BOSTON — Lawmakers recessed for a long winter break last week after failing to reach an agreement on a plan to spend billions of dollars in pandemic relief, drawing criticism from Gov. Charlie Baker and others.
Both the House and Senate have approved plans to spend more than $3.82 billion in federal pandemic relief funds and surplus money to provide bonus checks to frontline workers and make major investments in health care, housing, workforce development and protecting the environment.
A centerpiece of both relief packages calls for spending $500 million on bonus checks for workers who stayed on the job throughout the pandemic.
But a six-member legislative committee tasked with working out differences between the two bills wasn’t able to reach an agreement on a final package before lawmakers recessed for a seven week break in formal sessions.
Gov. Baker ripped lawmakers for breaking without finalizing the plan, saying the decision to hold hearings and long deliberations on the spending plan has “created a massive delay in putting these taxpayer dollars to work.”
Baker said Massachusetts is lagging behind other states in getting relief money out on the street.
“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,” Baker said.
But lawmakers defend the decision to hold hearings on allocating the pandemic relief funds and say more time is needed to finalize the final spending plan.
Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, vice chair of the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee, said working out differences between the two spending bills will take time but she is confident a final package will emerge soon.
“We held a lot of hearings and brought a lot of people to the table to hear what the needs are, so it’s going to take us a little time to reconcile the House and Senate bills to make sure that we meet those needs,” she said. “We need to go through a fair and deliberative the process, but my hope is that it doesn’t take too long.”
Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, said it was important for lawmakers “to listen to people and hear where they felt the priorities should be for spending the money” but acknowledged that the review process “took a very long time.”
She, too, is optimistic that legislative leaders will reach consensus on a final spending package.
“It’s a heavy lift to get this resolved in a couple days,” she said. “They’re going to need more time to get it done.”
Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, said he thinks Baker should “tap the brakes” on the push to spend the money with another $9 billion headed to the state through a new infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden this week.
“We could run into an issue where were paving roads today that will have to be dug up later to put in new water and sewer systems or broadband,” he said. “We can’t afford that kind of wasted inefficiency.”
The spending packages approved by the House and Senate included $500 million to help bailout the state’s unemployment trust fund and $200 million in tax relief for small-business owners who paid income taxes on pandemic relief money.
The measures also included money for safety-net hospitals, public health systems and mental health services that are struggling to meet increased demand.
Both the House and Senate plans call for bonus checks for frontline workers, which would range from $500 to $2,000, depending on income.
The one-time payments would be limited to workers who earned up to 300% of the federal poverty level — or $79,500 for a family of four — and remained on the job during the state of emergency, from March 10 to Dec. 31 last year.
But the absence of an agreement on a final package means those checks are unlikely to go out until sometime next year.
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 filed legislation in August calling for spending $2.9 billion in ARPA funds on housing, the environment, transportation and other priorities.
Legislative leaders held public hearings on the governor’s proposal but ultimately decided on their own plans.
Under the ARPA law, the funds provided to states and local governments must be committed by the end of 2024, and spent by the end of 2026.
Both proposals approved by the Legislature would leave an estimated $2.5 billion in ARPA money and surplus revenues to be used in the future.
To be sure, the panel working out differences between the bills could emerge with a final proposal during the winter break, which could be put to a vote during informal sessions when only a handful of lawmakers present.
The delays in approving a final spending bill have even become political fodder ahead of next year’s election.
Republican Geoff Diehl, a former lawmaker who is running for governor, called on legislative leaders to convene a special session to work out differences between the bills.
He said the concern is that legislative leaders could push through controversial changes in the plan during informal sessions, without public debate.
“Taxpayers need important spending decisions to be made in the light of day, and voters deserve to know how their legislators are voting on important business,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state’s Republican Party blamed the hold up over spending the relief money to Democrats “bickering” over local earmarks for pet projects that were added to the bills through the amendment process.
“Instead of using it to help chip away at more than $78 billion in debt, the Democrats are more interested in finding new ways to pork up their home districts,” MassGOP chairman Jim Lyons said in a statement.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org