For Western Massachusetts to get its fair share, lawmakers say they need a voice in how the state spends the more than $5 billion it has received in the latest round of unrestricted federal aid.
While state lawmakers have made clear their wish to have a say in spending money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker has not given any indication that it would bring lawmakers into the process. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the Republican governor, using expanded emergency powers, largely has distributed federal aid without involving the Legislature.
After the House last week passed a bill to move the money to an account subject to legislative appropriation, a Baker spokesperson issued a reminder that the federal government did not require legislative approval for the spending of that money, which remains unspent apart from $109 million distributed Friday to four cities that were hit hard by the pandemic but received less in direct federal aid than similarly sized cities.
“As authorized by the federal government, the $5.3 billion in discretionary funding does not require legislative appropriation and the Administration is ready to work with municipal, non-profit, private sector and legislative partners to invest these funds quickly,” Communications Director Sarah Finlaw said. “The Baker-Polito Administration has been working tirelessly to jumpstart Massachusetts’ recovery and believes these funds are designed to be put to work without delay.”
But, especially in Western Massachusetts, lawmakers believe they are better positioned to tailor spending to their communities’ needs than Baker or statewide agencies.
“Leaving the Governor with absolute authority over spending,” state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, wrote in an email, “never works out very well for Western [Massachusetts].”
While the priority near the start of the pandemic had been getting money out the door to address urgent needs, the current round of funding needs a greater emphasis on geographically equitable distribution across the state, said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
“We in the Berkshires need to get our fair share, and I think the Legislature needs to do that,” Pignatelli said. “We’re elected to do a job, and I think with these funds, we need to do our job.”
Referencing comments he made at an April hearing, state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said the Legislature long has made its intentions for the money clear but that Baker has made no acknowledgement of those wishes.
“He didn’t hear what I said at that hearing,” said Barrett, who vice chairs the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight. “I basically said that we we’re not going to be redheaded stepchildren anymore.”
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that if the Legislature were to use a portion of the money for education — she expects that it will — she would rather the money be distributed through the Chapter 70 formula than, for instance, through grants administered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“That’s a well-established formula, and we worked on it for many years to come up with a fair formula,” she said.
Pignatelli added that he has spoken with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who represents the Berkshires in Congress and chairs the Ways and Means Committee, about the possibility for the federal government to include language for future aid to be “disbursed equitably throughout the commonwealth.”
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said that involving the Legislature would create a “public legislative process to allow all communities to determine where those investments are most needed.” The federal government recommends community input in spending of money through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“We’re also aware that there’s some flexibility in terms of the timing so we can spread those over a few years to ensure economic vitality and inclusive recovery,” Hinds said.
Last week, Baker delayed an announcement of aid to four cities hit hard by the pandemic, blaming the Legislature for the holdup. House and Senate leaders countered that Baker had two weeks to allocate money before the Legislature acted.
On Friday, Chelsea, Everett, Methuen and Randolph received the money totaling $109 million.
The House could amend the bill it passed last week to reflect the $109 million Baker allocated to the four cities, and the Senate is expected to pass a bill this week to move the money into an account over which the Legislature has control. The Baker administration, though, has given no indication that it would sign the bill.
State Rep. Bud Williams, D-Springfield, raised the issue of federal aid at a Friday panel on housing. The Black and Latino Caucus, of which Williams is a member, “had some ideas” for how previous federal money should have been spent but “got in line and followed the drummer, so to speak.” He said the new round of money could be an opportunity to act on top priorities if lawmakers get a say.
“This is an opportunity, but if we don’t have the game plan [and] don’t work together, it will pass us by,” Williams said. “And they don’t have any problem on Beacon Hill passing us by.”