Climate, downtowns, housing focus of Baker spending bill
Governor urges quick movement on $3.5 billion economic development plan
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday filed a $3.5 billion economic development bill that focuses on climate-related projects, downtown revitalization, and housing. The bill is chock-full of specific local projects, a strategy likely aimed at getting the support of individual lawmakers – and getting municipal officials to lobby their lawmakers to pass it.
The bill relies on $2.3 billion in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and $1.3 billion in capital bond authorizations, or state borrowing.
So far, the Legislature has generally been slower than Baker to spend ARPA money, and Baker stressed the importance of allocating the federal dollars, which will expire in 2026, quickly to avoid getting mired in supply chain and workforce issues. “If we want to get a lot of this done over the next three, four, five years, given the issues associated with the supply chain and delivery, we need to get going now,” Baker said. “Everything will take longer than it would be expected to take if this were happening pre-pandemic.”
Baker announced the legislation, which he is calling An Act Investing in Future Opportunities for Resiliency, Workforce, and Revitalized Downtowns, or FORWARD, at a press conference at Breakwater North Harbor in Lynn. The 331-unit apartment community was developed on a long-vacant waterfront site using state grant money.
With a huge range of projects and grant programs funded through the bill, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said every municipality will get at least $250,000. Spreading the money around widely could make it easier for Baker to get buy-in from individual legislators, who see the benefits to their districts.
For example, a big city like Lynn would get $27 million, plus the opportunity to apply for additional money through competitive grant programs. The bill includes earmarks for specific projects – in Lynn’s case, $13 million for improvements to the Lynn Heritage State Park and $10 million for the South Harbor waterfront redevelopment site on the Lynnway.
Polito said one way the earmarked projects were identified was through applications already made for state grants. Massachusetts created a “one stop” portal for communities to apply to a range of funding programs. Polito said 360 applications were submitted asking for $303 million in funding, but there was only enough money to fund 196 projects, for a total of $88 million. “We have projects already initiated that these dollars can be utilized for,” Polito said.
One priority in the bill is spending $1.2 billion in ARPA funds on climate resiliency projects. This includes $750 million that Baker wants to use to jumpstart the clean energy industry. Baker said his goal is to make Massachusetts “a global leader in innovation with respect to the way we deal with clean energy innovation.” Money would fund specific projects like installing electric vehicle charging stations at Logan Airport, expanding a wind technology testing center in Charlestown, and improving the New Bedford Marine Terminal. The bill would spend more than $400 million improving state parks, fixing water and sewer infrastructure, and providing other environmental infrastructure grants.
A second priority is downtown revitalization. The bill includes $108 million for downtown recovery grants, which would be distributed to 246 municipalities. Baker said reports on the future of work have found that downtowns will need to change, as more people work from home, leading to less foot traffic going in and out of commercial hubs like Boston and more opportunities for restaurants and entertainment – and housing – in individual communities. “Downtowns will need to be different,” Baker said. “This is going to be one of the greatest challenges we’re going to face as a Commonwealth. How do we create a vision for every downtown?”
Overall, there is $970 million for various grant programs that support local projects, a large portion of it going through MassWorks, an existing competitive infrastructure grant program. These programs touch on all types of municipalities, with specific programs dedicated to rural and small towns, fixing up blighted properties, redeveloping brownfields, building out broadband, and investing in seaports.
The bill includes some additional ARPA spending on continuing COVID-19 response costs, and $250 million to shore up financially struggling hospitals.
Housing has long been a priority of Baker’s administration, and this proposal includes nearly $270 million for housing development, including building rental housing, public housing, and transit-oriented development, among other programs.
Baker said when Amazon was considering where to locate its second headquarters, company officials rejected Boston largely because housing costs are too high. “When someone goes to New York or Washington, DC, because they think they can get more affordable housing there, that’s a wakeup call,” Baker said. He also noted that many people leaving Massachusetts are in their 20s or 30s and cannot afford to buy a house here.
“You can’t name a kind of housing we don’t need more of,” Baker said.The bill also includes money for research and development, manufacturing, planning grants for higher education institution, workforce training, and other initiatives.
It will now go to the House, then the Senate. Lawmakers typically adopt some of Baker’s spending priorities, but insert many of their own into the final bill. It will be one of many major bills teed up for the Legislature to address before the July 31 end of formal sessions.