Compromise ARPA spending bill emerges $180m bigger

It’s nice to have money to play with.

Under pressure, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a $4 billion spending bill, which was released Wednesday evening and which lawmakers hope to give Gov. Charlie Baker by the weekend.

The bill authorizes the use of $2.55 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and another $1.45 billion in state surplus from last year.

The House and Senate had each passed bills using approximately $3.82 billion, and the additional spending lets lawmakers fund both bodies’ priorities.

Ways and Means Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues wrote in a joint statement that the agreement is reflective of their public hearing process and encompasses a wide array of one-time investments, including in sectors hardest hit by the global pandemic “with a focus on supporting communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and addressing economic and racial inequality.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka issued a joint statement saying the bill “will have a lasting and transformational impact on our Commonwealth as it continues to recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The ARPA money is intended as a multi-year investment, and the bill leaves $2.3 billion for future spending.

Lawmakers had come under public pressure for their failure to meet a self-imposed deadline of getting a bill to Baker before Thanksgiving, after they left for a seven-week recess without a deal.

In an interview on GBH Monday, Baker said he was “incredibly unhappy” lawmakers left the ARPA deal unfinished, and he had asked if they could get it done during informal sessions.

Rodrigues, in an interview, said there were no major controversial issues holding it up, but the size of the budget and its complexity meant it took time to work through the details. “It’s just a lot of details to comb through in a $4 billion, 120-page budget,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs. We were actively engaged. It’s a lot of work.”

The bill was released after 8 p.m. Wednesday, with votes planned in the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday. Conference committee reports get a yes or no vote, without amendments. However, the Legislature is only meeting in informal sessions through the end of the year, so opposition from a single lawmaker could derail it. All six conferees, including two Republicans, signed off on the deal.

While many House and Senate priorities were similar, the Senate put more money into health care and behavioral health, while the House spent more on education and economic development.

The Senate identified as its top priority $400 million for behavioral health, with a focus on workforce support and repaying clinicians’ student loans. That remains in the final bill. The Senate also secured $30 million for human service workers, down from a proposed $55 million.

The House wanted $365 million in education-related spending which the Senate excluded, including $100 million to replace public school HVAC systems. The HVAC program was included as part of $205 million in education spending.

In many cases where the House and Senate disagreed on funding, the final bill goes with the higher amount or a figure in the middle. For example, public health boards and initiatives would get $200 million – halfway between the $150 million in the House bill and $250 million in the Senate bill.

Small business relief was upped to $75 million – more than the $50 million in the Senate bill and $60 million in the House bill. Funding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council and other cultural-related earmarks was increased to $135 million, more than the House or Senate initially envisioned. In both cases, this was because of a desire to fund specific projects, some of which were only in the House bill and others only in the Senate bill.

In some cases, the lower amount got funded. For example, the bill spends $200 million on environmental infrastructure grants and water and sewer projects, which is $100 million less than the Senate wanted. More federal money will likely become available through the recently passed congressional infrastructure bill.

Lawmakers allocated $90 million for marine port infrastructure, even though both bodies proposed $100 million. There was less money for gun violence prevention and food security than either body allocated. This lower spending reflects cases where each body funded different projects, and specific projects were dropped in the final agreement.

The House and Senate agreed in advance on two of the biggest items, setting aside $500 million in premium pay for essential employees who worked in person during the pandemic, and $500 million for the unemployment insurance trust fund. The final premium pay program targets private sector workers and also directs $40 million to bonuses of up to $2,000 for front-line state employees.

The bill is also chock-full of $134.55 million worth of local earmarks.

It establishes a panel to oversee the spending and ensure money is distributed equitably to communities that most need it.

Baker has line-item veto power. Lawmakers would have to wait until they return to formal sessions in January to override any vetoes.




What happens to the middle? The decision by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito not to seek re-election next year reshapes the political landscape in Massachusetts. Their exit, with no high-profile fellow moderate Republicans waiting in the wings, raises big questions about the future of the state GOP and has implications for a Democratic primary that will also feel the ripple effects of the decision. 

– The current candidates for governor include former Republican state rep and Trump acolyte Geoff Diehl on the right and three progressive Democrats on the left – Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, former senator Ben Downing, and Harvard professor Danielle Allen. Attorney General Maura Healey, who is also expected to jump in, would be the immediate favorite with her strong name recognition and bulging campaign coffers. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the former mayor of Boston, is also said to be considering a run.

– The big question is where Baker’s center-right or moderate coalition will go. Will a candidate emerge capable of winning that coalition over, or will the middle shrink as its members get pulled to the left or the right? Baker said he believes politicians will have to appeal to his coalition. “If you look at where we land with respect to the people of Massachusetts, the vast majority of them are basically in the same place we are,” he said yesterday. “One way or another, they, the people of Massachusetts, will have a lot to say about the kind of political discourse and the kind of political behavior that they will choose to support here in the Commonwealth, and that will drive almost by definition the people who are playing in that environment to respect and respond to them.” Read more.

What candidates had to say: Healey heaped praise on Baker, calling him a “valued partner” and a friend. Danielle Allen thanked Baker for his service, while Downing and Chang-Diaz said it was time to move on from the status quo that Baker represented. Read more.

8 years is enough: The governor and lieutenant governor said they did a lot of soul-searching with their families and decided it was time to move on to the next phases of their lives. It was a decision, they said, that will allow them to focus all of their attention in their final year in office on using billions of dollars in federal and surplus state funds to reinvent the state.

– Polito, whose office is largely seen as a stepping stone to the job of governor, indicated that was never her intention. “My whole idea of running with the governor was to come into office with the governor, to serve as a team with the governor, and to finish with the governor,” she said. Read more.


Scrambled eggs: David Radlo says the egg market in Massachusetts is about to be scrambled because lawmakers have failed to alter a voter-approved law that treats hens more humanely than other states do. Read more.





The Telegram & Gazette profiles Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito as a politician who “put Central Massachusetts on the map” and will be missed by local leaders when she leaves Beacon Hill. 


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