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Advocates, Baker admin. officials press for stimulus spending on housing, job training

The golden dome of the Massachusetts State House.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Grappling with how to spend nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus, state lawmakers on Tuesday heard testimony from advocates and top Baker administration officials who urged them to devote significant portions of the money to a plethora of different housing and workforce development initiatives.

The discussion of how to use the stimulus cash comes as the Legislature remains at odds with Governor Charlie Baker over how urgently to spend the federal aid, which was allocated to Massachusetts as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March. Baker has urged lawmakers to spend large chunks of the money quickly, while lawmakers have indicated that the process may take months or years.

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At the second of six planned hearings on how to spend the money, members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means heard from business and labor groups, advocates, and administration officials who urged lawmakers to consider a range of different spending priorities, from housing to job training to child care to financial support for essential workers.

Baker has proposed spending $1 billion on housing initiatives and $240 million on workforce development programs. At the hearing on Tuesday, the state’s labor secretary, Rosalin Acosta, urged lawmakers to act swiftly to dedicate money to training programs for unemployed and underemployed residents.

“The earlier and quicker we start, the better the Commonwealth will be,” she said, pointing to the anticipated expiration of federal unemployment benefits in September.

But despite the Baker administration’s proposal, lawmakers, who directed most of the federal funds into an account controlled by the Legislature, will have the final say about where the dollars go — and top Democrats have indicated that they are in no hurry to allocate them.

Four more hearings are set for after Labor Day on issues including health care, economic development, and education. The final one will be an open public hearing.

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Baker’s plan for the federal dollars, which he rolled out last month, includes dedicating $1 billion to support housing initiatives, with $500 million going towards supporting home ownership and $500 million being put towards rental housing. Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy testified Tuesday that Baker’s plan to support first-time home-buyers will help close the state’s gap in homeownership between white people and people of color.

Baker’s bill also includes $350 million for downtown development and revitalization.

Advocates, labor leaders, businesses, and other outside groups suggested a wide range of other uses for the funds at the hours-long hearing, which was held virtually.

At a rally outside the State House ahead of the hearing, a coalition of labor and community organizations called on lawmakers to dedicate money for retroactive hazard pay for essential workers. The group recommended spending $1 billion on housing preservation and redevelopment and $700 million for the state to match the federal child tax credit.

Some housing advocates called on the money to go towards supporting housing for low-income residents in particular.

Kelly Turley, of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, called for “a sizable portion” of the remaining $4.8 billion in ARPA funds to be used “to reimagine how we uphold the human right to housing” in the state by addressing housing inequities. She called for funds to be spent on improving access to legal counsel during eviction processes, boosting rental assistance and homelessness prevention programs, and other homelessness prevention initiatives. (Massachusetts has a right-to-shelter law that requires eligible families be provided short-term housing by the state if they meet certain criteria.)

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Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, called on stimulus dollars to be used to support public education, transportation, front-line workers, among other programs to help workers.