Baker presses to fund CSO, climate resiliency projects

 Charlie Baker

BOSTON — State leaders are making their case to pour nearly $1 billion of federal relief money into upgrades of water and sewer infrastructure, climate adaptation and other environmental needs.

Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides said the state’s $5.3 billion influx of federal funds is a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to deal with some of the state's most pressing environmental issues.

“It's a game-changing opportunity to address water quality, public health and environmental access on the scale that we usually don't have available to us in terms of funding," Theoharides said in an interview. "These changes would have a significant impact."

Theoharides said the plan will help cities and towns fortify against climate change, expand green space in the state, and foster the growth of the offshore wind power industry.

Roughly $400 million would go toward infrastructure, including projects to cap combined sewer outfalls that now spew untreated sewage into the Merrimack River and other bodies of water. Other work would aim to remove PFAS "forever chemicals" from drinking water supplies.

The money would go to cities and towns through the state's Clean Water Trust Fund, which offers zero-interest loans or, in some cases, loan forgiveness.

In addition, Gov. Charlie Baker has called for spending about $300 million on climate resiliency.

A portion of the money for the state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program would give communities money to fortify seawalls, prevent coastal erosion and plant trees, among other initiatives.

Theoharides says the program is successful but its current level of funding is inadequate.

For the latest round, the state received 142 requests for $46 million but only had enough funding for 41 grants for about $10.5 million.

“We've been hoping to increase funding for that program for a couple years,” she said.

Theoharides said Baker’s plan also calls for spending $100 million to expand state parks, recreation areas and preserve open space.

Another $100 million would go toward maritime projects aimed at supporting the development of the offshore wind power industry, she said.

Democratic leaders are sparring with the Republican governor over control of the state’s slice of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Baker initially proposed spending $2.8 billion of the state’s funds, leaving lawmakers to distribute the rest. But the Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected that plan in favor of transferring most of the money into a fund controlled by lawmakers.

Baker agreed to their plan and signed the bill.

Legislative leaders offered to leave the governor $200 million for pandemic related emergencies. Baker administration officials said that won't be enough to fund their priorities.

Baker has since filed a new bill calling on lawmakers to spend $2.9 billion on housing, water and sewer infrastructure, job training and other priorities.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, have so far rejected Baker's plans but vowed an "open, transparent and thorough public process" in deciding how to spend the money. The leaders have set public hearings, which get underway next Tuesday.

Baker's plans also call for diverting $1 billion to expanding housing programs such as those creating workforce and senior housing, providing downpayment assistance for first-time homebuyers, and the development of rental housing.

The plan also pledges another $50 million to help safety-net hospitals such as Lawrence General that have been hammered financially during the pandemic. He also calls for $175 million for opioid abuse treatment and prevention.

Under the law, the funds must be expended by 2026.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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