BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic leaders in the Massachusetts House and Senate are in a full-blown spat over $5.3 billion in federal pandemic relief money, with lawmakers moving quickly to dump the money into an account they have more control over, keeping it at arm’s length from the Republican governor.
Baker is crying foul, arguing that at least $100 million of the American Rescue Plan Act aid should immediately go to four communities he said were “horribly under-reimbursed” earlier in the pandemic — Chelsea, Everett, Methuen and Randolph.
“We have 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, 347 of them have gotten their money. There are four communities that haven’t. And all four of those communities were really hard hit by COVID and they are exactly the kind of communities that deserve our support," Baker told reporters Wednesday.
Baker also cautioned that the clock is already ticking on when the federal dollars must be spent.
“There is a time frame and a time limit on a lot of those funds. Some of them you can spend until a certain date in ’21, some in ’22, some in ’23. So it’s important that we recognize and understand that we need to put this money to work relatively quickly,” Baker said.
Baker’s comments followed a statement issued earlier in the week by Democratic leaders in the Legislature — Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano.
The two said it’s important to put the money into a segregated fund separate from the ongoing process of drafting a new state budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“A public legislative process will allow all communities, especially those impacted the most by COVID-19, to help determine where investments are most needed,” the two said. “These investments may potentially be spread out over a number of years to ensure our continued economic vitality.”
In a separate statement released Wednesday, Spilka and Mariano also pushed back against Baker’s criticism that the four communities are being left in the lurch.
The two said they agree that communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and left behind by a flawed funding formula — like the four communities — should receive additional financial support.
“We have a sense of urgency regarding providing coronavirus relief to our hardest hit communities. We are glad the Governor, who has been in receipt of these funds for two weeks, is now joining the Legislature in this sense of urgency,” the two wrote.
They again said that they think the best way to decide how to spend the money is through a “an inclusive and open public legislative process” that will address the unique needs of every community in the state.
Baker, however, faulted lawmakers for dragging their feet, particularly on the four communities he said were short-changed, saying the administration would have just moved ahead and released the $100 million.
“We’re going to have a conversation obviously with the Legislature and say to them do you really want to, do you want to treat these four communities differently or should we be doing exactly for them what is actually going on for the other 347?” Baker said.
The debate over how best to spend the pot of money has also started to spill outside of the Statehouse.
On Saturday, community groups are planning to rally on Boston Common to demand that the funds be distributed in what they describe as an equitable manner to help those most harmed by the pandemic.