Process overtakes promise on ARPA spending bill
Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity becomes business as usual
IT STARTED OUT as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — the chance to spend billions of dollars in unexpected federal and state funds to accomplish real change in Massachusetts – but as the process dragged on and on on Beacon Hill, the debate sounded more and more about process and less about change.
Gov. Charlie Baker pressed for quick action to help the pandemic-ravaged economy recover quicker. Legislative leaders, however, pushed back, saying they wanted to take their time, hear from constituent groups, and make wise decisions.
Senate President Karen Spilka said there was wisdom in waiting. “We are no longer in the rescue situation where money needed to be spent urgently and quickly,” she said in August. “We are now in recovery mode and back to the more normal budget type of appropriation process.”
But as lawmakers held more and more hearings, the idea of using the money to make once-in-a-lifetime investments faded from the discussion. Beacon Hill is an environment of compromise. It’s not a place where you bet big on one or two priorities; it’s a place of many priorities.
It took months for the bill to make its way through the legislative process and end up on the governor’s desk. The bill Baker signed on Monday distributes nearly $4 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act money and state surplus funds into a series of buckets for workforce development ($1.12 billion), housing ($595 million), infrastructure ($414 million), health care ($948 million), education ($305 million), and economic development ($210 million). The workforce development bucket includes $500 million to reduce unemployment insurance taxes on businesses and nearly $500 million to provide one-time checks to low-income essential workers who worked in person during the pandemic.
The bill also includes an estimated $300 million in local earmarks, money legislators inserted into the budget for specific projects in their districts. There was $500,000 for a rail trail in Lawrence and $300,000 for a museum in Worcester, according to the Boston Globe.
A big chunk of the money for arts was actually earmarked for projects that had little to do with arts, including $50 million for improvements to MBTA stations in Norfolk County, building upgrades for the Brockton Council on Aging, and an expansion of the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy.
The news stories about Baker signing the bill into law focused mostly on his vetoes of language that he said would tie his hands in spending the money and less on what the money will actually accomplish. Baker’s press release on the bill signing said the measure would accelerate the state’s economic recovery and provide long-lasting economic benefits in a number of areas.Legislative leaders say parts of the bill could spur transformative change. House Speaker Ron Mariano said investments in offshore wind infrastructure could be a “game changer” in positioning the state to take a key role in the clean energy industry, and public health spending will better prepare the state for a future pandemic. Spilka, meanwhile, has said the massive investment in behavioral and mental health could turn around that ailing system.
Spending $4 billion is bound to have a positive impact, but whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime change is far from clear. It’s also not the state’s last chance. Baker said the state still has $2.3 billion in federal funds in reserve that will have to be spent over the next few years.