Baker laments ‘massive delay’ in spending ARPA funds

On Wednesday night, Gov. Charlie Baker’s worst fears about giving the Legislature control of $5.3 billion in federal money came true.

The House and Senate blew past their self-imposed deadline of getting Baker a spending bill by Thanksgiving, leaving the procrastination-prone Legislature with no firm near-term deadline by which to spend the money.

The Baker-Polito Administration believes the Legislature’s original decision six months ago to freeze these funds and subject them to the legislative process created a massive delay in putting these taxpayer dollars to work,” Baker press secretary Terry MacCormack said in a statement Thursday morning. “Massachusetts was already behind most of the country in utilizing these funds before the latest setback, and further delay will only continue to leave residents, small businesses, and hundreds of organizations frozen out from the support the rest of the country is now tapping into to recover from this brutal pandemic.” 

The Republican governor announced his plan to spend the federal American Rescue Plan Act money in June. But the Democratic-led Legislature gave themselves control over the funds. Baker has been pushing lawmakers to get some money out quickly to deal with immediate needs – like job retraining for unemployed individuals – and to start making longer-term investments, like building housing.

But the Legislature stressed the need for a slower, more deliberative process, and spent several months holding hearings. That process resulted in a tight time frame. The House released its version of an ARPA bill in late October. The Senate passed its version last Wednesday. A conference committee was appointed Monday, leaving just three days for House-Senate negotiators to reach a compromise by Wednesday, the last day of formal sessions before the Legislature goes on break until January.

Legislative leaders are vowing to continue working on the bill during the holiday recess, but in informal sessions, which continue through December, the opposition of a single lawmaker can derail a bill’s passage, and it is unlikely a massive spending plan would be passed informally.

Evan Horowitz, director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, has said previously that there is no economic imperative to put money into the economy right now since in many cases there is more demand for products than supply. But he said Wednesday that there is a political imperative.

“You have lots of complicated questions about who’s going to get it because everyone wants a piece of it, so you need something that’s going to force a compromise or force decisions,” Horowitz said. Horowitz said it appeared the Thanksgiving deadline lawmakers set for themselves would be that force. Without that, he said, “You can imagine kicking this can all but indefinitely and ending up in 2024 when we have to make all the spending decisions in a month.” Under federal law, the money must be appropriated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

Bills coming out of Congress could also influence state spending. President Biden just signed an infrastructure bill that is expected to steer $9 billion to Massachusetts. Congress is considering the Build Back Better bill, another massive spending plan. But Horowitz said given the priorities included in the legislative proposals, he does not see any areas where if more federal money were to arrive, lawmakers would regret the earlier spending.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would allocate around $3.82 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and some state surplus.

While the bodies agreed on some of the biggest provisions – spending $500 million on premium pay for essential workers and $500 million to reimburse the unemployment insurance trust fund – there were significant differences. According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the House had $790.8 million in unique spending, line items or amounts not shared with the Senate, and the Senate had $837.6 million in unique spending. The Senate would spend more on mental health, while the House would spend more on education.

Horowitz said the size of the federal largesse actually creates political problems because no one is in a “triage” mindset. “It’s a complicated situation, because people aren’t expecting to be cut out because there’s a sense there’s a ton of money, but it isn’t enough to avoid cutting some people and priorities out,” Horowitz said.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Fare-free expansion: On her first full day in office, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said she planned to use $8 million of federal money to eliminate fares for the next two years on three bus routes running through the heart of the city’s Black community. The proposal, which must be approved by the City Council, would extend the existing fare free pilot on the Route 28 bus and expand it to the Route 23 and 29 buses.

— Wu’s office said the two-year initiative would allow time to measure the effects of fare-free service and also set “the foundation for Mayor Wu to build regional and state-level momentum for fare-free public transit, starting with buses.”

— The fare free bus announcement came the same day that Wu spent an hour getting acquainted with Gov. Charlie Baker, who opposes the idea of eliminating fares on the T but has been open to city-funded efforts to eliminate fares for select services. Read more.

Hospitals called fragile: Trying to tamp down growing momentum for some kind of restriction on the prices charged by academic medical centers, the CEOs of Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey told the Health Policy Commission their hospital systems are fragile and doing everything they can to shift care to lower-cost settings.

— “I’m a little concerned we are having this discussion as if the pandemic is done and we can now move on to other things,” said Kevin Tabb, the president and CEO of Beth Israel Lahey. “I would really urge caution, real caution, when it comes to taking any actions that would adversely impact the state of the health care system because, as I see it, it’s at a breaking point right now.”

