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Massachusetts Senate to take up ARPA spending bill

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Beacon Hill lawmakers are advancing proposals to spend federal COVID-19 recovery money

Much in common with House-passed legislation

Massachusetts State Senators are expected to vote tomorrow (Wednesday) on a $3.6 billion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) spending bill.

Last month, the House passed legislation to spend COVID-19 recovery funds and a surplus from the last state budget.

Gov. Charlie Baker has also advanced a proposal for spending the ARPA money.

There is a lot of common ground among all three proposals, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill spoke with MTF President Eileen McAnneny.

Eileen McAnneny

There are many categories common to each of those bills. And among them are healthcare, certainly housing, premium pay for some workers, unemployment insurance, although the amounts vary considerably. Infrastructure, economic development, you know, communities that were desperately impacted by the pandemic, workforce training. So there are many major categories that overlap.

Paul Tuthill 

And are, are there differences? What are some of the differences between what the Senate is proposing and the and the and the other versions?

Eileen McAnneny

Yeah, so certainly, I think the Senate emphasizes behavioral health and mental health more than the other bills. And that's to me a major difference, I think. So more generally, the Senate's approach is to add more specificity. So as you know, in a typical budget process, right, that the Senate is the last to act, and so they have the luxury of more time. And I think in this case, that's true. And so they were able to just provide more specificity around programmatic spending. So where, you know, the governor or the house might have directed money to housing in the Senate, they may have language as to, you know, the criteria and so forth. So So I think that is a key difference in the other is that, unlike the House bill, where the house would say, Okay, this amount of money is coming from federal funds are put funds is how we refer to them. And this other program is going to be funded with surplus tax revenue, that the Senate doesn't make that distinction, what they say is to administration finance, which is the entity that will have to execute on on this budget, they say, Okay, we're gonna cap surplus spending at 1.5 billion, because that's what there is in surplus, tax revenue. And then we're going to cap the ARPA funding at 2.5 billion. And you just figure out among the different appropriations, you know, how are you going to allocate that money between the two revenue streams? So just a slightly different approach?

Paul Tuthill 

Does it does that make any difference how they've approached that? Or is that more of a just a bookkeeping matter?

Eileen McAnneny

Um, by and large, I think it is a bookkeeping matter. But what I would say is this, that, you know, the surplus tax revenue has no strings attached that the Commonwealth collected that from the taxpayers, they can spend it as they see fit. Whereas with federal funding, there are some requirements and certain allowable uses for how that money is spent. So within those parameters, it's kind of a bookkeeping exercise. But but that is an important distinction.

Paul Tuthill 

Speaking of strings attached, how much of this, uh, how much of this spending, have legislators earmarked for pet projects back in their own districts?

Eileen McAnneny

Quite a bit as you would assume. And I don't want to give a bottom line figure because there are budget amendments that were filed. And so those will have to be debated and disposed of. And so we don't know what that bottom line figure will be. But that was certainly true in the House Budget in is likely to be true in the Senate budget. What I will say is, when the math taxpayers Foundation was developing some principles about how to spend the money, we did want to prevent this ARPA money being used to fund a lot of local pet projects, and instead to make sure that, you know, we identified some key priorities and then made some transformational investments, right. So rather than dispensing to 1000 different programs and small amounts, just to concentrate the spending so that it moves the needle, if you will. So, you know, we'll be paying attention to that and how that all shakes out.

Paul Tuthill 

Do you expect that they'll be able to wrap all of this up by November 17, which is the date when the mid- session recess is supposed to begin?

Eileen McAnneny

It's a tall order. So I mean, it can be done but it's a Herculean task to do it.