Compromise ARPA spending bill emerges $180m bigger

Most priorities are funded; earmarks total $134m

IT’S NICE TO HAVE money to play with.

Under pressure, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a $4 billion spending bill, which was released Wednesday evening and which lawmakers hope to give Gov. Charlie Baker by the weekend.

The bill authorizes the use of $2.55 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and another $1.45 billion in state surplus from last year.

The House and Senate had each passed bills using approximately $3.82 billion, and the additional spending lets lawmakers fund both bodies’ priorities.

Ways and Means Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues wrote in a joint statement that the agreement is reflective of their public hearing process and encompasses a wide array of one-time investments, including in sectors hardest hit by the global pandemic “with a focus on supporting communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and addressing economic and racial inequality.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka issued a joint statement saying the bill “will have a lasting and transformational impact on our Commonwealth as it continues to recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The ARPA money is intended as a multi-year investment, and the bill leaves $2.3 billion for future spending.

Lawmakers had come under public pressure for their failure to meet a self-imposed deadline of getting a bill to Baker before Thanksgiving, after they left for a seven-week recess without a deal.

In an interview on GBH Monday, Baker said he was “incredibly unhappy” lawmakers left the ARPA deal unfinished, and he had asked if they could get it done during informal sessions.

Rodrigues, in an interview, said there were no major controversial issues holding it up, but the size of the budget and its complexity meant it took time to work through the details. “It’s just a lot of details to comb through in a $4 billion, 120-page budget,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs. We were actively engaged. It’s a lot of work.”

The bill was released after 8 p.m. Wednesday, with votes planned in the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday. Conference committee reports get a yes or no vote, without amendments. However, the Legislature is only meeting in informal sessions through the end of the year, so opposition from a single lawmaker could derail it. All six conferees, including two Republicans, signed off on the deal.

While many House and Senate priorities were similar, the Senate put more money into health care and behavioral health, while the House spent more on education and economic development.

The Senate identified as its top priority $400 million for behavioral health, with a focus on workforce support and repaying clinicians’ student loans. That remains in the final bill. The Senate also secured $30 million for human service workers, down from a proposed $55 million.

The House wanted $365 million in education-related spending which the Senate excluded, including $100 million to replace public school HVAC systems. The HVAC program was included as part of $205 million in education spending.

In many cases where the House and Senate disagreed on funding, the final bill goes with the higher amount or a figure in the middle. For example, public health boards and initiatives would get $200 million – halfway between the $150 million in the House bill and $250 million in the Senate bill.

Small business relief was upped to $75 million – more than the $50 million in the Senate bill and $60 million in the House bill. Funding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council was increased to $135 million, more than the House or Senate initially envisioned. In both cases, this was because of a desire to fund specific projects, some of which were only in the House bill and others only in the Senate bill.

In some cases, the lower amount got funded. For example, the bill spends $200 million on environmental infrastructure grants and water and sewer projects, which is $100 million less than the Senate wanted. More federal money will likely become available through the recently passed congressional infrastructure bill.

Lawmakers allocated $90 million for marine port infrastructure, even though both bodies proposed $100 million. There was less money for gun violence prevention and food security than either body allocated. This lower spending reflects cases where each body funded different projects, and specific projects were dropped in the final agreement.

The House and Senate agreed in advance on two of the biggest items, setting aside $500 million in premium pay for essential employees who worked in person during the pandemic, and $500 million for the unemployment insurance trust fund. The final premium pay program targets private sector workers and also directs $40 million to bonuses of up to $2,000 for front-line state employees.

The bill is also chock-full of $134.55 million worth of local earmarks.

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.

It establishes a panel to oversee the spending and ensure money is distributed equitably to communities that most need it.

Baker has line-item veto power.