— Members of the commission were openly skeptical. Don Berwick pointedly asked Anne Klibanski, the president and CEO of Mass General Brigham, whether she had any plan to get her hospital system back into the mainstream in terms of cost structure. Klibanski said she is focused on treating more patients in community settings or in their homes. “This is a very, very new world for us,” she said. Read more.

Taking aim at Mass General Brigham: Pushed by Speaker Ron Mariano, the House passed legislation giving the Health Policy Commission more authority to scrutinize hospital expansions and giving community hospitals that could be harmed by the incursions veto power over them. If the bill becomes law, it would apply retroactively to Mass General Brigham’s bid to open ambulatory care centers in Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn. The House bill would also set in motion an effort to increase funding for expanded duties being given to the Health Policy Commission. Read more.

Missed deadline: Lawmakers fail to come to an agreement on an ARPA spending bill by their holiday break, which will delay the release of billions of dollars of federal aid for a wide assortment of state priorities. Read more.

T notes: The MBTA is faced with a new challenge — what to do with money left over after completion of the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford. Also, new MBTA Board wraps up meeting in 64 minutes, commuter rail making a comeback, and hiring at the T lagging. Read more.

Telehealth holdouts: A new report from the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans indicates older people are not using telehealth as much as other age groups, presumably because they are less comfortable with technology. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The Senate approves its plan to increase access to mental health care. (Salem News)

South Coast lawmakers vote against the new congressional maps, which are sent to Gov. Charlie Baker. (State House News Service)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Gov. Baker urges a “transparent airing” of allegations of improper behavior by members of the Danvers high school hockey team. (Salem News)

A judge denied the ACLU’s request for an injunction blocking a city executive order issued by former acting mayor Kim Janey to clear tents from Mass. and Cass, but the new Wu administration hasn’t said whether it will resume the operation or shift gears. (Boston Herald

The town of Leicester bought the former campus of Becker College and is now considering building its new high school there. (Telegram & Gazette)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Drug overdose deaths in the US have topped 100,000 over the course of a year for the first time. (NPR)

The Telegram & Gazette explores the boarding crisis in its local hospitals, with mental health patients waiting weeks for an open bed. CommonWealth reported in May that the problem is particularly acute among children.

Another side effect of the COVID-related restrictions and lockdowns: a rise in childhood obesity, as children spend more time sitting around and have less access to healthy food. (Telegram & Gazette)

Massachusetts reported 2,650 new COVID cases yesterday – the highest single-day number since the height of the pandemic in February. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The House voted to censure Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar and remove him from his committee assignment for tweeting an animated video showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and swinging swords at President Biden. (Washington Post

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has yet to secure DC living digs, opting to stay in a Hilton hotel when he’s in the capital. Politico says the arrangement has “raised eyebrows” within the Biden administration as well as in Boston, “where Walsh has made it clear he wants to run for office again someday.” 

ELECTIONS

Proposals related to expanding beer and wine sales and determining the employment status of ride-hailing drivers take another step toward the November 2022 ballot, while a nurses union decides not to move forward with ballot questions regulating hospital profits and behavior. (Eagle-Tribune)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Two-time Boston mayoral candidate John Barros, who served as chief of economic development under Mayor Marty Walsh, is heading for the private sector where he will run the Boston office of commercial real estate brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

Boston city councilors slammed the city’s school department over what they say is a lack of transparency in sharing information on incidents of violence in schools. (Boston Herald)

The NCAA rejects an appeal by UMass Amherst and says it will strip the women’s tennis and men’s basketball teams of victories between 2014 and 2017, including a conference championship, because UMass mistakenly provided financial aid packages that aligned with higher on-campus living expenses even though the athletes had moved off campus. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

ARTS/CULTURE

A United Auto Workers union at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston sets up a picket line for a one-day strike in support of higher wages. (WBUR)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Specialty Minerals of North Adams released industrial waste into the Hoosic River, which turned the river white. State environmental officials said the discharge is not dangerous to humans. (Berkshire Eagle)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A judge suspends the use of breathalyzer tests over concerns about their reliability. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia, convicted of corruption, asks a judge to let him delay reporting to jail by a month so he can spend Christmas with his family and help out in their family business. (Herald News)

A Brockton police officer is placed on leave after a video shows the officer kneeling on a high school student’s neck while arresting him. (MassLive)