BOSTON — Baker administration officials pressed state lawmakers on Thursday to swiftly approve plans to spend a portion of pandemic relief funds on economic development needs, transportation upgrades and climate change resiliency.
Thursday’s livestreamed hearing before the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee and House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight is the latest looking at Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to spend $2.9 million in relief money received by the state through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Mike Kennealy, secretary of the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, urged lawmakers to approve a request to spend nearly $800 million on revitalizing downtowns, helping the state’s tourism industry and expanding broadband internet access.
“The pandemic demonstrated that inequities remain in Massachusetts when it comes to accessing the internet,” he told the panel. “This is an equity issue and absolutely has to be addressed in the state’s recovery effort.”
The Baker administration is also seeking to divert at least $1 billion in federal relief to major environmental initiatives throughout the state.
Environmental Secretary Kathleen Theoharides testified remotely from a combined sewer outfall in downtown Lawrence on Thursday about the need to devote a portion of the federal funding to deal with persistent sewage overflows along the Merrimack and other rivers.
Designed long before the Clean Water Act was written into law in the early 1970s, the treatment systems along the river collect stormwater in the same pipes as sewage and are designed to overflow when they become inundated, usually because of heavy rain.
Theoharides said more than 130 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the Merrimack through CSOs in a two-day span leading up to Hurricane Ida.
An estimated 600,000 people get drinking water from the Merrimack.
Raw sewage also causes algae blooms, which can be toxic to people and deprive water bodies of oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.
Since May, more than 1 billion gallons of sewage have flowed into the state’s rivers from 229 active CSOs located in 19 communities, Theoharides said.
“For communities like Lawrence, Haverhill and other cities and towns in the Merrimack watershed, this issue is about as urgent as it gets,” she said. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to respond to the needs of this region and the state, modernize our infrastructure and protect this precious natural resource.”
Under the plans, roughly $400 million would go toward infrastructure, including projects to cap CSO outfalls to improve water quality and recreational opportunities.
Other work would aim to remove PFAS “forever chemicals” from drinking water supplies.
Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler called on lawmakers to approve the administration’s plan to spend $700 million on transit-related upgrades.
Massachusetts has received about $5.3 billion in direct funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden.
Baker has been quarreling with legislative leaders over control of the money. He initially proposed spending $2.8 billion, leaving lawmakers to distribute the rest. But lawmakers rejected his plan and swept most of the money into a fund controlled by the Legislature.
Baker responded with legislation calling for $2.9 billion in spending on housing, the environment, transportation and other priorities.
Lawmakers are expected to hold more public hearings in coming weeks and don’t appear to be in a rush to spend the one-time windfall of federal relief funding.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.