No rush in pursuing $1b in federal funds

Baker bill offers no details on how money will be used

WITH THE STATE’S BUDGET situation very uncertain, one would think lawmakers would jump at the chance to land $1 billion in federal emergency funds. But that hasn’t been the case.

Gov. Charlie Baker filed a $1 billion supplemental budget request with the Legislature on May 12, and there’s been no action on it yet.

Baker, in comments last week and on Wednesday, indicated he’s getting nervous about the bill. He says the legislative appropriation is largely a “technical issue” – required before he can go to the federal government and ask for reimbursement. He said further delays may allow other states to grab and possibly deplete the available federal funds.

“The clock’s ticking and other states are chasing this and I worry a lot about how long the federal resources are going to be there,” he said.

Lawmakers haven’t spelled out what’s causing the holdup, but it may be the vague nature of the budget bill itself.

Most budget bills specify precisely how much money is being requested and for what. Baker’s bill simply requests $1 billion for a COVID-19 reserve with no details. A press release issued by the governor when he filed the legislation provided a little more detail, saying the money would go for incurred or expected expenses to deal with the coronavirus, including purchases of personal protection equipment, rate adjustments for long-term care facilities, construction of temporary field hospitals, pay checks for the National Guard, the Partners in Health contact tracing program, emergency child care services, and increased costs incurred by local housing authorities and shelters.

Eileen McAnneny, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation,a business-backed fiscal watchdog, said she understands generally where the money will go. “Having said that, I agree that there should have been more detail so that it is transparent to the public how the funds will be used,” she said in an email.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a statement saying Deleo shares the governor’s concern with timely action on fiscal issues.

“That is why the House moved quickly to implement rules for remote formal sessions to pass the revenue anticipation note measure in May. In this instance, in accordance with the usual practice, the speaker’s office and the House Committee on Ways & Means have had numerous conversations with the administration, including the Executive Office of Administration & Finance, to – as the Speaker previously stated – determine the extent and format of federal reimbursements. These conversations have included numerous attempts, both verbal and in writing, to determine the deadlines for the bill. The speaker believes these basic details should be made available.”

The statement went on to say that DeLeo and other House leaders have tried to ensure the “COVID-related needs of House members are given the attention they deserve, as is the Constitutional prerogative of members of the Legislature. We are proud to have taken the necessary time to do our due diligence and have vital conversations with House members about the challenges facing their communities.”

Senate officials declined comment.

Baker raised the issue last week when he was asked if the state budget for next year would include funding for a new law providing significant additional funding for K-12 education. He said the budget situation was too fluid right now to answer the question, but he said obtaining the $1 billion in federal funds would help provide some clarity.

Under the state’s emergency declaration, which was approved by President Trump, Massachusetts is entitled to federal reimbursement for money spent in fighting COVID-19. But he said the federal government won’t provide any funds until the Massachusetts Legislature first approves the spending.

“The reason it’s a big deal is the federal government appropriated $45 billion to FEMA, [the Federal Emergency Management Agency],” Baker said. “FEMA doesn’t get money all the time. They get money when there’s a disaster, and they will then spend that money based on what states submit for reimbursement until they run out. Now that doesn’t mean they won’t have an obligation to Massachusetts or to our cities and towns, it just means that if they don’t have the money they won’t actually send it to us until such time they get another appropriation. So this is a little bit of a race between states and cities and towns to actually access federal reimbursement.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Asked why he didn’t include in the bill details on the money his administration has spent fighting the coronavirus, Baker indicated that wasn’t necessary because he has briefed House and Senate leaders on what the money is going for.

“They know what’s on that list,” he said.