BOSTON — House lawmakers made clear to the Baker administration Thursday that they want more information about how the discretionary portion of $71 billion in one-time aid that’s already come to Massachusetts has been spent and want to have greater say around how another $40 billion in federal stimulus money that’s on the way will be spent.
After ceding some of its power through the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic as the governor flexed his executive authority around public health, the Legislature has in recent months shown a renewed interest in playing an oversight role when it comes to the vaccine rollout and the distribution of federal funds.
Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan provided the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight with a detailed breakdown of the more than $40 billion in one-time federal funds that will soon come to Massachusetts residents, businesses and governments through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the nearly $71 billion in aid that has already been made available. He also pointed the committee and the public to the state’s federal funds transparency website, mass.gov/federalfunds.
But the questions from the committee members made clear that representatives feel they haven’t been given enough information about how much federal aid has already been spent and how the administration decided how it would spend that funding. Rep. John Barrett III told Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget chief that lawmakers “almost feel like we’re being left out of the process.”
Barrett, of North Adams, told Heffernan that he took particular issue with a comment attributed to the secretary in an October press release about the administration having worked in “close coordination with federal, state, and local partners — including our Legislative colleagues” before announcing an economic recovery plan that drew upon federal money.
“I didn’t see that. I don’t know if my colleagues saw it, but I didn’t see that reaching out, getting our input, getting input from the leadership — both the prior House leadership and the present leadership — and that was concerning,” said Barrett, vice chairman of the committee.
He added, “I don’t want to feel like the red-headed stepchild as a member of the Legislature and being left out of this, and I’m sure my colleagues don’t want to feel [that way] about it. And I don’t think we’re going to anymore, hopefully. I think that there has to be a reconciliation here of how this future money is going to be spent and oversight, because I believe that not all the money is being used as it’s intended to do.”
What money has already come in? How much has been spent?
Before the ARPA was signed into law March 11, the federal government had already provided Massachusetts with $71 billion in aid since the start of the pandemic, Heffernan said. Of that $71 billion, he said state government has exercised some amount of discretion over approximately $7 billion, most notably the $2.7 billion provided through the Coronavirus Relief Fund created in the CARES Act.
“Over $950 million of this funding has been transferred to other governments, $780 million has been allocated for economic assistance, $510 million has supported public health and medical expenses, nearly $370 million has supported first responders, and approximately $70 million has covered other expenses,” the secretary said. “Separate from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the commonwealth has also received over $750 million for testing and tracing efforts, nearly $500 million for vaccine efforts, over $450 million in federal rental assistance and over $500 million in FEMA Public Assistance, which is supporting priorities such as PPE and food security.”
He also said his office had recently shared information with every member of the Legislature regarding the federal funding that has been distributed or made available to the cities and towns in their districts.
Rep. Dan Hunt, the Dorchester Democrat who leads the House panel, asked Heffernan and his staff to detail how much of the federal funding has been spent so far and which accounts have money remaining.
The answer was not so simple.
“If you were to look online today, you would see $2.158 billion spent from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. So that’s sort of useful, you can say ‘$2.2 billion spent, we received $2.46 [billion], there’s a little bit of money left.’ But the point that we’re hoping to convey is that the trouble with point estimates is that they are in this constant state of flux,” said Heath Fahle, special director of federal funds in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance. “So I can you know I can list for you 13 different ways that that $2.2 billion number is misleading.”
Fahle, Heffernan and Budget Director Bran Shim explained to the committee that most of the work of maximizing the use of federal revenues and ensuring compliance with federal restrictions is done “retrospectively.”
”By that I mean that the commonwealth spends money on a use, and then a large part of our work is in matching that use with the most appropriate federal revenue source. That sounds relatively straightforward, but it’s actually an iterative process as the federal guidance changes, as the nature of the response to the pandemic changes,” Fahle said. “And so there’s this ongoing process of recalibrating, sort of rematching, sources and uses that takes place over time.”
