BOSTON – The influx of billions of dollars in federal relief funds and surplus money has lawmakers angling to bring home cash for local pet projects, programs and initiatives — some of which has little or nothing to do with pandemic recovery.
On Wednesday, the state Senate rolled out its proposal to spend more than $3.66 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds and surplus revenue to make investments in housing, the workforce, schools and the health care system to help buoy workers, businesses and communities hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But lawmakers are expected to load up the relief bill with scores of amendments that will likely drive up its final price tag. The proposal leaves about $2.4 billion in unallocated surplus and federal relief funds, giving senators a long leash to stuff more spending items into the measure before it is taken up next week.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, told reporters on Wednesday he expects the spending bill to increase to as much as $3.95 billion during the amendment process.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a relief bill last week packed with tens of millions of dollars of earmarks for local programs and projects.
House leaders met mostly in private meetings to decide which of the more than 1,100 proposed amendments would make it into the final bill.
They agree to several “mega-amendments” — each including hundreds of amendments — which bumped up the spending bill’s bottom line to $3.82 billion.
Beacon Hill watchdogs say Congress never intended for the relief money to be spent on local pet projects and say lawmakers shouldn’t be going on a spending spree.
“This money was supposed to be spent on pandemic relief, but it’s clear that many lawmakers saw this is just another budget spending bill,” said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative pro-business group. “They shouldn’t be using this money for pet projects in an election year.”
Hundreds of non-pandemic related earmarks were also added to the House bill, including $200,000 to improve bicycle safety in Andover, $100,000 for a turf field in North Reading, $150,000 to fix elevators at Melrose High School and $1.3 million for an Italian immigrant memorial in Boston’s North End.
David Tuerck, an economist and president of the Boston-based, right-leaning Beacon Hill Institute, said lawmakers need to be cautious in how they allocate the one-time federal relief windfall, and shouldn’t be spending it on pet projects.
“The Legislature is treating this windfall of money like it’s Christmas morning,” he said. “They shouldn’t be spending this money on frivolous projects.”
House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston, said the bill approved by the House was based on public hearings and input from hundreds of individuals and organizations. In remarks, he called it “a truly equitable spending package” that focuses on communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
A centerpiece of the relief package calls for spending $500 million on bonus checks for frontline workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic.
To be sure, the House bill included $500 million to help bailout the state’s unemployment trust fund and $200 million in tax relief for small-business owners who paid personal income taxes on state or federal pandemic relief money.
It also included money for safety-net hospitals, public health systems and mental health services that have struggled to meet demand during the pandemic.
There were also of unrelated spending items, such as $12 million to help with the resettling of Afghan refugees and $5 million to create a website tracking the number of contracts awarded to minority businesses.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation noted that the House bill tapped mostly surplus money to cover the cost of amendments to the measure, not federal funds.
The Senate bill makes no distinction on the funding sources, leaving that up to the state Office of Administration and Finance to decide.
Massachusetts has received about $5.3 billion in direct funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden.
Gov. Charlie Baker has been quarreling with legislative leaders over control of the money. He initially proposed spending $2.8 billion, leaving lawmakers to distribute the rest. But lawmakers rejected his plan and swept most of the money into a fund controlled by the Legislature.
Baker responded with legislation calling for $2.9 billion in spending on housing, the environment, transportation and other priorities.
Legislative leaders held public hearings on the governor’s proposal but ultimately decided on their own plans.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.