonds in the rewritten version (H 4864).
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told lawmakers the “clock is really ticking loudly” as a December 2024 deadline to obligate all unspent ARPA funds looms.
She said cities and towns want to combine their relief dollars with the state’s share of ARPA money to increase the “scale” of projects and cautioned that waiting too long could result in the aid getting “clawed back.”
“On behalf of every single city councilor, select board member, town manager and mayor, and all our residents across the commonwealth, I respectfully ask these funds — and most importantly, these projects that were in the original FORWARD Act — be included in this bill,” Fuller said, using the Baker administration’s title for the bill. “Our residents, our businesses, our nonprofits are still reeling from the pandemic, plus facing inflation, staff shortages, supply chain disruptions, and all of us are now worrying about a recession.”
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said ARPA spending on port infrastructure, which featured in Baker’s original bill, would also impact the Bay State’s competitiveness in the growing offshore wind industry.
When Massachusetts first began working to attract offshore wind companies, New Bedford was “really the only port on the East Coast” in the mix, according to Mitchell. Now, he said, 19 different ports between Massachusetts and South Carolina “are vying to be number one.”
“We’re in a window of opportunity right now to attract investment in the industry, from the industry, to the commonwealth,” Mitchell said. “It won’t happen unless we get out ahead of all the other places that are trying to beat us at that game.”
Baker filed his $3.5 billion proposal (H 4720) in April, calling for pairing $1.2 billion in state bond authorizations with spending down all of the remaining $2.3 billion in ARPA money state government holds.
Lawmakers sent Baker’s bill to the Economic Development Committee, which early last week advanced the scaled-down $1.2 billion version. All of the panel’s senators reserved their rights on that decision, opting not to cast a vote in support or outright objection.
Like municipal officials, the governor’s top economic and environmental deputies on Friday said they want the Legislature to restore the proposed spending of federal dollars. Without it, the bill “does not go quite far enough,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Beth Card.
“It is critically important to make these investments now or we risk losing the benefit of these funds,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy. “ARPA fiscal recovery fund money must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Simply put, these deadlines leave remarkably little time to reach consensus, to finalize planning and to execute on projects of any complexity. Construction timelines under normal circumstances can be difficult, let alone in today’s environment.”
Although neither branch has debated and voted on ARPA or fiscal 2022 state tax surplus spending yet, House Speaker Ronald Mariano signaled last week that the Legislature’s two Ways and Means chairs — Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston and Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport — are already negotiating plans to carve up those dollars.
With more than two years left to commit the funds, the Legislature could opt to delay ARPA spending decisions until after a new governor takes the corner office in January to succeed Baker, who is not seeking reelection.