Spilka defends deliberative approach on fed aid
Senate President Karen Spilka believes there is “wisdom in waiting” to spend federal COVID-19 recovery money.
“We are no longer in the state of emergency, the major state of emergency at the height of COVID,” Spilka said. “We are no longer in the rescue situation where money needed to be spent urgently and quickly. We are now in recovery mode and back to the more normal budget type of appropriation process.”
As Gov. Charlie Baker pressures lawmakers to act quickly to begin spending part of the $5.3 billion state government received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues both said they would rather wait a bit. The two Senate leaders spoke on this week’s Codcast about the Senate’s priorities for spending the ARPA money.
Rodrigues said Congress designed the program so the money only has to be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026. “They designed it that way so we would be thoughtful and deliberative and ensure that these investments have the biggest impacts in the long term in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Rodrigues said.
Baker has made a proposal for spending $2.9 billion. The House and Senate are holding hearings on his plan and hearing from experts and the public regarding how to spend the money. The House will make its proposal next, followed by the Senate, just like during the annual budget debate.
Asked where the Senate might look to spend the money, Spilka ticked off a range of policy areas: housing, climate, racial and economic inequities, intergenerational care, health care, education, and broadband internet. “There’s so many needs in Massachusetts,” she said.
Baker’s proposal would spend $1 billion each on housing and infrastructure, with additional money for downtown development, tourism, job training, addiction treatment, and hospitals. Rodrigues said he does not quibble with those values – in fact, the annual state budget funded all of those areas. But Spilka said other money might become available to fund some of these priorities.
“I think that it’s important that we take the time to utilize this once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in bold and transformational change in our communities,” Spilka said. For example, Spilka has promoted a focus on “intergenerational care,” making it easier for families to care for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
The pandemic highlighted the vulnerabilities that exist in communities of color. Asked how ARPA investments can improve the lives of minority populations, Rodrigues said his priority will be to listen to what the communities want.Spilka said similarly that she wants to hear from people in the community about how best to improve their lives. “We do know that there are needs in housing, health care, workforce development, clearly, and many other areas,” Spilka said. “But how that trickles down to be specifically what kind of programs for housing would be most helpful? What kinds of workforce opportunities should it be?…These are the types of things that we want to hear.”
Asked what transparency measures will be imposed on the federal spending, Rodrigues pledged to include in any legislation the creation of an online spending portal where the public can see where ARPA money is being spent. “We will build in whatever tools are necessary to ensure accountability so that the public, the taxpayers of the Commonwealth can see for themselves that the dollars are spent exactly as they were intended to,” Rodrigues said.