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As billions hang in limbo, lawmakers take a breather

The Massachusetts State House.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

If there’s one thing our state lawmakers have historically been good at, it’s spending large pots of money.

And getting their rest.

So it’s astonishing that they have been unable to reach an agreement to spend more than $5 billion in funds, a federal gift-in-hand intended to ease the effects of the pandemic.

But it’s not astonishing at all that lawmakers adjourned for the year Thursday, leaving the issue hanging in limbo. Both the House and the Senate had passed spending plans for the money, but those bills have to be reconciled into a single document and signed into law.

As legislators headed off into the sunset, Governor Charlie Baker made no secret of his frustration with them. He’s absolutely right to believe they’ve shirked their duty.

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“The Legislature made a commitment to get it done before they went home for the holiday season and I can’t tell you how frustrated I am,” Baker said. “Not just for me but for all the mayors and small businesses and folks who are looking for an opportunity to do something other than what they were doing before, and getting the skills that would be required to do that.”

The money in question comes through the American Recovery Relief Act with few, if any, strings attached. And that might be part of the problem: so much flexibility allows plenty of room for disagreement and delay — and delay is an art form on Beacon Hill.

Other states have managed to figure out how to spend the money. Baker’s claim that Massachusetts lags behind other states in spending the cash seems to check out.

What does Baker want to do with the money? His wish list included spending on housing, job training, environmental and climate-related programs, and education. Those priorities were placed on the table months ago.

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The Legislature moved quickly, back then, to ensure that the money could only be spent with its approval. Legislative leaders bemoaned a lack of process, and insisted that they, not Baker, should decide how to spend the money.

That’s fine, but if they were going to seize control, they own the failure of that process. Here’s what they have to show for their muscle flexing: a half-dozen public hearings, two substantially different bills, and no clear path to moving forward.

Impressive it is not.

Let’s bear in mind that much is at stake here. The whole promise of the American Rescue Plan Act is that the pandemic has done major economic damage to families and workers, harm that government should try to set right.

That is so obviously true that even red states and blue states mostly agree on the basic premise.

Obviously, there are plenty of ways to spend a few billion dollars. But it shouldn’t be hard to find plenty of common ground.

Instead we’re doing nothing, while people who need help aren’t getting it. That’s indefensible.

Lawmakers might argue that this is just a delay, that a compromise will eventually be reached.

In theory, that’s true. But in practice, the Legislature is now stuck in informal session, where nothing can pass without a unanimous vote.

Nothing major happens in informal session, and anyone who has spent any time in the State House knows this package isn’t likely to be an exception.

When Baker says this legislation is “stuck in neutral”, he’s telling the truth.

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I wonder whether this would have been dealt with more urgently if the State House were open to the public (as other state houses are). If the constituencies for the many urgent needs going unaddressed could have gone into the building and talked to their so-called representatives, might that have forced some action?

Maybe.

But as it stands now, the Legislature is effectively on break. They’ll pick this matter up in January, I guess. Or maybe they’ll just hold a few more hearings, and squabble for a little longer over who’s really in charge on Beacon Hill — them or the governor.

The thing is, that money could address a lot of issues for a lot of people.

And none of those problems take a holiday break.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.