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Mass. lawmakers still pondering how to use billions in ARPA funds

The dome of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.
Sumner Caughey
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/saboten_
The dome of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.

Massachusetts received $5.3 billion from the feds in what's known as ARPA funds, or COVID-19 relief funds. The vast majority of it hasn't been spent yet.

The Legislature has so far thwarted Gov. Charlie Baker's efforts to use a chunk of the money.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about where things stand now, after a series of public hearings on the issue.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Well, now that the Legislature has wrapped up their series of hearings, these public hearings, to look at different areas where they might want to spend this money, they have about five and a half weeks before the mid-session recess. Speaker Mariano saying he's hopeful to get a bill done by ... Thanksgiving. That would likely mean that the House would go first and we could see a bill within the next couple of weeks that could be debated and then moved to the Senate in hopes of wrapping up a compromise with the Senate by mid-November.

The two branches are currently working on trying to decide how much of the roughly $4.8 billion that is left in ARPA money they want to spend right away and how much they want to hold onto for a future date, since they have several years to spend this federal relief aid.

Adam Frenier, NEPM: Any idea, Matt, on some priorities for either from Speaker Mariano or Senate President Spilka?

I mean, I think you're going to see them put a lot of money into infrastructure. We've heard a lot of talk about wanting to help with climate resiliency. You may see some of this money go into some social welfare programs. There could be money put into support for rates for child care providers, for instance, as that industry is struggling to meet demand and retain staff. So those are two areas we know that they are looking for. But there is a long list of priorities that people have suggested the ways this money can be spent. So I think it's going to be spread around pretty, pretty widely.

There's another long awaited item on Beacon Hill: new legislative and congressional district maps. There's been speculation that the version impacting the state House and Senate would be released early this month. Lawmakers must live in their new districts by November 8, so that's coming up. As Yogi Berra once said, "It's getting late early." Could we see something this week?

Yeah, I absolutely think we could see something this week. The last time I spoke with the House chairman in charge of this effort, Rep. Mike Moran, a Boston Democrat, was a couple Fridays ago. He said within two weeks, we could likely see maps for the House and Senate. That would mean sometime this week. If we do see those maps, they will likely be out for public comment for about a week ... There will be one more public hearing and then the Legislature will incorporate whatever they've learned from outsiders and try and take some votes on that.

We expect the legislative maps to come first, followed later by the congressional maps. One thing we do not know is whether or not the districts for the eight-member Governor's Council will be included in these House and Senate legislative district maps, or if they will come at a later date as well.

What's the holdup on the congressional maps?

They feel that they don't have as much as a time crunch to get those done. They're really working hard on the House and Senate ones. As you mentioned, there is that November 8 deadline for lawmakers to live in the districts that they're going to run in.

So even though they're right up against it — and if push came to shove, a member would have very little time to move, or a challenger for that matter, would have very little time to move into a district that they wanted to run in — they're trying to wrap that up first to make sure that they can beat that deadline.

Let's look ahead for a moment. There's a gubernatorial election next year. GOP candidate Geoff Diehl picked up an endorsement of former President Donald Trump last week. Meanwhile, Governor Baker still hasn't announced his plans, but he did kick up his fundraising a notch last month, taking in $173,000. Could this be a sign that Baker could be making a decision, or maybe he already has, at least privately?

He is picking up the pace. And one thing we saw early on in his fundraising when he resumed in-person fundraising over the summer, is that a lot of the money was being raised by Karen Polito. This was a strategic move because the Baker people knew that whatever money the lieutenant governor raised could be used for the governor's reelection campaign should he run. And if he chose not to, she would have the money to mount her own campaign.

We're now seeing the governor raise more money on his own, which is interesting. I think the people around the governor are proceeding as if he he may run and we're seeing the uptick. Of course, he had that big fundraiser down the Cape last month, which was reflected in this most recent report. But the governor continues to take his time saying that he's still talking over with his wife. I have to believe at this point, though, he has an inkling of what he may want to do.

How much is Baker's delayed decision holding up other candidates on both sides of the ticket?

Yeah, I think quite a bit, especially probably on the Democratic side, more so. People like Maura Healey have said that they want to decide by this fall. But she already is a statewide elected official with a lot of name recognition. She may, in fact, be waiting to see what the governor does before making her own decision.

There are three other Democrats already in the race, and like I said, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito will likely run if the governor does not run, but a lot hinges on what the governor does himself.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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