Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday bemoaned what he called “a lot of red tape” in a $4 billion spending package currently on his desk, raising questions about the state’s ability to quickly distribute bonus checks to front-line workers that are being promised by March.
Baker has until Monday to act on the legislation, which spreads billions in federal stimulus aid and state surplus money to everything from workforce training to the state’s health care system to housing initiatives.
In the package is a $460 million program that would send one-time “premium pay” bonuses to low-income workers who make up to 300 percent above the federal poverty limit and worked in person during the 16 months of the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency. The bonuses would range between $500 and $2,000 per worker.
But other details — from the criteria for who is eligible to how the bonuses are paid — would be left to Baker, whose administration would have to consult with a 28-person advisory panel made up of appointees from 15 different entities or organizations.
That process, the two-term Republican said Thursday, could create obstacles to quickly dispersing the payments, which are required to be issued by March 31. His comments also suggest he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature could continue to joust over details of the legislation, potentially compressing the timeline even further.
“The thing we’re most concerned about at this point is not so much the money but there’s a lot of red tape baked in there,” Baker said Thursday of the bill, specifically citing the commission “that needs to be established to figure out what to do around premium pay.”
“We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people,” he said. “We’re glad the Legislature eventually got us the bill, but we’re working through some of that stuff just to make sure it doesn’t create impediments to actually putting the money out the door.”
It was unclear Thursday how Baker will ultimately act. He can sign the legislation into law while vetoing line items or offering amendments to specific sections. Doing so, however, could keep certain elements of the bill bottled up in the legislative process.
The Legislature typically, but isn’t required to, dispatches with amendments in formal sessions, which aren’t scheduled to begin until January. Should Baker seek to change how the bonus program or advisory panel is structured, the Legislature would need some time to accept or reject his changes.
“We’ll entertain anything that the governor sends back, and he certainly has his administrative right to do so. But this certainly could further delay this discussion or make it harder for us to achieve that March 31 deadline if he decides to tinker with it,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman. “Hitting that March 31 deadline is critical. The process that we laid out can achieve that.”
The version of the bill that the House passed in October had initially required the bonuses be issued by January 31. Legislative leaders agreed to move it back two months in the final iteration they sent to Baker early this month.
Legislative leaders had faced weeks of criticism for not passing the bill before the Thanksgiving holiday, including from Baker, who had pressed them for months to more quickly spread the money. Lawmakers opted to hold a half-dozen hearings to take public feedback on the bill, arguing that deliberation — not speed — was most important in dividing up a “once-in-a-lifetime” pot of money.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka’s office on Thursday defended the inclusion of the advisory panel, which the Senate first proposed, saying it’s “further reflective of our approach to include those most impacted by this public health crisis in decision-making around our recovery process.”
Legislatively created panels have in the past struggled to move quickly and on schedule. The spending package, for example, includes language reviving five other commissions that have missed various deadlines, including one tasked with recommending changes to the Massachusetts state seal.
In Minnesota, a legislative commission created to nail down details of its own bonus program could not agree on which workers should receive checks, ultimately choosing to send the Legislature two versions instead of one.
Marie-Frances Rivera — president of the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, which would have a seat on the Massachusetts panel — said she would encourage Baker to keep the advisory group in place, with the caveat that it be given a clear charge on what details of the program need to be discussed.
“Other states have successfully built programs and dispersed money that’s targeted to those who need it the most,” she said, citing a $2.1 billion program New York created for undocumented immigrants that quickly dispersed money and also faced enormous demand. “Being clear about what’s on the table and what’s off the table in terms of what decisions need to be made is important.”
The March 31 target is ambitious, but it’s also a “doable deadline” with the advisory panel in place, said Eileen P. McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which also would have a seat on the group.
“I understand the governor’s desire to get the money out the door in the most expedient way possible,” she said, “but I would say standing up a new program is always more complicated than one might first think.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.