Can ARPA spending spur transformative change?

Four months ago, CommonWealth reported that jockeying was underway for a slice of the $5.9 billion pie of federal money coming to Massachusetts state government from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“It’s a lot of money, but it’s not infinite money. Not even close,” Evan Horowitz, director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, said.

That comment proved prescient as House leaders said this week that they had gotten requests from 400 individuals and organizations totaling more than $30 billion. They whittled that down to a $3.65 billion plan.

State representatives then proposed 1,128 amendments seeking another $5.8 billion, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Behind closed doors Thursday, lawmakers began whittling those requests down. They added $56.05 million through two consolidated amendments, one related to health and human services and education and the other to housing and food security, which then passed on a floor vote. That’s compared to more than $2.15 billion in amendments lawmakers proposed in those areas, according to MTF. Debate continues Friday.

The big question for lawmakers is whether they can take once-in-a-generation federal largesse and use it to make transformative changes. Lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker have committed to steering the money as much as possible toward poor communities of color – those most directly impacted by COVID-19.

Baker’s approach, in his $2.9 billion proposal, has been described by administration officials as take what’s working and do more of it, by putting more capital into existing programs. Part of the advantage of this approach for the governor is by putting money into programs the Legislature already supported, he increases the chances that lawmakers will fund them again.

The House plan is in some ways similar. It does not include many new programs. The biggest new one – premium pay for low-income essential workers who worked during the pandemic – would significantly help individuals but is unlikely to fundamentally restructure society.

Many of the programs it funds already exist. For example, the plan would enhance the CommonWealth Builder program to spur housing production; increase funding for a workforce training fund; and put $25 million into greening Gateway Cities, $40 million into youth job programs, and $10 million into gun violence prevention.

That said, depending on how programs are implemented, some of the investments could potentially take a large step toward spurring new industry or solving long-standing societal ills.

Both Baker and the House want to spend $100 million on marine port and offshore wind development. If successful, that could make Massachusetts a national leader in the offshore wind industry, and permanently transform places like New Bedford, Salem, and Somerset into economic hubs.

The House is proposing $250 million for financially strained hospitals, which House Speaker Ron Mariano says will be paired with health policy legislation. Will this investment spur the state to finally address disparities in insurance reimbursement that force community hospitals to struggle? That depends on the policy details.

The House is proposing $250 million for behavioral health programs, including workforce reimbursement. Amendments would add $24 million for new mental health and substance abuse beds and direct funds to address emergency room boarding. Will that be sufficient to transform a broken mental health system and end the crisis of mental health patients waiting days in the emergency room for an inpatient bed? It depends how the money is used.

Baker officials argue that the $1 billion the governor wants to spend on housing, half of which would go toward homeownership support and production, would address the generations-old racial disparity in homeownership rates and permanently improve the economic well-being of Black and Hispanic families. The House would spend less on housing – $600 million – with just $200 million going toward homeownership.

One question is how much authority the administration will have to gear the spending toward particular areas that fit its priorities. The House bill as introduced gave the administration a fair amount of discretion. But the amendments are primarily local earmarks – directing specific sums to a Brockton food pantry for the Latino community, a homeless women’s shelter on Martha’s Vineyard, or a Brookline senior center.

Another question is what the Senate will do. While the House and Senate have agreed on broad priorities and a couple of large expenditures – like premium pay – the Senate will have its own priorities and earmarks. Baker will then have line-item veto power, although the Democratic-controlled Legislature can generally override him.

In other words, the bill has a long way to go before becoming law. Let the jockeying for funds continue. 



Garden fight: Gardners at the Herter Community Garden are fighting a proposal by the Department of Conservation and Recreation to consolidate their plots on the Charles River with others inside Herter Park in Allston. State officials want to open the area up and provide greater access to the river, but the gardeners, many of whom waited years for their plots, say the land is their life and their perennial plants cannot be moved. “You can’t move 50 years of people’s labor, of a community that’s grown up over 50 years,” said Naomi Yang. Read more.

