Weekly Roundup – Not the Fairy-Tale Ending
That sound reverberating through Beacon Hill this week was the echo of legislative talks on how to spend nearly $4 billion in federal COVID-19 relief and other resources crashing into a wall. Or maybe it was the collapse of the regional Transportation Climate Initiative.
Ah, who really knows? They both kind of sounded the same.
The good news is that negotiations over how to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds can be rebuilt, and maybe never fully fell apart. The fate of TCI, on the other hand, seems almost sealed — another pillar of Gov. Charlie Baker’s climate strategy pulled from beneath the governor by forces outside of his control.
The week before Thanksgiving was intended to be a stretch where legislators tied a bow on the first year of the two-year session before going into recess. The ARPA spending bill was supposed to be the Lexus in the driveway.
As the sun set Wednesday, however, the two lead negotiators for the House and Senate were too far apart to pretend that a deal on ARPA was within reach, and Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz pulled the plug. Legislators in the State House and at home had been preparing for a late night, but were sent home early before their dinner break even ended.
Did lawmakers simply not give themselves enough time to work through a very detailed bill, or is there a major fault line between the branches? The answer, for now, remains behind closed doors. Democratic leaders on both sides have not ruled out reaching a compromise that could pass during an informal session in the next seven weeks before January. It would just have to be a bipartisan deal that not a single lawmaker would be willing to hold up.
The promises from Democrats that the work would continue was cold comfort to Baker, who had urged action on ARPA over the summer when he filed a plan to spend much of the state’s ARPA money. The state has been sitting on the COVID-19 relief funding since May, and though Baker eventually backed off to give legislators space to work through their process, he said he was led to believe it would be done before the recess.
“I can’t tell you how frustrated I am,” Baker said Thursday after his office issued a rare rebuke of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Baker said if the Legislature had simply let him retain control of the federal relief money thousands of workers could be in training right now for new careers in jobs that are going unfilled.
“And we’re one of the only states in the country that really hasn’t gone about the process of putting those funds to work,” Baker told reporters.
The absence of an ARPA spending deal on his desk was just one of the week’s disappointments for the governor. Hours after chastising the Legislature, Baker announced that he was walking away from TCI, the regional cap-and-trade program that was supposed to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles and help Massachusetts become a net-zero emissions state by 2050.
Baker had been TCI’s biggest champion when it began as talks among 13 states. But there wasn’t much left to champion after Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said this week that he didn’t see a path forward to getting lawmakers in the Nutmeg State on board.
Lamont’s decision to back away from TCI left Baker pretty much on a lifeboat, adrift with just Rhode Island and D.C. remaining to help paddle. It was “no longer the best solution” to the state’s climate challenges, Baker said. The politics of increasing gas prices to rein in emissions proved too much to overcome.
The collapse of TCI, though not entirely surprising, was the latest blow to Baker’s environmental agenda after Maine voters earlier this month severely damaged efforts to bring hydropower from Quebec to southern New England by voting against a major transmission project.
But when one door closes…
“Now we know where to spend all that federal money we’re getting,” said Sen. Michael Barrett, a leading climate activist in the Legislature and co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. “We need to double down on subsidies to purchases of electric vehicles and we need to go all out to electrify public transit fleets. We’ve got to hit those emissions goals and if one door closes we have to jimmy open a couple new ones.”
As if on cue, the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday passed a version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan that contained major new climate investments, including $300 billion to promote the transition to clean energy with tax incentives for electric vehicles,
U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark was on the House rostrum when the Build Back Better Act passed, front and center to help celebrate as the hard work of getting it through the Senate begins. But it’s been other members of the delegation making waves at home as the Legislature finalized a plan to redraw the districts of all nine members of Congress.
Gov. Baker is now in receipt of a map that notably keeps Fall River — all of Fall River — in U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss’s Fourth Congressional District, giving the freshman what he wanted despite objections from U.S. Rep. William Keating and New Bedford officials who wanted to see the two cities united in Keating’s district.
Both Rep. Michael Moran and Sen. William Brownsberger said they were unswayed by the arguments that New Bedford and Fall River would be better off paired up, particularly since Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan and others from that city took the opposite position.
The map cleared the House 151-8, but the discontent was a little more palpable in the Senate and the 26-13 vote left Democrats with zero room to wiggle if Baker were to veto the plan.
Senate President Karen Spilka was among the 26 votes in favor of the redistricting plan, still participating remotely two days after she had to cancel a trip to the White House for the bipartisan infrastructure bill signing because she came down with a non-COVID illness.
She also missed being present in person for the Senate’s passage of a major mental health care access bill that moves to the House, while Speaker Ron Mariano’s hospital expansion oversight bill goes in the other direction to the Senate for consideration in the new year.
Thursday’s balmy weather notwithstanding, people are starting to move indoors to escape the late fall chill and COVID-19 cases are on the rise, but Baker gave the green light to vaccine booster shots this week for all adults who are at least six-months past their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two months clear of the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shot.
It’s only been two weeks since the November elections, but Michelle Wu took the oath of office Tuesday and kick-started her mayoralty by filing an order with the City Council seeking to use $8 million in federal funds to run the Route 23, Route 28 and Route 29 MBTA bus lines free of charge for two years.
She also continued to build her Cabinet by tapping Black Economic Council of Massachusetts CEO Segun Idowu to become her chief of economic development.