It’s Christmas in October again for dozens of cities and towns across Massachusetts. In other words: It’s MassWorks time.
On Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker trekked to Pittsfield where he celebrated the latest round of state grants for roads, sewers, and other infrastructure projects — $100 million in all spread among 60 communities. There, Mayor Linda Tyer accepted her city’s MassWorks prize: $3 million to help redevelop a former GE manufacturing site sitting empty in an industrial park.
Left unsaid by Baker at the event: After this round of grants, the state’s pot of MassWorks money will be empty.
Baker had asked the Legislature to authorize $400 million worth of borrowing to keep funding the program after he leaves the corner office in 2023. However, that request got sidelined — along with many other funding proposals — when the House and Senate adjourned from formal sessions for the year on Aug. 1 without an agreement on a $4 billion economic development bill. Among the numerous other goodies now up in the air: additional funds for a few of the smaller state grant programs that the Baker administration recently united under the “One Stop” umbrella, as well as versions of a tax relief proposal that the governor had submitted to the Legislature.
The big question hanging over Beacon Hill today: Will lawmakers move a slimmed-down version of the ec-dev bill this fall? Legislative leaders say they’re working on it, but there’s a catch. From now until January, lawmakers are only supposed to meet in informal sessions, when no roll calls can be taken and one lawmaker can block a bill. That makes it unlikely any controversial measures — like, say, a proposal to help the Kraft Group build a soccer stadium in Everett — will get through. But it also means no bonding measures, because they require roll call votes. And thus, no MassWorks money.
Yes, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka could bring everyone back for a special formal session this fall for roll calls. But that seems unlikely.
In an interview, Baker said he is not necessarily holding out hope for a special session this fall. Instead, he said he believes legislative leaders will more likely hop to it early next year, and finish a MassWorks bill by sometime in June. Baker considers MassWorks a crucial and flexible tool to help attract private-sector investment for housing and economic development projects.
“The Legislature is as interested in MassWorks as we are,” Baker said in an interview. “It’s the development Swiss army knife. You can use it to stitch together the last piece of a lot of different proposals.”
No one expects MassWorks to go away for good. It’s just too popular for that. Both the Senate and the House agreed to include the $400 million for it in their respective versions of the ec-dev bill.
But the failure to get the bill done this past summer is a big setback for the program, and for the municipalities that count on it. For the most recent round, the administration opened the application portal for MassWorks funds in January, with a June 3 deadline for submissions. The money that’s being awarded this fall should be put to use in the next construction season, starting in the spring. But with no money left, it’s impossible to know when the next round will open.
Can lawmakers hustle and get this done in early 2023, as Baker expects? The cadence of the Legislature’s two-year sessions means economic development bills usually don’t get wrapped up until time is about to run out. But there’s nothing stopping legislative leaders from taking up MassWorks earlier.
Created under Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, MassWorks combined several grant programs to help municipal governments and other public agencies spur job growth and housing construction. Unlike the state’s tax credits for various industries and fast-growing companies, MassWorks actually leaves something of tangible benefit to a city or town — new infrastructure — even if the related developments don’t pan out as expected.
MassWorks grants can sometimes be large, like the $13 million provided to Somerville for improvements to Union Square about six years ago, helping spark a huge mixed-use development in that neighborhood, or the $32.5 million sent to Worcester roughly four years ago to fix up the Canal District and help make way for Polar Park, the home for the rechristened Worcester Red Sox. The biggest such grant, $87 million, was used to renovate GE’s new headquarters in Boston, but GE ended up paying that back, along with a tidy profit for the state, after downsizing its plans here.
Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo and Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant both stopped by the Pittsfield press conference to praise the MassWorks program. (The Massachusetts Mayors’ Association met in the city earlier that day.) Arrigo gets $5 million in this round, to help convert what is essentially a moribund waterfront tow lot into a nearly 300-unit apartment complex, while Vigeant won $2 million to help build sidewalks that could connect employers in an industrial park to nearby housing.
Arrigo and Vigeant, in separate interviews, both said they’re disappointed the ec-dev bill stalled out. But they remain hopeful the Legislature will re-up MassWorks without much of a hitch.
At the time, legislative leaders said their negotiations got jammed up by the surprising news that a 1980s law would trigger nearly $3 billion in tax refunds, essentially because the state had collected too much in revenue. Could the state afford the ec-dev bill and the refunds? Thanks to a huge budget surplus and $2 billion-plus in remaining federal relief funds, the answer seems to be yes.
Many State House insiders speculate that the Democratic leadership is reluctant to give Baker, a Republican, too many victories as he heads out the door. Leave some of that money for Democratic frontrunner Maura Healey, the thinking goes.
Recapitalizing MassWorks would be one way that Spilka and Mariano could give Healey a lift in her early days as governor, should she win the race to succeed Baker next month. After all, what politician doesn’t like handing out gifts, especially when it’s not even a holiday?