Delay in COVID relief funds riles lawmakers

BOSTON (SHNS) – Three months after Gov. Charlie Baker signed a more than $1.1 billion COVID relief spending bill, the administration has made the final $213 million available for dozens of non-profits, municipal departments, and hospitals to claim with just two months left until much of the federal money used to cover the spending expires.

The delay in the release of the funding has become a point of tension and frustration between Democratic leadership in the Legislature and the Baker administration as the two sides try to work together to build a long-term spending plan for the state that will carry the government through to next July.

While the administration now says that all but $89.7 million has been spent or made available for release from that July budget bill, lawmakers and staff say they remain uncertain about how much of the money has made it into the hands of the organizations for whom it was earmarked.

There is also concern that because federal funding through the CARES Act expires on Dec. 30, some entities may have difficulty spending that money before the end of the year.

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz took the extra step this week of telling House members that they should follow up with organizations in their districts expecting money, and urge them to contact the administration quickly to access the funding.

“If you secured any funding in the COVID supplemental budget for organizations in your communities, we urge you to reach out to those organizations and have them call and write to the administering entity to formally request those funds immediately. It has been made clear to us that this is a necessary step to initiate the process for the funds to be released,” Michlewitz wrote in a Tuesday email, a copy of which was obtained by the News Service.

That email was sent after the administration provided Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues an update on Friday of the newly released funding, which included the amounts and the agency in charge of dispersing it.

“To access newly released earmarked funding, please contact the legislative director in the administering agency indicated in the appendix to this report,” Heffernan wrote in a short cover letter. In some cases, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance was the administering agency.

Michlewitz raised his concerns over the COVID relief funding publicly last week during a hearing on the governor’s latest budget proposal, suggesting at the time it was not the first conversation he and Rodrigues had with Baker’s budget office about the timely release of funds earmarked in the COVID relief bill.

“I think we’re hearing from a lot of members, from a lot of non-profits that were given a lifeline back in July when we passed the CARES Act supplemental budget and the governor signed it and now we’re almost into November with many restrictions on that funding that had to be used up by the end of the year, and some of those dollars and funding, they have not been seen all the way through to allocation to those non-profits that have been relying heavily on it,” Michlewitz told Heffernan.

Baker’s budget for fiscal year 2021 relies on $550 million in federal CARES Act funding, but Michlewitz told Heffernan that many lawmakers were skeptical about authorizing more spending of federal dollars when the last round of earmarks were still delayed.

“We really have a hard time explaining moving forward and using coronavirus fund money to offset these things without some of these previous things being allocated. That’s really the challenge at hand here,” Michlewitz said.

Heffernan said there had been “some difficulties” in getting the money out and identifying all the correct federal funding sources, but he told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees that their patience would be rewarded within days.

“You’ll have a roadmap to how they go out, and there should be no delay in them going out, no later than Friday,” Heffernan said.

The administration delivered an updated spending chart on Friday indicating how much money had been authorized for different programs, and how much the administration had either spent or made available.

Officials in the governor’s budget office acknowledged that the breakdown did not specify how many of the earmarks had been accessed by intended recipients, but said it’s not unusual to rely on legislators to follow up on earmarks to ensure the money goes to the right person at the right organization.

The newly released $213,175,000 in funding includes $111.4 million in supplemental payments for hospitals and other health providers connected to the pandemic and $20 million for statewide efforts to address racial disparities in health.

There is also nearly $46.8 million in largely earmarked spending authorizations covering everything from $20,000 to replace first responder equipment in North Attleboro to the $235,000 set aside for Health Care for All related to the non-profit running a free statewide helpline for people with questions about eligibility and enrollment in different health insurance programs.

Other examples of the just-released earmarks include $3 million for summer camps, $25,000 for the First R Foundation and Pathways for Children Head Start program to buy books, $200,000 for the Dalton Community Recreation Association, $50,000 for the Haitian Community Partners Association in Brockton to cover losses from canceled English learning, financial literary and youth summer classes, and $150,000 for Metrowest Legal Services to assist people facing eviction or foreclosure.

The administration appeared to direct some lawmakers to contact their representatives in Plymouth County government to inquire about the availability of funds for other projects after the county applied for and received its own CARES Act funding this spring and refused to turn that money over to the state when asked to by the Baker administration.

The COVID relief bill, for instance, earmarks $70,000 for the Pembroke Council on Aging for transportation expenses related to the pandemic and $30,000 for the town of Plymouth to buy personal protective equipment. Another $150,000 was set aside for Plymouth to make technology improvements for online learning and $25,000 each was earmarked for Abington and Rockland for “extraordinary costs” associated with the pandemic.

In all of those cases, the administration identified Plymouth County as the administering agency, while similar earmarks for other towns were paid through the state Coronavirus Relief Fund municipal program.

The nearly $90 million in unapproved authorizations left over from the COVID-19 budget bill includes money set aside for field hospitals that the administration said was not necessary, just over $15 million from the $44 million for the Community Tracing Collaborative and other service provider payments that officials said were adjusted based on caseloads.

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