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What's in the $4 billion spending bill passed by the Mass. Legislature during informal sessions

The Massachusetts Statehouse dome.
Creative Commons
The Massachusetts Statehouse dome.

Massachusetts lawmakers last week quietly passed a bill divvying up about $4 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money. It was months in the making.

The bill passed during informal sessions, just like any other housekeeping item.

It contained about $1.5 billion in earmarks. The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized the process.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about what jumps out at him in this compromise measure.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: This was a monumental achievement for the Legislature, months in the making.

The governor has been anxious to get this money to work. Legislators, too, wanted to get this done before Christmas, before the new year, and put it behind them.

And this compromise looks much like you would think any compromise would look. Very similar to the House and Senate bills that we've talked about before.

The big pieces: $500 million for unemployment insurance assistance to help businesses paying off the debt that they accrued during the height of the pandemic, and another $500 million for a bonus pay program for low-income essential workers who had to stay on the job during the pandemic. This would give them up to $2,000 in bonus pay.

The rest: Money for infrastructure, money to support hospitals that are really strained — and being strained again by the new surge in the pandemic.

There is money in here for public health systems, and a whole host of other measures.

One thing you don't see a lot of in here: money for transportation projects. That was intentional. Not a lot of earmarks. That's because legislators know that more money is coming down the pipeline from the federal government through the new infrastructure bill.

So now we will watch to see if the governor signs this [PDF], or if he chooses to veto some of these local projects that were earmarked by legislators for their districts.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced his decision not to seek reelection in 2022 after two terms in office. Somewhat more surprisingly, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito also said she was not running for governor. What's the latest on candidates who may be jumping into the race?

The decision by Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito to skip 2022 is really a surprise, especially on the Polito side, and throws this race wide open on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the ticket.

Jeff Diehl, a Republican former lawmaker, is already running. But now we hear Taunton Mayor Shaunna O'Connell is looking at it. And there are parts of the Republican Party hoping — looking for someone else to step in and fill that moderate lane. Someone in the vein from the business community, maybe like a Charlie Baker or a Mitt Romney. 

On the Democratic side, all eyes now shift to Maura Healey. It appears she could enter this race as the front runner, but she is also the linchpin for other people to make up their minds.

Former Boston mayor and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is said to be considering it. He did not deny when asked during an interview last week that he would give it a look. But people close to him say he's also very happy in his job. Perhaps he'd be less likely to run if the attorney general gets into the race.

Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who just came off a race for mayor — unsuccessful — is also said to be taking a look at it.

And those are just a couple of the names on the Democratic side that already features three candidates.

Baker said he wants to focus on governing next year and not politics. Does this announcement give a lift to any hope for lawmakers of passing certain legislation that they knew would be tricky getting him to sign for political reasons?

I would not expect that the governor is going to lurch either to the left or to the right now that he's freed of these sort of political shackles of knowing that he has to run again.

The Legislature has been fighting over whether or not to do things like sports betting, for instance. That is something the governor is on board with.

He has also hinted that he's going to come out in the early new year with a new major health care bill. That will be a tricky thing to negotiate with both the House and Senate, depending on how far he goes, and what direction this bill takes.

And the pandemic is going to keep his hands full. As we can see, he now has billions and billions of dollars to start spending, so there's plenty to keep him busy. But I'm not sure that there are any big surprises on the governor's agenda coming up in the new year.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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