BOSTON - South Shore legislators remain hopeful that a final COVID-19 relief package will be produced before the end of the year after lawmakers failed to meet their self-established deadline, further delaying the distribution of aid to municipalities.
The House and the Senate unanimously passed their own versions of the spending package, with a shared baseline of $3.82 billion, but differ in distribution priorities.
The Legislature had set a Nov. 17 deadline to come up with a plan to distribute a COVID-19 relief package that included surplus fiscal 2021 tax dollars and American Rescue Plan Act money.
The six-person conference committee responsible for producing a compromise version of the bill - which includes state Sen. Patrick O'Connor, R-Weymouth - continues to meet privately during informal sessions as the Legislature is in a seven-week recess.
While legislators had hoped to finalize a spending package before the recess, they acknowledged that a three-day timeline was not enough.
"It's really hard to come up with compromised language between Sunday night at 10 p.m., and Wednesday night at midnight when you're off by $500 million or more," said state Rep. Patrick Kearney, D-Scituate, in a phone interview.
The House produced its final version of the bill on Oct. 29 and the Senate on Nov. 10, though the state received the American Rescue Plan Act money in May.
In June, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a $2.8 billion spending package to address the state's immediate recovery needs through American Rescue Plan Act money, but the Legislature simultaneously filed legislation to transfer the money into the federal COVID-19 response fund and allow for public discourse before distribution.
Baker conceded and allowed the Legislature to embark on a six-month period of public hearings that would allow communities and organizations to help determine where the money is most needed.
But because the Legislature did not hold up its end of the bargain, Baker is now calling lawmakers out for not letting him initially retain control of the American Rescue Plan Act money, further delaying state spending demands.
"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," said Baker's press secretary, Terry MacCormack. "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."
Kearney said that while it is important to distribute American Rescue Plan Act money promptly, he does not want the process to become so rushed that the money is not properly allocated.
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"Yes, we are the last state (to roll out American Rescue Plan Act money), but at the same time, the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House and my colleagues have been putting a lot of work into making sure that these dollars are invested into the things that need it the most," said Kearney. "And I think that takes time (and) a lot of conversation … and that's what we've been doing."
O'Connor, the only South Shore legislator on the conference committee, could not be reached for comment.
State Rep. Mathew Muratore, R-Plymouth, said that while he, too, had hoped for a compromise by the deadline, he trusts the conference committee to produce a final version by the end of the year.
"I'm hopeful that they'll come to a consensus very shortly and I think it could get done in an informal session," said Muratore in a phone interview. "I don't think there are really big disagreements from members on this at all. I think it's more philosophical differences."
Differences between House and Senate bills
The final versions of the bills had relatively the same language but differed slightly in priorities.
The Senate proposed that $100 million more be allocated to public health infrastructure, $75 million more be allocated to water and sewer infrastructure and $150 million more to mental health spending than the House included in its final proposal.
Meanwhile, the House proposed investments that were not addressed by the Senate, including $40 million for youth summer and school-year jobs, $75 million for capital projects on public college and university campuses and $20 million for special education.
However, before either chamber debated its bill, they both agreed to set aside $1 billion for workforce needs - $500 million for a bonus-pay program for low-income essential workers and $500 million for the state's unemployment insurance trust fund.
"The point of the (American Rescue Plan Act money is) to get it out to cities, towns, organizations and groups so we can continue to recover," said Muratore. "It's great that we have it, so it's kind of silly that we're arguing about billions of dollars getting out the door."
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While the Legislature, the governor's office and other state entities agree that American Rescue Plan Act moneyshould be used as soon as possible, the federal government set the deadline for the money to be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
The chambers may still vote on a compromise version of the bill in informal sessions, but there is a higher risk of the bill getting shut down than there would be in formal sessions because roll-call voting is not allowed during the recess, meaning it only takes one lawmaker to block a bill from advancing.
If the Legislature doesn't meet a compromise by the end of the year, it runs the risk of having to completely start over. A legislative rule declares that bills "making or supplementing an appropriation for a fiscal year submitted to or returned to the General Court by the governor" do not carry over into the second year of the legislative session, according to State House News Service.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: MA legislature working on COVID-19 relief package with ARPA money