Lawmakers cool to Baker spending plans

Spilka says weekend sales tax holiday is sufficient

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

A PLAN TO SWEEP about $5 billion in federal relief money into a fund controlled by the Legislature is back on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk Thursday, returned to him by lawmakers who rebuffed his suggestion to spend more than half of the money now and let them determine how to use the rest later.

The Republican governor and the Democrats who run both legislative branches have been at odds over control of the state’s $5.3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

After the House and Senate earlier this month passed a bill that would move almost all of that money into a fund from which they could appropriate it over time, Baker sent it back with an amendment that instead proposed to steer $2.3 million into the fund and spend $2.8 million to address what he’s described as urgent needs, including housing production and workforce development.

The House rejected Baker’s proposal on Tuesday, and the Senate followed suit on Thursday with a party line vote in which only the three Republican senators backed the governor. Lawmakers passed an amended bill that leaves the Baker administration with $200 million to spend, which Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said would allow Baker to quickly respond to any unforeseen emergencies.

Lawmakers also appear cool to a bill Baker announced Wednesday that would give consumers a two-month break from the sales tax this summer, with many panning the idea and recommending alternative ways to spend the roughly $900 million it would cost the state.

“We did do a weekend sales tax holiday and I think that is sufficient for now. There’s a lot of need in the state,” said Senate President Karen Spilka.

Rodrigues tied the Legislature’s decisions on the COVID relief funds to the recent end of the state of emergency, saying it had been appropriate for Baker to have sole authority over earlier rounds of federal funding when Massachusetts was at “the height of the pandemic” and needed to rapidly address a series of crises.

“As we all know, as of June 15, the state of emergency has ceased, and now we are back to more traditional times, and we should assume our traditional and constitutionally mandated authority to expend this $5.3 billion,” the Westport Democrat said.

House and Senate leaders say they plan to hold hearings and gather public input on how to spend the money, and Rodrigues said he and his House counterpart, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, would host the first of those hearings “sometime in the next few weeks.”

In a radio interview Thursday, Baker said the money should be put to use on a shorter timeline, defending his $2.8 billion plan.

“If you want to put money into tourism in Massachusetts, you probably ought to be putting it into Massachusetts tourism now,” he said on GBH Radio. “I mean, you could do it in October or November, but to some extent you’ve missed a big piece of the tourism season. I would say the same about the cultural stuff, too, and the job training piece — remember, there’s a lot of people, hundreds of thousands, whose unemployment benefits go away in September. What we wanted to do was put this money to work on skill building, credentialing programs, and sort of rapid re-employment programs, now, because those folks are going to be in a really difficult spot in September.”

Later, at a ribbon cutting for a new apartment building in Quincy, Baker cited the state’s intense housing market and the potential for people to get priced out of their neighborhoods as another reason he feels a sense of urgency.

Baker had proposed putting $1 billion toward housing, including $300 million to help first-time homebuyers in communities of color disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We wait until four, five, six, eight months from now, we may eventually get around to starting to do this, but in the meantime, a whole bunch of people who might have had an opportunity to stay where they are may lose it,” he said. “And that’s part of what I’m concerned about, but a billion dollars — we could do a lot with a billion dollars.”

Baker said his plan did not create new programs but sought to send the federal money to “programs that the Legislature is familiar with, they understand, and they’ve supported in the past.”

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Katie Lannan

State House News Service
Baker said he’s heard some of the pushback and suggestions from lawmakers.

“You know, our administration submitted a proposal last week to spend $2.8 billion on many of the things that people say we should spend money on,” he said. “We agree, which is why we filed that legislation in the first place, so I’m having a little trouble understanding that the Legislature thinks it’s important that we spend money on behavioral and addiction services, on more housing, on transportation, on environmental infrastructure, on all those things that they were talking about. We’re ready to see that proposal that we filed move, but the answer we got from them was that they want to spend some time thinking about it. I have trouble figuring out how both of those things are consistent.”