Baker signs $ 4 billion COVID relief bill, but takes control of how and when to distribute workers’ bonuses

Baker said he rejected the section primarily because it was linked to the requirement that his administration consult a 28-person advisory board – made up of people appointed by 15 different entities or organizations – before determining who might receive the silver.

The inclusion of the panel “further complicated” the program, he wrote, in a way that “was virtually guaranteed to significantly hamper the disbursement of funds.” The advisory board was not given a deadline and the wording did not specify who would be appointed co-chair, meaning no one was given the authority to call the first meeting after the panel was formed, Baker wrote.

The program, as crafted by the legislature, would have restricted payments to low-income workers who earn up to 300% above the federal poverty line and who worked in person during the 16 months of the l state of state of COVID-19 emergency. The premiums would have varied between $ 500 and $ 2,000 per worker.

Baker also vetoed this language, although he signaled his intention to provide checks of the same size. By dismissing the section, he effectively offered to give his administration full control over how the money will be distributed, when and to whom.

The move, he said, will allow his administration to “immediately begin the process of distributing these funds,” Baker wrote.

“We could send checks for $ 500 to nearly a million Massachusetts residents ASAP. The reestablishment of the panel-led process envisioned by the Legislature will simply disrupt the mid-term deployment, ”he said. “We urge you to allow our administration to continue this important program today.”

It was not immediately clear on Monday whether the legislature would seek to override the governor. A veto waiver requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, which are not expected to meet again in formal sessions until January.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a Democrat from Quincy, said on Monday lawmakers should discuss next steps. But since Baker removed the March deadline, legislative leaders also asked his administration for a timeline for distributing money to essential workers “so we can make an informed decision,” Mariano said.

In a statement, Senate Speaker Karen E. Spilka did not address Baker’s veto, instead, praising the bill as an investment that “will support the Commonwealth’s recovery and ensure that we do not return to normal but “better”. “

Baker’s signing on Monday released hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from workforce training to mental health. It includes $ 500 million for housing, including money for new constructions and apartments managed by the housing authorities; An additional $ 250 million is intended to help cash-strapped hospitals, and $ 200 million would go to local and regional public health efforts.

It is also setting aside $ 500 million for the state unemployment trust fund, with an additional $ 75 million for small businesses.

The law is based on billions in federal stimulus aid provided through the American Rescue Plan Act and $ 1.5 billion in excess state money. Together, the funding provides what state officials have billed as a once-in-a-lifetime cash injection, including for residents and communities hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, while leaving $ 2.5 billion federal dollars to spend later.

Baker had indicated last week that he would reject or seek to rewrite parts of the bill. He argued that there was “a lot of red tape” in the package, and specifically cited the advisory committee established by the Legislature. The bill suggested that health and home care workers, educators, grocery store workers, and foster parents, among others, could receive the checks, but left Baker and the panel to take care of it. determine who would ultimately be eligible for the program.

“We would rather just put in a premium compensation package and distribute the money to people,” Baker said last week.

The bill the legislature sent to Baker was filled with allocations – 843 in total, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog. They funded everything from $ 500,000 for a rail trail in Lawrence to $ 300,000 to build a museum in Worcester in honor of the great cyclist Major Taylor.

The decisions behind the allocation of the money, however, were not to everyone’s liking.

Massachusetts arts leaders said the funds apparently earmarked for culture and tourism were “unfair” and, at times, misleading. More than half of lawmakers’ spending tucked into the arts, culture and tourism section of the bill – nearly $ 75 million – was cut for pet projects, most of which clearly are not related neither to arts nor to culture.

The largest allocation of $ 50 million was for improvements to the “economic development” of MBTA stations in Norfolk County; the county’s largest town is Quincy, which has four T-stops and is the home of Mariano, the House leader.

Baker effectively kept them all, choosing to veto language in just seven line items, many to save his administration from having to file what he considers to be “unduly heavy reports.”

He also proposed changes to another section that creates a $ 198 million trust fund designed to remove barriers to the delivery of mental health care. According to the Legislative Assembly’s proposal, the money would not be immediately spent. Instead, an advisory committee should have made recommendations by March 1 to the Legislature, which would then retain the power to allocate funds at a later date.

Baker criticized the proposal as creating a “long and bureaucratic process” and proposed giving his administration the power to administer the funds.

“I support the Trust’s focus on equitable, culturally competent, affordable and clinically appropriate behavioral health care and services,” Baker wrote. But, he said, he could not support the section as it was “currently written”.

Matt Stout can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @mattpstout.

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