JB III (copy)

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said new federal aid allows for “once-in-a-lifetime” investments. But, Barrett, vice chairman of the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, said the Legislature needs a greater role in spending that money.

With vaccination numbers and the state’s Department of Public Health’s leading indicators all going in the right direction, Massachusetts is keeping up the pace on the steady journey back to normal. But while it’s nice to see normalcy return in the hospitality and entertainment sectors, it is critical that we begin to see it in government as well.

When COVID-19 hit early last year, there was a pressing and unprecedented need to quickly allocate resources across the commonwealth, a need that continued with the pandemic’s protracted grip. It made obvious sense, then, for Gov. Charlie Baker to declare an emergency, giving his administration expanded executive powers over, among other things, the state’s purse when it came to pandemic spending.

The considerable discretion given to the governor’s office was the right move when we needed immediate and forceful action to blunt the pandemic’s impact, and most lawmakers agreed. Like all other COVID-related strictures and rules, however, this arrangement was not meant to last forever, and, for the sake of democracy in Massachusetts, should not last beyond necessity. The American Rescue Plan Act dropped $4.5 billion into Massachusetts’ coffers, and state lawmakers from the Berkshire delegation want a say in how that sizable chunk of change is spent.

“This is taxpayers’ money any way you want to look at it,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. “And who knows their communities and what they need better than representatives and senators?”

That $4.5 billion is equivalent to about 10 percent of the annual state budget, and it must benefit the entire commonwealth on the long road to recovery. When decisions are made about how the federal aid is spent, the people’s representatives should be at the table. The deadline for spending the money is years out. There’s no reason why the Baker administration should box out the Legislature from its key role in decisions about distributing billions in state revenue.

With this in mind, many lawmakers want Gov. Baker to file a supplemental budget to determine how the American Rescue Plan Act money is spent. This would give lawmakers a chance to do their job: debate the merits of the spending plan, suggest alterations and ensure the state’s windfall of federal aid is not unilaterally decided in the governor’s office.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan would not commit to the supplemental budget plan, though he did say the administration would work with the Legislature to “up the level of communication.”

If the Baker administration has a better idea for a process that allows lawmakers to fulfill the responsibilities for which they were elected, we are all ears. If not, then a supplemental budget would be a good way to make sure there’s accountability and due diligence in the use of these crucial funds.

Either way, the Legislature needs to be involved – especially for the sake of those in the Berkshires and throughout Western Massachusetts. Our constituents are too often overlooked by insulated decision-making in Boston, but this money must help our communities, too.

As COVID mandates begin to wither away, the one that democracy demands we cast off the quickest is governance by executive decision.