Governor Charlie Baker and state lawmakers on Tuesday wrestled over how to spend billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 aid, with Baker urging legislators to distribute the funds more quickly and the lawmakers in turn questioning whether administration spending decisions were improper.
Baker, a Republican, has been pressing the Democratic-led Legislature for weeks to speed up the allocation of the federal dollars — a process lawmakers say could take months or years — but the officials’ virtual hearing marked the tensest public airing of grievances yet. State lawmakers said they will take their time to make thoughtful, deliberate selections while Baker warned that “some of this stuff needs to be done soon to be done well.”
“We can’t let this opportunity pass by to make these investments now,” Baker said at a State House hearing, ticking off priorities like substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, and workforce development. “Time is of the essence.”
At issue is $4.9 billion in discretionary funds the state received months ago through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Baker appeared at the hearing Tuesday to advance his administration’s plan to spend more than half of that sum in the immediate term on housing assistance and workforce development initiatives — a proposal the Legislature has not been eager to enact. But in addition to questioning that plan, lawmakers spent much of Baker’s hour-plus before the committee probing — and criticizing — funding decisions the administration has already made.
State lawmakers set aside $200 million of the federal aid for Baker to spend in the short term, and this week the administration announced it would spend $186 million of it to aid fiscally distressed hospitals, bridge staffing gaps in inpatient psychiatric facilities, and invest in workforce development.
State Senator Michael Rodrigues, the Westport Democrat who leads the chamber’s budget efforts, chided Baker for using those “in-case-of-emergency-break-glass funds” now when they might be needed later to address the rise of the Delta variant. And he said that the priorities Baker had chosen were not permitted under the strict language of the law, which he read aloud to Baker and the rest of the committee, emphasizing that it was intended “to protect against emergency public health threats.”
“I question how you can use those available funds for those expenditures,” Rodrigues said. “To me, it seems clear that the law restricted use of those funds to very specific areas, irregardless of how beneficial and how well-meaning those expenditures were.”
“Clearly, the spending of that money is not authorized” under the law, Rodrigues said later in the hearing to Michael Heffernan, the administration’s budget secretary.
Baker and Heffernan defended the administration’s funding choices, saying they believed they were in line with the law and explaining that they were aimed at addressing public health needs. And Baker said the state has ample resources to handle the Delta variant, with a large stock of personal protective equipment and robust testing capacity.
Baker appeared at the hearing virtually from Aspen, Colo., where he traveled Sunday for meetings of the Republican Governors Association. He plans to return to Massachusetts on Wednesday. His visit with the group — which is devoted to electing and supporting GOP governors — comes amid speculation about whether he’ll seek a third term as governor, a decision he has promised will come “soon.” The association spent millions helping Baker win his 2014 and 2018 gubernatorial races.
The governor faced questions at the hearing from state Senator Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat, who focused on $50 million that he had devoted to cash-strapped hospitals. Friedman questioned how he had decided on that specific figure, and pushed for the Legislature to be more involved.
“It would be really nice if we were part of your conversations,” she said. “We keep coming back to this point where we get information that it’s happening, but we haven’t been part of the initial conversation.”
While Baker and some advocacy groups have been pushing the Legislature to spend the federal funds expediently, others who testified at the hearing preached patience.
Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tisch College of Tufts University, urged “a deliberate and unhurried timeline.”
“This may take awhile, but that’s OK,” he said. “Indeed, given the current state of the economy, a delay in [American Rescue Plan] spending may be a good thing. Right now, the economy doesn’t need any short-term stimulus.”
For more than a month, Baker has argued that a large chunk of the one-time federal funds should be used to narrow the vast racial gap in homeownership in Massachusetts. His plan would put $1 billion into housing, split between boosting rental housing and supporting homeownership.
While lawmakers say housing will be a top spending priority and that closing the racial wealth gap is paramount, they’ve shown little appetite for Baker’s plan and are expected to hold hearings over the next few months to determine where they’ll invest.