When Massachusetts lawmakers wrested control over a $5 billion pot of federal money from the governor last summer, they also accepted the responsibility for getting that money out of state coffers and into programs, projects, and communities where it was intended to do good — and to do so reasonably quickly.
This week they failed to live up to that responsibility.
Negotiators appointed to reconcile House and Senate versions of spending packages that neared $4 billion — using a combination of federal American Rescue Plan Act money and surplus state revenues — couldn’t reach agreement by their own self-imposed Nov. 17 deadline set for the end of formal legislative sessions.
Well, no surprise there. Legislators have dawdled for nearly six months. Sure, some of that time was devoted to six public hearings, but most of it was spent behind closed doors as House and Senate committees met to each come up with their separate bills. The House bill didn’t emerge until Oct. 25; the Senate passed its bill just last week.
The pattern is not uncommon on Beacon Hill. The annual state budget, which goes through a similar negotiating process, nearly always goes beyond the July 1 deadline for passage. But this pandemic-related spending — clearly deemed essential by federal lawmakers to recovery efforts at the state and local level — is evidence of a new level of dysfunction by legislative leaders.
And as if to prove that point to an already skeptical public, before going home for the year, Senate lawmakers once again extended their own rules to allow remote voting and participation until March 31. Meanwhile, the House didn’t pass a permanent voting reform bill and neither branch extended the existing emergency law allowing no-excuses mail-in voting beyond the Dec. 15 deadline. One rule for lawmakers, another for their constituents.
Under the rules in place for the next seven weeks of this legislative recess, should an agreement finally be reached in committee on the massive federal-funds bill, approval could still be halted on the floor by any single lawmaker.
There is also the possibility that, if the bill doesn’t pass before the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 5, lawmakers would have to start all over again. Under a 1995 rule, unlike policy-oriented bills, which get carried over to the second year of the two-year session, appropriation bills not enacted during the first year die.
So Thursday, after several months of little more than gentle prodding, Governor Charlie Baker, who never wanted to give up control over the money in the first place, put out an official I-told-you-so.
“The Baker-Polito Administration believes the Legislature’s original decision six months ago to freeze these funds and subject them to the legislative process created a massive delay in putting these taxpayer dollars to work,” said Terry MacCormack, a Baker spokesman.
“Massachusetts was already behind most of the country in utilizing these funds before the latest setback, and further delay will only continue to leave residents, small businesses, and hundreds of organizations frozen out from the support the rest of the country is now tapping into to recover from this brutal pandemic,” he added.
And, according to a database kept by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Baker administration is right. Legislatures in states from Maine to Florida began pushing money out into their communities in dozens of different ways beginning in June — long about the time legislators here were still planning those hearings. Baker did manage, with the consent of lawmakers, to use $200 million for economically distressed hospitals and for workforce development. Another $109 million went to four communities short-changed under the federal COVID relief package.
There is, of course, still some hope that the lawmakers negotiating a final compromise bill could reach agreement, and that the rank-and-file membership will fall in line — which they have a way of doing when large sums of money are at stake for their communities and the people and businesses in those communities. Along with substantial expenditures for essentials like housing assistance, job training, environmental infrastructure, education, and health care, both bills are chock-full of earmarks. According to an analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the House bill contains 411 such earmarks, totaling $154.4 million; the Senate version has 415 earmarks, totaling $122.9 million.
They include such items as $5 million for the cleanup of King’s Beach in Lynn, $5 million for a food distribution center in Chicopee, millions for tourism, tree planting, and agricultural supports. Love ’em or hate ’em, earmarks are the grease that often makes the wheels of government turn. And so it might in this case.
But inter-branch rivalries and an appalling lack of urgency have now turned this abundance of riches into a source of embarrassment — that is, assuming the lawmakers in question are capable of being embarrassed. This was no time for business as usual. Apparently, that message never made it to Beacon Hill.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the status of permanent voting reform legislation. The legislation has not passed in the House, but a version has passed in the Senate.
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