GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Monday signed into law a $4 billion spending bill, while vetoing several commissions that he worried would slow down the process of distributing the money.
“The pandemic has had a significant impact on Massachusetts workers, families, communities, and businesses for nearly two years, and today’s signing directs billions of dollars in relief toward those hardest hit across the Commonwealth,” Baker said in a statement. “While this package falls far short of the investment I called for to address the housing shortage, the important investments included in this bill will help to accelerate Massachusetts’ economic recovery and provide long-lasting benefits to infrastructure, healthcare, education systems, and small businesses.” While Baker had proposed spending $1 billion on housing, the final bill spends around $600 million.
The massive spending bill incorporates up to $2.55 billion in spending from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and $1.45 billion in state surplus, with huge amounts of money going toward housing, health care, workforce development, infrastructure, and education to help the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes $500 million for the unemployment insurance trust fund, which paid out large sums in benefits during the COVID pandemic.
The governor signed into law virtually all the spending portions of the bill, including more than $300 million in local earmarks. The sections he vetoed or returned with amendments were primarily focused on administration and oversight.
Lawmakers passed a $500 million premium pay program for low-income essential workers who worked in person during the pandemic. Baker agreed to spend the money but vetoed a section that would have established a 28-member advisory panel to make recommendations on designing the program.
Baker wrote in his veto letter that under the language of the bill, no one is empowered to call the first meeting of the panel, no chairs are named, and no deadlines apply to the panel. Yet the Office of Administration and Finance is required to design the program and pay eligible recipients by March 31, 2022. Baker wrote that he wants his administration to have the flexibility to design the program and begin distributing the money, and the panel “is virtually guaranteed to significantly hinder disbursement of the funds.”
House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a statement that it is important to note that Baker also vetoed the March 31 deadline for the pandemic pay program. “We have requested a timeline from the Administration on when they would be able to get the money out to essential workers so we can make an informed decision,” Mariano said.
Baker similarly returned with an amendment a section that would have created a $198 million Behavioral Health Trust Fund with a 20-member advisory commission to administer it and use the money to identify and address barriers to obtaining behavioral health care. Baker wrote in his amendment that he supports the creation of the trust fund and its goals, including a focus on workforce development. But, as drafted, the bill would create a “lengthy, bureaucratic process” that would delay the delivery of funding, he said.
Baker said he would support a commission that is advisory, rather than requiring its recommendations be part of an appropriations process, and it should include the commissioners of public health and mental health. Baker did allow the full $400 million for behavioral health care spending in the bill to become law, but the transfer to the proposed behavioral health trust fund may be stuck in limbo until lawmakers act on his amendment.
Overall, Baker made only a small number of changes. He vetoed language in seven other line items which he said would slow down the distribution of funds. He eliminated required reports related to homeownership assistance, affordable housing preservation, agricultural-related grants, and an HVAC grant program in public schools. He also rejected a line that would increase a cap on conservation-related grants.
An aide to Senate President Karen Spilka said she is still reviewing Baker’s filings. But Spilka said in a statement that she is particularly proud of the $400 million allocation for mental and behavioral health care. “The nearly $4 billion in investments the Legislature has made with this round of American Rescue Plan Act and Fiscal Year 2021 surplus funds will support the Commonwealth’s recovery and ensure we do not go back to normal but ‘back to better,’” Spilka said. “These funds help provide a path towards an equitable recovery that benefits residents, businesses, and communities through transformational investments in public health, health care, housing, workforce development, and climate preparedness.”
Mariano said the House will be discussing what Baker sent back with the Senate.
What ability lawmakers have to override Baker’s veto is complicated this year. It takes a two-thirds roll call vote of members to override a gubernatorial veto. Lawmakers are scheduled to only meet in informal sessions through the end of the year, during which they cannot take roll call votes. Budget bills, unlike other bills, expire at the end of the first year of the two-year legislative session, which will be midnight January 4, 2022.
If Baker returned a section with an amendment, lawmakers can vote on amendments during informal sessions. In areas that Baker vetoed, an aide to the governor has said Baker believes the items will expire January 4, unless lawmakers vote to suspend their own rules. But House and Senate aides have said the Legislature does not agree that the bill dies at the end of the first year, since its appropriations are not tied to a particular fiscal year. They are operating under the assumption that lawmakers can return in January to override Baker’s vetoes.