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Baker signs $4 billion COVID relief bill, but wrests control of how, and when, to distribute worker bonuses

Governor Charlie Baker.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Monday signed a sweeping $4 billion package designed to help speed Massachusetts’ recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in doing so, the second-term Republican stripped away several elements of a program that would send one-time bonus payments to low-income workers, setting up a potential dispute between Democratic legislators and a governor who has bristled at the “red tape” they tied to it.

In a letter to state lawmakers Monday, Baker said he supports the $460 million “essential employee premium pay“ included in the law that promises checks to residents who worked in-person and on the front lines during the pandemic, including some state employees. But Baker vetoed a section that detailed the contours of it, including a requirement that the money be distributed by March 31 and language reserving it for some of the state’s poorest workers.

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Baker said he rejected the section primarily because it was intertwined with a requirement that his administration consult with a 28-person advisory panel — made up of appointees from 15 different entities or organizations — before determining who could receive the money.

The inclusion of the panel “further complicated” the program, he wrote, in a way that was “virtually guaranteed to significantly hinder disbursement of the funds.” The advisory board was given no deadlines, and the language did not specify who would be named as co-chairs, meaning no one was empowered to call the first meeting once the panel was assembled, Baker wrote.

The program, as crafted by the Legislature, would have reserved payments for low-income workers who make up to 300 percent above the federal poverty limit and who worked in person during the 16 months of the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency. The bonuses would have ranged between $500 and $2,000 per worker.

Baker vetoed that language as well, though he signaled an intent to provide similarly sized checks. By rejecting the section, he effectively proposed to give his administration full control of how the money will be distributed, when, and to whom.

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The decision, he said, will enable his administration to “immediately begin the process of distributing these funds,” Baker wrote.

“We could send out $500 checks to almost 1 million Massachusetts residents as soon as possible. Reinstituting the panel-driven process envisioned by the Legislature will simply disrupt the rollout midstream,” he said. “We urge you to let our administration proceed with this important program today.”

It wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether the Legislature would seek to override the governor. A veto override requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, which aren’t scheduled to meet again in formal sessions until January.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said Monday that lawmakers needed to discuss next steps. But given that Baker removed the March deadline, legislative leaders also requested a timeline from his administration for distributing money to essential workers “so we can make an informed decision,” Mariano said.

In a statement, Senate president Karen E. Spilka did not address Baker’s veto, instead praising the bill as an investment that “will support the Commonwealth’s recovery and ensure we do not go back to normal but ‘back to better.’ ”

Baker’s signature on Monday unlocked hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from workforce training to mental health. It includes $500 million for housing, including money for new construction and apartments run by housing authorities; another $250 million is designed to help cash-strapped hospitals, and $200 million would go toward local and regional public health efforts.

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It also sets aside $500 million for the state’s unemployment trust fund, with another $75 million tucked away for small businesses.

The law is built on billions in federal stimulus aid provided through the American Rescue Plan Act and $1.5 billion in state surplus money. Together, the funding provides what state officials have touted as a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of money, including for residents and communities racked by the COVID-19 pandemic, while still leaving $2.5 billion in federal dollars to be spent later.

Baker had indicated last week that he would reject or seek to rewrite parts of the bill. He argued there was “a lot of red tape baked” into the package, and specifically cited the advisory panel the Legislature created. The bill had suggested health care and home care workers, educators, grocery stores employees, and foster care parents, among others, could receive the checks, but left it to Baker and the panel to craft who would ultimately be eligible for the program.

“We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people,” Baker said last week.

The bill the Legislature sent Baker was packed with earmarks — 843 in total, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog. They funded everything from $500,000 for a rail trail in Lawrence to $300,000 for construction of a museum in Worcester to honor cycling great Major Taylor.

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The decisions behind spreading the cash, however, didn’t please everyone.

Arts leaders in Massachusetts said funds ostensibly reserved for culture and tourism were “inequitable” and, at times, misleading. More than half of the spending lawmakers inserted into the section of the bill for arts, culture, and tourism — nearly $75 million — was sliced up for pet projects, most of which are not obviously related to either the arts or culture.

The biggest earmark of $50 million was for “economic development” improvements to MBTA stations in Norfolk County; the county’s largest city is Quincy, which has four T stops and is the home to Mariano, the House leader.

Baker effectively kept all of them, choosing to veto language in just seven line-items, many to free his administration from having to file what he considers to be “unduly burdensome reports.”

He also proposed changes to one other section that creates a $198 million trust fund designed to address barriers in providing mental health care. Under the Legislature’s proposal, the money would not immediately be spent. Instead, an advisory commission would have been required to make recommendations by March 1 to the Legislature, which would then retain the power to appropriate the funds at a later time.

Baker criticized the proposal as creating a “lengthy, bureaucratic process,” and proposed giving his administration the power to administer the funds.

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“I support the focus of the Trust on equitable, culturally competent, affordable, and clinically appropriate behavioral health care and services,” Baker wrote. But, he said, he could not support the section as “currently drafted.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.