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As Pandemic Fades, Massachusetts Lawmakers Take More Active Role04:44
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The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When the pandemic spread to Massachusetts last year, Gov. Charlie Baker took unprecedented measures to respond.

Baker declared a state of emergency. He shut down bars and restricted indoor dining. He imposed a mask mandate and travel restrictions. And he spent billions of dollars in federal aid with little oversight from the state Legislature.

But as the pandemic recedes, lawmakers are reasserting their control.

"As of June 15th, the state of emergency has ceased and now we are back to more traditional times," Senate Ways and Means Chair Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport)  told his colleagues recently on the floor of the senate.

The shift has been on full display in recent weeks as the governor pressed the Legislature to give  him permission to swiftly spend more than $2 billion dollars in new federal aid on everything from more affordable housing to job training to environmental projects.

"We believe especially the investments in the communities that were hardest hit by COVID, need to be made now," said Baker during a ceremony in Haverhill last month to tout a program to low and moderate income families into home ownership.

But the State Legislature quickly dismissed Baker's plea to spend the money fast. Instead, they opted to let the money sit idle in a special account while they hold public hearings and debates to carefully decide how best to spend the money.

"We should assume our traditional and constitutionally mandated authority to expend this $5.3 billion dollars," Rodrigues argued on the Senate floor.

Down the hall in the House, Rep. Dan Hunt (D-Dorchester) made a similar call to spend the federal American Rescue Plan money deliberatively, even while acknowledging many of the items on the governor's list were worthy.

"We just think that it's important for all 160 members of this body and the 40 in our sister body have a chance to have their voice heard, to sit down with our constituents over the course of the next few months and to ensure that everyone participates in this recovery," Hunt told his colleagues during debate last month.

Lawmakers have also pushed back on some of the governor's other proposals in recent weeks.

For instance, Baker's plan to suspend the state sales tax for two months landed with a thud. State senator Rodrigues, who leads the committee charged with overseeing taxes, labeled it a "gimmick."

Legislators also overwhelmingly voted to override the governor's veto of a provision requiring the state use union labor to rebuild the Holyoke Soldier's Home.

Observers say they aren't surprised lawmakers are once again taking control of key items like spending and taxes.

"The governor proposes and the legislature disposes," said former state representative Jeff Sánchez, who points out that the Legislature has traditionally played a key role in deciding how to spend state tax money. While the governor can propose a spending or tax plan, lawmakers are ultimately charged with approving it.

"I think the legislature is doing what they do and what the Constitution has essentially constructed for them, which is for them to be deliberative. And, you know, now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the pandemic," Sánchez said in an interview.   "There's a sense that the legislature needs to have its voice as a deliberative body with the governor." he added.

Of course, lawmakers have still given the governor leeway to spend money to battle the coronavirus. They didn't object when he announced plans for a lottery to encourage people to get vaccinated.

And the Republican governor knows he has to work work with the Democratic-controlled legislature in order to achieve his goals. For instance, Baker recently signed a bill unlocking portions of the federal spending money, even though it barred him from spending some of the money right away.

But Baker is still pushing to get the rest of the relief funds out the door.

"While we appreciate the deliberative process the legislature goes through, if you're trying to get job training to get a job or you're dealing with a lot of the behavioral health and addiction issues that so many people have been dealing with coming out of this pandemic," Baker said during a recent news conference.  "Those are things we think we should get started on now."

Lawmakers also know they need to work with the governor on many major issues. But as the pandemic fades, it's clear Baker will no longer be able to go it alone.

This segment aired on July 12, 2021.

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Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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