White House official stresses flexibility in spending federal money

American Rescue Plan will provide nearly $8 billion for Massachusetts

WITH MASSACHUSETTS EXPECTING an influx of nearly $8 billion in federal stimulus money, many of the federal government’s guidelines for how the money can be used won’t be released until mid-May. But a top White House official told state lawmakers Tuesday that there will likely be a fair amount of flexibility in how states can utilize the federal dollars. 

“We know there’s a lot of need, and it’s important to get money out quickly,” said Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council.  “We’re trying to walk a fine line in putting guidelines in place, while maintaining flexibility for state and local officials to use the money as best as they see fit.” 

Ramamurti spoke for about half an hour, during a virtual online hearing, to the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, led by Rep. Dan Hunt, a Boston Democrat. Over the last year, Gov. Charlie Baker has had a fair amount of discretion in allocating the money that came from Washington through various COVID recovery bills. Now, with the American Rescue Plan expected to send an unprecedented amount of money into the state, lawmakers seem poised to take a far more hands-on approach to determining where the money will go. 

Hunt said before “exercising the Legislature’s constitutional authority to appropriate recovery funds,” he wanted to hear from Ramamurti to “garner an understanding of the plan and the vision the Biden-Harris administration has for Massachusetts.”  

Hunt said information about how federal money can be used will be vital as the House crafts its fiscal 2022 budget plan in April. But he also wants to use the money to make long-term, systemic changes to how programs are structured. For example, he suggested lawmakers might talk about whether the money could be used to institute universal prekindergarten. 

“The sense I get from the administration is the idea was to give the states a lot of flexibility to really use this once in a generation funding to reshape programs,” Hunt said. 

Under the American Rescue Plan, the Treasury Department has until mid-May to write the guidelines regarding how the money can be used. Ramamurti said he anticipates the money will be distributed soon after that.  

Massachusetts state government is expected to get around $5.4 billion, with another $2.6 billion going directly to municipal and county governments. Other pots of money will be available for transit and schools. Additionally, around 78 percent of households will get stimulus checks directly, with $1,400 for each adult and child. 

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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.

Ramamurti said a lot of the details of how the money can be spent still need to be worked out in the Treasury Department guidelines. But generally, there are four ways the money can be used by state and local governments: to cover COVID-related costs; to replace lost revenue and reinstate programs that would otherwise be cut; to build infrastructure projects including water, sewer, and broadband; and to give premium pay, or bonus pay, to essential workers. 

When North Adams Rep. John Barrett asked about how the broadband money can be used, Ramamurti said it will be flexible. “We want to make sure the money is available for the broadest variety of uses possible,” he said.