On Beacon Hill, where lawmakers routinely pass their budget late, deadlines are often treated more like gentle suggestions.
Now, with five years in which to spend $4.9 billion in federal COVID relief funds — a one-time influx with the potential to transform the state — the sometimes sluggish Legislature is under pressure from Governor Charlie Baker and advocacy groups who want the money to start flowing soon.
But lawmakers are “in no rush to get this money out the door,” said Senator Michael Rodrigues, the Democrat who leads the chamber’s budget efforts.
“We have plenty of time. We’ve got years in which to spend this money,” said Rodrigues, referring to provisions in the federal law that require the money to be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026. “The important thing is we spend it right, we spend it responsibly.”
The process of spending the discretionary funds — just one portion of the roughly $113 billion in federal aid that has come to the state during the pandemic — will take months, if not years, lawmakers have suggested. Critics, however, say such a timeline is too slow to address urgent needs in their hard-hit communities.
“The pandemic’s still happening here. We still feel and see it every single day,” said Dinanyili Paulino, chief operating officer of La Colaborativa, a Chelsea nonprofit that has roughly 1,000 people on a waitlist for help seeking housing assistance benefits. She hopes lawmakers will consider funding a shelter in Chelsea, among other needs in the community.
It’s been a month since Baker laid out a proposal to spend $2.8 billion of the federal aid on economic development and housing, including hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at closing the vast homeownership gap between white residents and people of color.
“There’s a really big opportunity here, folks, but time is not going to be our friend, and I really do hope my colleagues in the Legislature can move on this and move aggressively on it. And then we can get to work, making sure that we don’t miss this unique opportunity,” Baker said Thursday while promoting his housing proposal.
State lawmakers will mull his pitch at a hearing on Tuesday, where he has been invited to appear.
Underlying the debate is a tension between an executive branch empowered to make swift, unilateral decisions and a legislative body that moves slowly by design — and in practice moves even slower.
Before Congress passed the American Rescue Plan in March, it was largely up to Baker administration officials to divvy up billions of dollars in federal funds that came to Massachusetts through a series of relief packages. But the latest pot of money comes with much greater flexibility and a much longer time horizon — a process that more closely resembles the Legislature’s annual budget debate than the emergency fire extinguishing Baker did with the first batches of federal funds. In a new flex of authority, state lawmakers placed most of the money into a fund that they control.
The state has already released some of the federal funds, including $109 million in direct aid to Chelsea, Everett, Randolph, and Methuen, and Democrats in the Legislature set aside $200 million for the Baker administration to spend in the short term. But the bulk of the money is still in the bank, and hearings on how to spend it have not yet started.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than half of the states have already allocated at least some of the funds.
The Legislature is already moving more slowly on the funding decisions than House Speaker Ronald Mariano anticipated.
In April, weeks after President Biden signed the law, Mariano said he expected to determine how to spend the federal dollars “sometime probably around June.”
Asked about the timeline earlier this month, Mariano said, “I don’t think we said an [American Rescue Plan] bill in June.”
A spokesperson for the speaker said the Legislature has been preparing for the spending decisions and “the House is committed to acting quickly to finalize additional hearing dates as we continue this open and thorough public process.”
A spokesperson for Senate President Karen E. Spilka declined to comment on the current pace, but pointed to a joint statement from Spilka and Mariano, who said on June 1 that “these investments may potentially be spread out over a number of years to ensure our continued economic vitality.”
Other federal funds, which did not flow through the Legislature, are already at work, including some sent directly to cities and towns or to residents through stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, others tagged to specific priorities such as transportation and education.
Advocates hope they’ll see the latest pot of money put to use sooner rather than later.
The money “needs to go in stages,” starting soon, Paulino of the Chelsea nonprofit said. “Provide some relief for funding and resources to cities that are drastically impacted and in need, while you implement research-based initiatives that can produce more long-term sustainability.”
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the Boston Democrat who leads the House’s budget efforts, said the Legislature might well spend the money in stages but did not offer a timeline.
“We need to recover as quickly as possible, but we want to do it strategically, and not just move it just to move it fast,” Michlewitz said. Still, he said, “we’re going to do this in a timely fashion.”
There’s no shortage of need, and no shortage of people lobbying for their priorities to be funded.
Rachel Heller, the CEO of the nonprofit organization Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, praised Baker’s housing plan — $1 billion in federal money, split between boosting rental housing and supporting homeownership — and said she hopes the Legislature will fund housing at the level he has proposed.
“It takes a long time to get housing developed anywhere, so the quicker we move, the quicker we can be providing housing opportunities for people,” Heller said. “We know we don’t have enough housing. We have resources now; let’s put them to use as quickly as possible.”
In the business community, many hope the latest funds will be used for investing in workforce development and shoring up the unemployment insurance fund, whose enormous deficit poses a major threat to employers, they say.
Chris Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said most states have already committed federal funds to a similar use. He’d like to see “at least see a commitment from the state as soon as possible,” he said.
Timing is important, business leaders said.
“Certainly an inclusive process, listening to a wide variety of stakeholders, is important,” said James Rooney, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce. “However, they have to balance that with some measure of urgency.”
With a legislative break approaching in August, and lawmakers saying hearings will continue over a period of months, advocates are looking ahead warily.
“I don’t think that is fast enough,” said Reginauld Williams, communications director for the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. “Beacon Hill needs to work out Beacon Hill’s issues to really work out the needs of their constituents in a timely fashion . . . We’re going to need to make sure that the money is out there in the communities to prepare for all the rest of the year.”