Baker, Polito press hard for economic development bill

Tout local earmarks, insist time to spend federal funds running short

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito made a strong political push on Monday for their administration’s $3.5 billion economic development bill, warning that time is running short to spend federal funds and telling members of a legislative panel how much money their individual communities stand to receive if the measure becomes law.

There was nothing subtle about the politicking as Polito turned to Sen. Eric Lesser, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, who was participating remotely because he has COVID-19. “Sen. Lesser, Chicopee in your district will get $15.7 million,” Polito said, then reeled off specific earmarks in the bill – $12 million in water and sewer projects for Lesser’s district, $2 million to restore Abbey Brook in Chicopee, $5 million for the demolition of a building at Springfield Technical Community College.

Senate committee vice chair Michael Brady’s district would get $5 million to replace lead service lines for the Brockton water supply, Polito said, while House vice chair Andres Vargas would get $13 million for Haverhill, including money to redevelop an airfield.

While Polito highlighted projects in committee members’ districts, she said the bill has something for everyone. “We want to make sure every community receives at least $250,000 in ARPA funds,” Polito said, using an acronym for the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The committee hearing provided a public forum for Baker to tout the urgency of his bill, which would authorize the state to borrow $1.3 billion and use up the remaining $2.3 billion in ARPA money. As CommonWealth has reported, the bill mainly focuses on housing production, climate-related projects, and downtown redevelopment, though there are other expenditures, including $300 million to repay the unemployment insurance trust fund and $250 million for hospitals.

Baker argued that lawmakers need to pass the bill this session – before formal legislative sessions wrap up July 31 – because supply chain issues and workforce shortages are delaying the time it takes to build projects. Under federal law, ARPA money must be committed by 2024 and spent by 2026. “To take advantage of once in a lifetime federal funds, it’s necessary we invest in cities and towns now so people can do the work that needs to be done,” Baker said. He cited specific examples of delays, like upgrades to a Kingston wastewater treatment plant where supply chain issues delayed the start of construction by nine months.

“The supply chain issues are real, labor challenges are real, inflation is real,” Baker said. “The sooner we start to put this money to work and give people certainty about these projects, the more likely they are to get them done and moving in a time frame that works for everyone.” Baker said he worries about continuing delays in obtaining materials in 2024, 2025, and 2026 as the “rest of the world is scratching and clawing to do exactly the same things” as Massachusetts.

In addition to putting money into broad categories, like downtown redevelopment, the administration picked specific local projects to fund, allowing Baker to point local officials to projects that benefit them. Asked during the hearing where these project ideas came from, Polito said most are projects for which local communities applied for state funding but the state did not have enough money. “We asked secretaries to look at grant programs they run and assess which projects are ready to go,” Polito said.

Lawmakers asked the governor a few questions – about developing market rate housing and investing in clean energy – but gave little indication of how much of Baker’s bill they intend to adopt. Parts of the bill – like a $750 million allocation to develop the clean energy industry – were proposed by Baker previously but ignored by lawmakers.

Many local officials attended the in-person hearing to ask that their projects be funded. “Projects you start now might not be done for a couple years,” said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. “2024 is right around the corner.”

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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.

Newton mayor Ruthanne Fuller, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said mayors share Baker’s urgency. “Everything in this act is urgent, transformational, smart, and inclusive,” Fuller said. Fuller said COVID continues to disrupt the economy. “We know from all our contractors they’re facing real material supply chain disruptions, and all sorts of weird workforce shortages. One subcontractor will be ready to go, another subcontractor won’t,” Fuller said. “Passing this now means we’ll get money to work before the ARPA time restrictions kick in.”

Lawmakers typically pass an economic development bill every two years, and the last one passed in 2020. The time is ripe to pass another bill, particularly with the influx in federal money. The big question is whether any bill that comes out of the Legislature will be similar to Baker’s, since lawmakers have their own priorities.