BOSTON -- The state has seen a windfall of pandemic relief funds, with billions of dollars more on the way from Washington, but lawmakers say they’re cut out of decisions on how the money gets spent.
On Thursday, members of the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight grilled Finance Secretary Mike Heffernan over what they described as a lack of communication from the Baker administration when it’s come to parceling out more than $2.2 billion in federal stimulus.
"It's frustrating and I almost feel like we're being left out of the process," state Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, during the live-streamed hearing. "This (federal aid) was all rushed out the door and we didn't have any oversight."
Barrett singled out allocations of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, which he said are dispersed in many places with "little or no input" from state lawmakers or officials. He said some of the funds went to "questionable" recipients, and little was spent on oversight.
"We want to play a role in this," Barrett said. "This is taxpayers' money, any way you look at it, and there has been a lack of oversight."
Rep. Colleen Gary, D-Dracut, said she's headed off constituents who joke that lawmakers don't have any authority under "King Charles,” a reference to Gov. Charlie Baker's unilateral powers during the pandemic.
But she, too, is "frustrated" with the lack of information, she said.
"I'm defending the governor ... for everything he's done to keep people safe," she said. "But it would be nice to have the heads up ahead of time so we don't find out in the press, or have to watch the press conferences to find information."
Heffernan said the administration is willing to work with lawmakers on spending federal stimulus money, but he noted myriad restrictions on how it’s spent, regardless of what legislation is passed on Beacon Hill.
“We want to bring the frustration level down, but we can't bring the fluidity level down," he told lawmakers. "We are talking about state legislation that has to go through the lens of federal guidelines, so it's really complex."
To date, the state has gotten about $2.6 billion in direct funds from the federal CARES Act, which was signed by former President Donald Trump.
Another $8 billion is expected to flow into the state from the federal stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden last month.
At least 37 cities with populations of more than 50,000 -- including Lawrence, Haverhill, Salem and Gloucester -- will get a portion of $1.7 billion in direct aid through the relief package.
Other smaller communities are also due for a share of direct funding.
Heffernan pointed out that the state is the conduit for the funds, but it doesn't have a say on how the money is used.
"This money is flowing directly to the cities and towns," he told lawmakers. "We don't have the ability on a state level to put guardrails or guidance in place for municipalities."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org