Process overtakes promise on ARPA spending bill

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. 

The demand for the money was overwhelming. When the House unveiled its American Rescue Plan Act spending plan in October, officials revealed that their six hearings had turfed up requests from 400 individuals and organizations totaling more than $30 billion. Prior to debate on the bill, House members filed 1,128 amendments seeking another $5.8 billion.

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. 

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Fare free snag: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s $8 million plan to make three MBTA bus routes fare free for the next two years hits a major snag, as federal guidelines say pilot projects can last only six months before they have to be halted or made permanent.

– Wu isn’t backing down and says she is working with the T to come up with a workaround. There are options, but it’s unclear if Wu and the T can come to terms. The T is wary of making the routes fare free permanently without a permanent source of funding in place. Wu wants to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover the T’s costs, but those federal funds will eventually run out. Read more.

Baker signs ARPA bill: Gov. Charlie Baker signs the $4 billion American Rescue Plan Act spending bill into law after making a few vetoes and filing an amendment to eliminate what he considered onerous oversight provisions. He leaves intact $300 million in earmarks inserted into the legislation to benefit specific local projects. Read more.

Rapid COVID test rollout: Gov. Charlie Baker said the state will make 2.1 million rapid COVID tests available to more than 100 lower-income communities and is also working on bulk purchasing deals to allow all communities to buy the tests at relatively low prices. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Eggmageddon will arrive in the state on the first of the year if lawmakers don’t take action to modify a voter-approved law, industry officials warn. (Boston Globe

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

With COVID cases rising, Salem is among the communities considering imposing a vaccine mandate on municipal workers. (Salem News

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Massachusetts is close to vaccinating 5 million residents, with 1.6 million residents boosted, as case numbers dipped slightly this past weekend. (MassLive)

Nurses at Brigham and Women’s Hospital say their facility is flouting a state directive to postpone certain elective surgeries amid the new surge in COVID cases. (Boston Globe

David Phelps retiring as head of Berkshire Health System. (Berkshire Eagle)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol voted to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt for defying a subpoena to cooperate with the probe. (Washington Post

USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee reach a $380 million settlements with the victims of sexual abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sonia Chang-Diaz is doubling down on her calls for police while defending a campaign staffer who is facing criticism for wearing a hat in his Twitter profile picture that features an anti-police slogan. (Boston Herald)

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards and Revere School Committee member Anthony D’Ambrosio face-off today in a Democratic primary special election for the state Senate seat vacated by Joe Boncore. Here’s CommonWealth’s look last week at the election, which is becoming a turf battle between different sides of the district. 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Fidelity Investments and tech company Klaviyo are pulling back on their return-to-office plans and ordering all employees to work remotely because of rising COVID-19 concerns. (Boston Globe

The developer behind Dorchester Bay City announces a deal with the Boston Teachers Union to expand the size of the project, adding more office and lab space. The teachers union plans to build a new headquarters on the remaining land it holds at the site. (Dorchester Reporter)

EDUCATION

A task force in Worcester proposes a school safety plan that would no longer have police officers inside the school building. (Telegram & Gazette)

Peabody High School football players are disciplined for inappropriate locker room behavior. (GBH)

Framingham State University is offering a $5,000 reward for help identifying the person who posted stickers promoting a group called the Patriot Front on campus. The school said Patriot Front is a white supremacist group. (MetroWest Daily News) A two-month investigation trying to find out who sent racist messages to Black organizations at UMass Amherst comes up empty. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

ARTS/CULTURE

The boyhood home of rocket scientist Robert Goddard in Worcester is bought by a couple who plan to preserve the landmark property and use it as an educational resource. (Telegram & Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh touts the importance of passenger rail – including a Springfield to Boston rail line – at a visit to Springfield’s Union Station with US Rep. Richard Neal. (MassLive)

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation prepares to kick off a study on reestablishing service between North Adams and Boston. (Berkshire Eagle)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Three more Fall River priests are now considered “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. (Herald News)

Springfield narcotics detective Gregg Bigda is acquitted of police brutality after a trial that centered on an allegedly abusive interrogation. (MassLive)

Harvard professor Charles Lieber goes on trial today in federal court in Boston on charges that he lied about ties to a Chinese university and cheated on his taxes. (Boston Globe

MEDIA

In a jarring display of the strong ties between Fox News anchors and the Trump administration, newly released text messages show that three prominent Fox News personalities reached out to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows during the January 6 riots at the Capitol urging him to have President Trump speak out more forcefully against the insurrectionists. (New York Times)

The Boston Globe says digital-only circulation hits 226,000, but print earnings still represent more than half of revenue. (Media Nation)