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Massachusetts lawmakers should move urgently on climate threats

When it comes to protecting communities from floods and sewage overflows, the Legislature ought not delay.

Flash flooding on Kansas Street in Worcester, Aug. 19.Boston 25 News

Blue Massachusetts is, thankfully, quite green. There’s broad agreement among state leaders about the threat posed by climate change and the need to act. But with just nine weeks until the Legislature breaks for the year, lawmakers are still in a spat with Governor Charlie Baker over how quickly to move.

The governor wants legislators to vote immediately on his $900 million environmental package — all of it to be funded by federal American Rescue Plan dollars. The money would be used to upgrade water and sewer infrastructure that can be overwhelmed by big storms, replace culverts and remove hazardous dams, invest in open space, and build up a port infrastructure for the emerging offshore wind industry.


Lawmakers say they share the governor’s priorities; indeed, they’ve been pushing many of the same ideas for years now. But they see danger in moving too quickly to spend a big, once-in-a-generation pot of federal dollars. Better to move deliberately, they argue, and get it right.

The best approach probably lies somewhere in between. But Beacon Hill should err on the side of urgency. The climate threat is immediate. And much of what the governor is proposing is well thought out and ready to go.

First, some background. In the early stages of the pandemic, when the first wave of federal relief funds came to Massachusetts, the Baker administration made unilateral decisions about how to spend the money; in the face of an emergency, swift action was required.

But after the state received another round of funding in the spring — $5.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funds — lawmakers moved to take control. And rightly so. The crisis wasn’t as acute as before. And the normal procedures of governance — the Legislature appropriates and the governor administers — had to be restored.


But even as the Legislature embarked on a more deliberative process, the governor asked lawmakers to spend a sizeable chunk of the money — $2.9 billion — swiftly. There were investments in housing, job training, and climate mitigation that couldn’t wait, he argued.

It’s not clear that all the spending the governor is calling for has to be approved as quickly as he suggests, as worthy as some of it — his housing proposal in particular — might be. But the case for moving quickly to protect communities from climate disasters is strong.

Just this month, the country watched in horror as Hurricane Ida drowned New Jerseyans in their cars and New Yorkers in their basements. And the storm caused billions and billions of dollars in property losses across the Northeast, including in Massachusetts.

Even precipitation that falls short of cataclysm can do real damage, washing out roads and overwhelming sewer systems. This year’s record rains have pushed over 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage into Massachusetts bodies of water since May — contaminating drinking water sources and recreation and shellfish-harvesting hubs.

The Baker proposal would provide $400 million to upgrade water and sewer systems. It would also help fund a backlog of local climate resilience projects that have been carefully planned by city and town officials over the last several years and reviewed by the state.

Felix Bruno-Galindez of New Bedford DPI, uses a sledgehammer in an effort to dislodge a manhole cover on Brownell Avenue in New Bedford, Mass., flooded due to the remnants of Hurricane Ida in New Bedford on Sept. 2.PETER PEREIRA/The Standard-Times/Associated Press

Steve Long, director of government relations for the Massachusetts chapter of the Nature Conservancy, says this kind of planning has left the state in a good position to receive federal stimulus dollars — “It’s almost like we have this giant catcher’s mitt ready,” he says — and put them to use quickly.


Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano have suggested the Legislature will approve at least some American Rescue Plan funding this fall. How much lawmakers will approve, and what environmental funding will be included, is unclear. But some of the most urgent and best-vetted climate measures should make the cut.

And if legislators would like to make some adjustments — doing more to fix water and sewer systems than the governor has proposed, for instance — they still have time before they break for the year. Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, tells the Globe editorial board she is ready to provide a detailed account of what kind of funding would be required to boost any particular program.

It should be said that legislative deliberation on the American Rescue Plan funding has been valuable. It has allowed for public testimony, for one. And lawmakers say there is something to be gained by waiting on passage of Congress’s forthcoming infrastructure bill; if the money can be used to replace culverts, for instance, then perhaps some of the American Rescue Plan dollars Baker wants to target for that purpose could be put to better use elsewhere.

But if there is wisdom in delaying some spending for a short period of time so the Legislature can fit all of the puzzle pieces together, the delay shouldn’t last long. Better to get moving on vital climate resilience projects now. And if more money becomes available for similar purposes later, so be it. There is plenty of work to be done.


Lawmakers were right to demand a say in federal stimulus spending. But given the urgency of the climate crisis, they are obligated to do their due diligence quickly and get the money out the door.

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