Community investments: Mass General Brigham says it intends to invest $50 million over the next five years in 20 community partners that can help the hospital system address mental health care shortages, chronic disease, and food insecurity. Read more.


Casting a ballot: What makes people vote the way they do, says veteran Boston political player and watcher Larry DiCara, is not just about demographics and Census data. Read more.

Rise of the super PAC: With the union loophole that played a key role in the 2013 mayoral election closed, super PACs are on the rise. Paul Craney of the Mass Fiscal Alliance says Citizens United has given rise to more political speech through independent expenditures. Read more.




The Legislature sends final redistricting maps to Gov. Baker for his signature. (State House News Service)


The city of Boston spent about three hours clearing out a dozen tents at Mass. and Cass, putting much of the debris in a dump truck. Some of those removed did go to nearby shelters, but several vowed to move to another street. Ronald Geddes, 53, said he would relocate. “I don’t want to share a shower and bathroom with somebody, and a kitchen. And that’s all I can afford right now — a room — and I don’t want to do it. I’d rather live in a tent,” he said. (WBUR)

Worcester’s COVID vaccine mandate for municipal employees goes into effect Monday. (Telegram & Gazette)


Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins gets profiled by the Washington Post as she waits to see whether her nomination to be US attorney for Massachusetts makes it past a buzzsaw of Senate Republican opposition.


The Boston Herald, which made no endorsement in the Boston mayoral preliminary, gives its backing to Annissa Essaibi George in the final — with a closing quote from former Boston police commissioner William Gross, who spearheads a super PAC that has spent heavily on ads in the paper. The latest endorsement rolled out by Michelle Wu: Angela Menino, widow of the late mayor who Wu worked for before running for city council in 2013. (Boston Globe)  

Politico pairs Wu’s campaign with that of democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo as examples of mayoral contests where progressives are hoping to show their clout. 

The Globe weighs in with endorsements in four mayoral races, supporting Ruthanne Fuller in Newton, Kendrys Vasquez in Lawrence, Katjana Ballantyne in Somerville, and Jared Nicholson in Lynn. 

The Daily Item separately profiles the two candidates for mayor in Lynn — Darren Cyr and Jared Nicholson

The Daily Hampshire Gazette endorses Gina-Louise Sciarra for mayor of Northampton. Sciarra is the current City Council president; her rival is Marc Warner, a businessman and transportation consultant.

Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill and Kenyan refugee Esther Ngotho became friends when Ngotho demanded a meeting with Cahill then joined Beverly’s Human Rights Commission. Now they are running against each other. (Salem News)

Holyoke mayoral candidates Joshua Garcia and Michael Sullivan square off in a final debate. (MassLive)


Facebook changes its name to Meta, as the corporate giant refocuses on the unification of disparate digital worlds into something called the metaverse. Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp will remain as businesses but under the Meta corporate umbrella. (New York Times)

JustinCredible Cultivation in Cummington is the only Black-, veteran-, and woman-owned recreational cannabis cultivation facility on the East Coast. (MassLive)

MGM Springfield reopens its poker room Friday after an 18-month hiatus due to COVID. (MassLive)


South Hadley High School wants to require students to come to school on four Saturdays to make up for a delayed start due to mold issues — and parents aren’t happy. (MassLive)

The head of the Middlesex School has taken a leave of absence after he came under withering criticism for revoking an invitation to prominent Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to speak at the pricey Concord private school. (Boston Globe

A state audit faulted Roxbury Community College over multiple financial practices and its failure to conduct required sex offender background checks on 13 employees at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center that the school oversees. (State House News


The Sierra Club says it found detectable levels of forever chemicals in water sources across the state. (WBUR)

Environmental groups are trashing the state’s new solid waste plan. (Salem News)


The State Police have begun taking troopers off the job for violating the Baker administration’s vaccine mandate. (Boston Herald

A Mattapan landlord and Boston constable filed suit in Housing Court against the city’s eviction ban imposed by Acting Mayor Kim Janey in August. (Boston Globe)