If you're looking for a sure sign that Beacon Hill is readjusting to post-pandemic behavior and returning to business as usual, look no further than the war of words — and press releases — waged between Gov. Charlie Baker and the unified legislative leadership this week.
The dispute between branches is over who, between the governor or the legislature, will have the authority to spend funds provided by the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). As State House tiffs go, this one carries a hefty price tag: up to $5.3 billion in funds to be spent over the next few years.
Timing, more than anything, is at the heart of the disagreement. Gov. Charlie Baker insists that since the feds did not stipulate that state legislatures must be involved in appropriating the windfall of federal funding, he and his executive branch have the power to spend the money as quickly as it sees fit without having to consult lawmakers.
About 200 feet down the State House's third floor hallway, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano have other ideas about the level of consideration and process that should go into spending such a huge amount.
In part spurned by what many lawmakers consider a stonewalling of local input in previous rounds of federal pandemic relief, Spilka and Mariano are asserting the legislature's prerogative to hold the purse strings of government and deny Baker unilateral access to the ARPA funds. Instead, they're pushing a bill through both chambers that would move the federal money out of Baker's hands and into a new "segregated" fund that would be subject to their own appropriations process.
"A robust legislative process will help ensure that no one is left behind,” Spilka and Mariano wrote in a co-signed press release. “Our communities and residents know their deepest needs firsthand, and we must offer them the opportunity to participate in a democratic process to ensure the funds are distributed equitably.”
At play in the short term is $100 million that all parties had already agreed to pay immediately to four municipalities — Chelsea, Revere, Methuen and Randolph — because they were shortchanged by previous federal aid formulas.
Baker says his plan was to get the compensation funding out to the four hard-hit communities before Spilka and Mariano announced, in a press release, their plan for the legislative-controlled appropriation process. The announcement stipulated the new fund would encompass the full $5.3 billion, including the $100 million promised to the four communities.
Baker's response to Spilka and Mariano's move made a point to mention that if a separate fund were established, Baker would not be able to distribute the agreed-upon $100 million to the four municipalities without the legislature authorizing it — which is exactly the legislature's point.
"The legislature put out a press release. They made a point with respect to this. It wasn't $5.2 billion, it was 5.3, okay? We'll raise this issue with them. I hope they see it the way we do," Baker said at a press conference Wednesday morning.
And that's when Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Ayanna Pressley got involved.
The congresspeople issued their own statement Wednesday morning insisting that the four communities get their money immediately and not wait for the legislature's new, slower, plan.
"The flexible federal relief funding in the American Rescue Plan we helped secure is currently in the state’s coffers,” Pressley, Warren and Markey wrote. “While state leaders determine allocation of the rest of the $5.3 billion in funding, we should immediately distribute to Chelsea, Everett, Methuen, and Randolph the $100 million dollars committed to them. We must keep this promise now.”
Spilka and Mariano responded with yet another press statement, saying they agree with the congressional delegation that the four municipalities be paid their due.
"Like our delegation, we have a sense of urgency regarding providing coronavirus relief to our hardest hit communities," Mariano and Spilka wrote, but not without another jab at Baker.
"We are glad the Governor, who has been in receipt of these funds for two weeks, is now joining the Legislature in this sense of urgency," they wrote.