Governor Baker blames legislature for $4 billion stimulus bill spending delays

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is among those disappointed that Beacon Hill Democrats couldn’t agree on a plan to put nearly $4 billion to work across the economy before breaking for a seven-week stretch of informal sessions, and is blaming a legislative decision earlier this year for causing delays.

Baker proposed spending American Rescue Plan Act funds in June, but legislative Democrats put the federal aid in a lockbox that they control and opted for a long public hearing process to hear feedback about the state’s needs, then couldn’t agree on a consensus bill Wednesday when formal sessions ended for 2021.

“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,” Baker press secretary Terry MacCormack said. “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.”

Negotiations among six members of a conference committee are continuing, but any agreement they might reach in the next seven weeks will require bipartisan support since bills can only advance in informal sessions with unanimous consent. Formal sessions are scheduled to resume on Jan. 5.

Baker’s reaction came more than 12 hours after lawmakers cut their last formal sessions of 2021 short once it became clear that Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who are leading the talks on behalf of branches that passed their bills unanimously, would not be able to reach an agreement.

While conference committee talks are conducted in secret, there were some signs of discord Wednesday night when the House abruptly adjourned at 6:25 p.m., seeming to catch the Senate by surprise and prompting Rodrigues to offer that he lacked a “dance partner” and that “it takes two to tango.” The Senate adjourned at 6:38 p.m.

Baker’s concerns about a holdup in the use of federal recovery funds are not new, and date back to June when the House rejected his plan to immediately spend $2.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money. The Legislature instead voted to sweep $4.89 billion into a COVID-19 relief fund. At the time, the governor’s office worried about the potential for “a process that would take years while the communities that were hit hardest by the pandemic, including communities of color, wait.”

While there’s widespread agreement on the need to put ARPA funds to work as soon as possible, generally speaking, the funds must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

The other members of the conference committee are Reps. Dan Hunt (D-Dorchester) and Todd Smola (R-Warren) and Sens. Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington) and Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth).

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