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It was inevitable — just as surely as people rushed to ditch those masks outdoors — that legislators would want to assert their authority over the billions in federal COVID-related stimulus dollars coming into state coffers.

The state of emergency is coming to an end. Governor Charlie Baker, who like most governors in the pandemic has spent more than a year governing the state’s economy with near czar-like authority, has now set an end date for that authority. And Massachusetts lawmakers have issued their own declaration of independence, insisting that nearly $5.2 billion in recently received federal recovery funds be “subject to appropriation” rather than doled out by executive fiat.


It’s a tug-of-war being played out across the country as legislatures get back up to speed after more than a year of remote sessions and near-empty chambers.

It’s one thing for governors to have moved swiftly to distribute those earlier tranches of federal COVID-relief funds when and where they were so desperately needed. It’s quite another for lawmakers to relinquish any say in the distribution of new monies that have a nearly five-year timeline.

“This isn’t about crisis management today, but about that longer term,” said Douglas Howgate, executive vice president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, in an interview. “So it’s appropriate that [federal funds go] through the Legislature. That said, there’s also a role for the administration to play.

“But this is a different case [than the earlier COVID relief bill], and it calls for a different process,” he added.

The American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress in March, allocated $3.4 billion to Massachusetts cities and towns and another $5.3 billion to the state. The state funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026, providing some time for planning.


Legislative leaders wisely decided to ignore the new pot of money from the Rescue Plan as they prepared the state’s budget for the fiscal year due to begin July 1. That $47.7 billion budget is now in a House-Senate conference committee as the two branches work out their differences over spending and policy priorities.

Wise, because it is one-time money and should be used, as Howgate put it, for programs that “are effective today but also sustainable going forward” or can be wound down in a year or two.

And under Treasury Department guidelines, the money can’t be used to replenish the state’s rainy day fund (which is being tapped to help fund the regular state budget) or to buttress pension funds, or to offset a tax cut.

That said, those guidelines, while providing quite a lot of wiggle room, also point in some useful directions — public health expenses, premium pay for essential workers (think recruitment bonuses for, say, nursing home aides), aid to small businesses, investments in water, sewer, or broadband Internet.

A recent brouhaha between the Legislature and the governor over $109 million in additional federal aid that Baker promised to four communities has now been resolved. After Everett, Chelsea, Randolph, and Methuen were shortchanged by the federal funding formula, Baker kept his promise of additional aid. That still left nearly $5.2 billion in that pot of federal money.

No sooner had the latest federal relief bill passed in March then legislatures around the country began passing bills to give themselves a voice in appropriating those funds. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed just such a bill in March, offering up his own spending plan by April for consideration by the Legislature.


Governors in Indiana and Kentucky vetoed similar bills only to be overridden by their legislatures. Oklahoma’s governor allowed the bill there to become law without his signature.

How this process will work on the ground in Massachusetts is still very much a work in progress.

“Basically the Gang of Three needs to sit down and hash things out,” said Representative Daniel Hunt in an interview with the Globe editorial board, referring to the governor, speaker, and Senate president. “They need to come together and work on a governing philosophy.”

Hunt, who chairs the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, added, “We want to be deliberative in this process so that by 2027 we’re in a much better place.”

Already advocates are clamoring for investments in the local public health infrastructure, workforce training, and enhanced data systems — all supported at a June 9 rally outside the State House.

The demands in the days ahead on that pot of money will be many and varied. What Hunt and his legislative colleagues have vowed to do is bring transparency to the process — hearings, not just press releases or gubernatorial press conferences. Ultimately Baker can still exercise his line-item veto on such spending measures. But that can, of course, be overridden.


As the state turns the corner on this pandemic, it’s time to turn toward a deliberative, democratic process — in all its messiness — for dispersing a much welcome new pool of federal money.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.