When the lawmakers Massachusetts voters entrusted to represent their best interests went home Wednesday, they left billions of dollars languishing on the table.
Their session ended for a seven-week holiday after months of wrangling about how to spend about $3.82 billion in American Rescue Plan Act and surplus funds designed to help the state recover from the pandemic. As it did so, a six-member committee tasked with working out differences between the House and Senate bills couldn’t come to a compromise, leaving the funding in limbo.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s frustration was palpable as he blamed the delay on the decision to allow the Legislature to retain control of all the money. Initially he proposed spending $2.9 billion on housing, the environment, transportation and other high priorities, and leaving the rest to the House and Senate’s discretion. But lawmakers wanted nothing to do with that plan and commandeered the process, holding lengthy debates and public hearings.
For that, Baker harshly criticized them.
“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,” he said.
The two bodies agreed on some things. Both spending packages include $500 million to help bail out the state’s unemployment trust fund and $200 million in tax relief for small-business owners. There’s also money for safety-net hospitals, public health systems and mental health services. And for those who worked throughout the pandemic there are bonus checks ranging from $500 to $2,000, depending on income.
But there were also pet projects that have nothing to do with the pandemic slowing things down. For example, $200,000 to improve bicycle safety in Andover, $100,000 for a turf field in North Reading, $150,000 to fix elevators at Melrose High School, and $1.3 million for an Italian immigrant memorial in Boston’s North End.
In the House, legislators introduced “mega-amendments,” each packed with hundreds of individual proposals. And lawmakers pushed the envelope, bumping the spending bill’s bottom line to $3.82 billion in the House and as high as $3.95 billion in the Senate, Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade.
Rightfully so, watchdog groups were incensed, pointing out that Congress never intended the funding to prompt a shopping spree.
“This money was supposed to be spent on pandemic relief, but it’s clear that many lawmakers saw this as just another budget spending bill,” said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the conservative pro-business group the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.
With the committee at an impasse, no money is going anywhere soon. Unless they emerge with a final proposal during winter break and the matter is decided in an informal session — which likely would include just a smattering of legislators — everyone who stands to benefit will be waiting until next year.
In his address last week, Baker said the decision to hold hearings and long deliberations on the spending plan has “created a massive delay in putting these taxpayer dollars to work.”
Massachusetts, he said, is falling behind other states.
He’s right. There is no question legislators seriously fumbled and let their constituents down. Now they have a responsibility to make things right, and that can’t occur in the shadows of an informal session among just a handful of lawmakers.
Sadly, it will have to wait until 2022 when the full House and Senate reconvene, so all Bay State residents can be assured fair representation.