Under the Trump administration, Fahle said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse 75 percent of eligible costs and states could then use Coronavirus Relief Funds to cover the remaining 25 percent. But when President Joe Biden took office, he upped the FEMA reimbursement rate to 100 percent retroactively to Jan. 20, 2020, which then freed up Coronavirus Relief Fund money that the state could reapply elsewhere.
At the same time, the U.S. Treasury revised its guidelines for acceptable uses of Coronavirus Relief Fund money “no less than 16 times in 2020,” Heffernan said.
”That continues to swing positively and negatively. And that has been an unrelenting swing for now ... it’s been just basically a year, or 11 months,” the secretary said. “So it’s just an example of how fluid the situation is and how the pendulum swings just in that one FEMA category and just in that other category for the Coronavirus Relief Fund.”
Hunt said he was trying to drill down into what is remaining in various flexible accounts, specifically money that was allocated through last year’s CARES Act, so that representatives can try to secure some of that money to meet needs in their districts. He said he understands and appreciates that the administration sometimes has to juggle things to get the most benefit out of federal money.
”But at the end of the day, it has been expressed by the membership that it’s a little frustrating to figure out exactly what’s out there and how we can best advocate for our districts, and have that being put forward, and seeing a need in our districts. And then, it seems that the administration will take a different tact and tackle one issue at a time, or some particular need, and then tack to a different place,” he said. “So maybe this isn’t the right forum and we’ll follow up with you on those accounts.”
During the hearing, Rep. Chris Hendricks of New Bedford asked Heffernan whether Baker plans to file a supplemental budget since he did not account for ARPA funding in the current budget. That would be one way for representatives to have greater say over the use of federal dollars, by appropriating them through legislation that could be debated, amended and passed.
”All that is under discussion,” Heffernan said after Hendricks asked twice. He added, “The actual final budget was signed well late into the year so the normal timing on your first supplemental budget for the 2021 budget is not as dire or time-sensitive as it would be on a normal budget ... we’re actively working on supps and what will be in, what won’t be out of the supp and the timing.”
Hunt asked Heffernan directly whether the administration is considering using federal funds in a supplemental budget.
”It’s still under discussion,” the secretary said. “I’ll have those conversations when we’ve actually made it, when we’re final final.”‘The frustration of many members’
Hunt, the committee chairman, said Thursday that Heffernan and his staff have been generous with their time and have made lots of information available to his committee and other lawmakers. But he added that frustration over what many lawmakers feel is a lack of sufficient communication from the governor’s team “has been a consistent theme over the last year.”
Rep. Colleen Garry, a moderate Democrat from Dracut who often supports the Republican Baker and endorsed him in the 2018 election, said she was speaking for other members who are also annoyed that the executive branch doesn’t keep them in the loop as much as they would like.
”I guess I voice the frustration of many members to find out after the fact that things are happening,” she said. “We get the update of where the governor and lieutenant governor are going to be that day and that they’re going to make an announcement of some type, but when it includes something that the Legislature should be involved in, it would be nice to be able to have that information upfront, even if it’s within six hours of the announcement.”
Garry said it is especially frustrating to feel left out of the decision-making process when she routinely defends Baker from constituents who think the governor’s executive actions have been an overreach.
”We’ve been getting a lot in our communities and standing up for the governor when they’re calling him King Charles ... and how the Legislature should take back the control of him making these one-way decisions,” she said. “For one, I am defending the governor that he is doing the right thing by everything he’s done to keep people safe, but it would be nice to have a heads-up ahead of time so we don’t find out in the press or have to watch the press conference to find information and then have to follow-up with the administration on some of the other announcements to find out exactly what it meant.”
Heffernan said he understands where the representatives are coming from and pledged to “lower the level of frustration, up the level of communication” and work cooperatively with the Legislature as the next round of federal money starts rolling in. He said that Hunt made the point clear to him when they first met ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
”He did a very good job of helping us understand exactly the position that we put you in sometimes and we will work across the administration to make sure that we are a partner in word, but more importantly a partner in deed,” Heffernan said, adding that he got the message that the administration should be working with all 200 members of the Legislature and not just with certain members or leadership.This story will be updated.