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Baker pushes unfinished business with economic development bill

Several proposals that have gained little traction on Beacon Hill have been added to the Legislature’s must-pass measure.

Governor Charlie Baker addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in March. Baker is using the must-pass economic development bill to try and push a few business priorities through the Legislature this session.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Charlie Baker’s team calls it An Act Investing in Future Opportunities for Resiliency, Workforce, and Revitalized Downtowns, or the nifty acronym FORWARD. Most state legislators will simply call it the economic development bill, aka “ec dev.”

A better name might be: An Act to Resolve Unfinished Business.

While Baker’s second term as governor doesn’t end for another eight months, the window for getting complicated or controversial bills through the Legislature closes on July 31.

Baker really doesn’t have much time left before he bids Beacon Hill goodbye. And so he turned to the latest ec dev bill — a measure lawmakers are expected to pass in every two-year session — to accomplish a few unfinished priorities.


There’s the $750 million clean energy fund, a proposal Baker offered up last October to the Legislature with little success so far, to make Massachusetts more competitive with rival states such as New York. Then there are hundreds of millions of dollars to help downtowns recover and reinvent after the pandemic — something Baker hinted at when he complained last month to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that the Legislature hadn’t taken up his initial proposal. And don’t forget about the Hynes Convention Center; Baker is again seeking approval to redevelop the Back Bay site, this time using the ec dev bill, after his previous standalone proposal grew too hot for legislative leaders to handle.

Perhaps most notably, Baker is trying to tell the Legislature how to spend the rest of Massachusetts federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. Baker is eager to get this money out the door — some $2.3 billion, to be coupled with nearly $1.3 billion in state bond funds — before he leaves office. He underscored the time pressures at his press conference in Lynn on April 21 to announce the bill filing. Federal rules require that the $2.3 billion be committed by the end of 2024, and spent by the end of 2026. State lawmakers don’t seem to share his sense of urgency.


So how will Baker pull this off, with all those cold shoulders at the State House?

First of all, Baker submitted these measures in a “must-pass” bill. After the state budget, there’s probably no other major legislation more likely to get done before time runs out than an ec dev bill.

Baker also sweetened the pot. Check out all those earmarks. Hundreds of them, in fact. Earmarks are normally used by representatives and senators to show voters how they’re bringing cash home. It’s unusual for Baker to propose so many. But they could engender support among those same representatives and senators who want tangible wins to brag about in their districts.

Take that clean energy fund. Baker proposed it last fall as a sequel of sorts to the $1 billion life sciences initiative set up under predecessor Deval Patrick. This time, Baker’s clean energy fund is carved up a bit, with Southeastern Mass. the biggest winner. Earmarks for that region abound: $79 million to help launch the offshore wind sector in New Bedford, $10 million for industry training programs at the Mass. Maritime Academy, $5.75 million for a geotechnical centrifuge and saltwater flume tank at UMass Dartmouth.

Baker really rolls out the earmark machine for the “revitalizing downtowns” part of the bill, a section that has broadened considerably from his last go-around to include helping “communities” more generally. Baker had proposed $350 million in rescue plan money last year to boost downtowns. — $100 million for communities hit hardest by COVID-19, and $250 million for everyone else. But lawmakers took a pass.


This time, Baker dangles all sorts of enticing projects, gleaned from recently unfulfilled grant applications to the state. Many would be funded by replenishing the state’s MassWorks infrastructure program — from $11 million for Haverhill’s downtown, to $2 million for a Main Street water main replacement in Dighton, to $1.2 million for the village center in the tiny Western Mass. town of Conway.

Then there’s a $108 million line item for “an equitable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.” No actual projects are named. But it seems like every town gets a mention, with set asides for unspecified “local economic recovery efforts.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation helpfully adds it all up: The bill includes 614 environmental, climate, and economic development earmarks, and guarantees every municipality in the state at least $250,000.

Even the Hynes disposition comes with sweeteners: 50 percent of proceeds would go to affordable housing in Boston, 30 percent for affordable housing elsewhere, and 20 percent to mitigate the impact on the Back Bay. This presumably is aimed at making the redevelopment go down easier in the neighborhood, compared to last time when the money would have gone to South Boston for a Boston Convention & Exhibition Center expansion. (This bill also allows that expansion to proceed, but without Hynes funds to assist.) The neighborhood commitment is relatively open-ended, falling short of what Hynes-sale skeptics such as the Back Bay Association and Unite Here Local 26 want to see.


This bill is just a starting point. State legislators will add to it. They can also subtract, though they may be reluctant to remove goodies for their districts.

Senator Eric Lesser and Representative Jerald Perisella, the Legislature’s joint economic development committee cochairs, expect to hold a hearing this month. While both say they’re keeping an open mind about the bill, they might propose more workforce training money to address the great labor shortage that’s vexing employers.

Another complaint Lesser often hears: the high cost of housing. This is a pet issue of Baker’s as well. He includes $270 million for various housing programs, and would rewrite the state’s rarely-if-ever-used “starter home” law from 2016 to encourage more communities to embrace zoning for them.

Now, the bartering begins over what to include, and what to omit. If the Legislature holds true to form, the back-and-forth probably won’t end until late July, just before time runs out.

The ec dev bill will be one of Baker’s final opportunities to shape his legacy, and one of the last trains to leave the station again. Hard to blame him for trying to ensure several of his priorities will be on board.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.