Lawmakers, in split with Baker, seek control of $5.28b

Governor worried about delays in spending COVID aid

THE MONEY is in the bank – and the Massachusetts Legislature is seeking control of it.  

Massachusetts state government has now received $5.286 billion from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed and President Biden signed into law in March.  

On Tuesday, lawmakers took a decisive step to ensure that they, not Gov. Charlie Baker, will have control over how the money is spent. The move raised a potential dispute with Baker’s administration over how quickly the money can be released.  

For now, the $5,286,067,526.40, which was received on May 19, is in a federal grants fund administered by the Executive Office for Administration and Finance – which means Baker and his administration can control it unilaterally without legislative appropriation, according to the comptroller’s office. 

But House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka announced in a joint statement Tuesday that they intend to pass legislation to put the money into a segregated account. The House passed the bill Tuesday, and the Senate plans to pass it next week.  

That would move the money into a separate fund that the Legislature set up as part of a budget bill, which the Legislature has more control over. The fund will be administered by the Secretary of Administration and Finance, but the Legislature must authorize the spending of the money, and the secretary will be required to report on how the money is spent to the Legislature. 

Lawmakers made clear that they intend to direct how the money is spent, in consultation with the governor’s office.  “A public legislative process will allow all communities, especially those impacted the most by COVID-19, to help determine where investments are most needed,” Mariano and Spilka said in their statement.  

However, administration officials raised concerns that moving the money into that account could delay the disbursement of those funds. In particular, the administration has committed to spending $100 million to make up a shortfall in federal funding for Chelsea, Revere, Methuen, and Randolph, which were disadvantaged by a federal funding formula that distributed pots of COVID relief money. Administration officials say if the money is moved into a segregated fund, the Legislature will need to pass a bill before it can be distributed.  

Sarah Finlaw, a spokesperson for Baker, said in a statement that, as authorized by the federal government, the $5.3 billion does not require legislative appropriation. “The Administration is ready to work with municipal, non-profit, private sector and legislative partners to invest these funds quickly,” Finlaw said. “The Baker-Polito Administration has been working tirelessly to jumpstart Massachusetts’ recovery and believes these funds are designed to be put to work without delay.” 

But the legislative leaders say they want the money to go through a new budgeting process, that will be separate from the annual state budget. Investments could be spread out over several years. Under federal rules, the money must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026. 

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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.

“As coequal branches of government, we’ll all be involved in a process around the federal funds,” said Rep. Dan Hunt, a Boston Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight. “This is an unprecedented amount of money and we just want to make sure everyone is on the same page and we’re all rowing in the same direction.” 

Hunt’s committee already held hearings with a White House official and some economists to discuss the rules for how the money can be spent. He said the committee is planning to hold additional hearings with subject matter experts and the heads of legislative committees who have expertise in areas like education, housing, and tourism and the arts. “This is once-in-a-generation funds that we need to be very deliberate on figuring out how we recover from the global pandemic and how it’s affected different sectors of the economy and make sure everyone participates in this recovery,” Hunt said.