Baker worried about ‘red tape’ in ARPA bill

Massive $4b spending plan requires 38 reports

WITH FOUR DAYS left before Gov. Charlie Baker must act on a $4 billion spending bill, he voiced concerns about “a lot of red tape” in the legislation. 

“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,” Baker told reporters at an event Thursday in Boston. “We’re glad the Legislature eventually got us the bill, but 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.” 

Asked specifically what he was talking about, Baker referred to a commission established in the bill to design a premium pay program, which would provide bonuses to low-income essential workers who worked in person during the pandemic. “We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people,” Baker said. 

The massive spending bill includes money from both the American Rescue Plan Act and state surplus to fund a huge range of priorities seen as key to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, from health care to housing to economic development. 

The bill would establish a 28-person commission to oversee the premium pay program, while imposing a deadline of March 31 for pulling the program together. That timeline could be challenging if the commission needs to be appointed, then must meet and figure out how to set up the program. 

Beyond the premium pay commission, the spending bill contains two other large new panels: a Behavioral Health Trust Fund and Advisory Committee with 22 members and an Equity and Accountability Review Panel, to make sure the money is being spent in an equitable way, with 25 members. 

The bill also includes 38 required reports. Many of these are reports detailing how money from the bill is being spent or creating plans for spending it – for example, the bill requires a program plan for a new student loan repayment initiative for mental health clinicians, a schedule for distributing public health-related funds, and the creation of criteria for distributing nursing home grants. There are seven required reports solely on issues related to behavioral health and addiction treatment.  

The Department of Housing and Community Development needs to make recommendations for the development of supportive housing for seniors and veterans. The Department of Energy Resources needs to report on utility bill and energy savings stemming from pilot programs related to energy efficiency. Agencies dealing with subjects from tourism to agriculture must report on how grant programs are progressing. Environmental officials must craft spending plans for water and sewer infrastructure spending. 

Lawmakers have stressed the importance of oversight and accountability in spending such a large sum of money, and the large numbers of reports and commissions are likely meant to ensure the money is being distributed to communities that need it most. 

Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, said in a recent interview that lawmakers set up the equity and accountability review panel because “we wanted to ensure these funds are distributed equitably, whether based on race or socio-economic demographics, or equity based on geography.” 

But Baker, a Republican who has been pushing lawmakers to spend the money more quickly, appears worried that the reports and panels could delay getting money out the door. 

Baker has line-item veto authority over a budget bill, so he can sign the bill but send individual items back to the Legislature, either vetoed or with an amendment for legislators to consider. It takes a two-thirds roll call vote by both the House and Senate to override a gubernatorial veto.  

Typically, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has no problem mustering enough votes to override Baker’s vetoes. But the process is complicated this year because the Legislature is on break, only meeting in informal sessions through the end of 2021, in which they cannot hold a roll call. 

Typically, bills carry over from the first year of a two-year session to the second year. The exception, however, laid out in a joint rule agreed on by the House and Senate, is budget bills, which expire at the end of the first year of a session – in this case, January 4, 2022. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Whether the Legislature can override Baker’s vetoes when lawmakers return in January may depend on how they classify the ARPA bill. The joint rule says any measure “making or supplementing an appropriation for a fiscal year” dies at the end of the first year of the session. But the ARPA bill does not tie its appropriations to a particular fiscal year, since the money can be used over several years. House and Senate sources indicated that based on this interpretation, lawmakers will consider any vetoes or amendments to still be alive when they return in January. 

Alternatively, the House rules say when the House is meeting in informal session, a majority of elected House members may sign a petition asking for a formal session in order to override a gubernatorial veto. The House could use that mechanism to return for a formal session before January.