Baker urges approval of relief spending

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Jul. 20—BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker urged lawmakers on Tuesday to move swiftly to approve his plans to spend about $2.9 billion in federal pandemic relief funds on housing, water and sewer infrastructure, job training and other priorities.

During a livestreamed hearing, Baker personally made a case to spend the one-time money on "strategic investments" he says are aimed at ensuring a long-term, post-pandemic economic recovery.

"While we are making progress on getting back to normal, we believe that now is not the time to slow down," Baker told the panel. "We need to build on the momentum that's already underway and ensure the recovery efforts are reaching all residents."

Baker said there is a sense of urgency to put the federal money to use "now, not months from now."

"The kinds of projects that are needed to address the impacts of COVID are significant in scale, and many are time consuming," he told lawmakers.

Baker's plan would devote at least $1 billion for housing programs such as those creating workforce and senior housing units; giving downpayment assistance to first-time homebuyers; and smoothing the way for the development of affordable housing.

The proposal calls for nearly $1 billion in environmental projects such as climate change resiliency initiatives. About $400 million would be devoted to modernizing water and sewer infrastructure, including money for projects to cap combined sewer outfalls that spew untreated sewage into the Merrimack River and other bodies of water.

Baker pledges another $50 million to support safety-net hospitals including Lawrence General, which have been hammered financially during the pandemic.

He also calls for $175 million for opioid abuse treatment and prevention.

"These investments are needed now," Baker said. "There are proven programs that work, that can scale up quickly and deploy these resources to the residents that need them most."

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.

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, water and sewer infrastructure, substance abuse and other priorities.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, have so far rejected Baker's proposal but vowed an "open, transparent and thorough public process" in deciding how to spend the money.

Economists and policy experts who testified at Tuesday's hearing urged the state to not to spend the windfall recklessly.

Shenna Gomes, a senior associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the state needs to be careful not to create a "fiscal cliff" by using one-time funds for programs that will require funding later. That's what happened with federal relief money in some states during the recent recession, she said, and it slowed recovery.

Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts, suggested that lawmakers are not under any pressure to spend the money.

The economy "doesn't need any short-term stimulus," he said, adding that inflation and other short-term economic factors would make any spending "risky."

Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the state needs to spend some relief funds to maintain its economic recovery but it should also squirrel away money for "unforeseen circumstances."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com

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