State girds for infusion of billions from fed stimulus

While a portion of the expected federal funds infusion should be used to shore up education and health care accounts, Massachusetts, estimated to receive over $11 billion, should focus the spending on job-creating public works projects and heed lessons learned from the Big Dig, according to the House chair of a new committee formed to oversee stimulus spending.

"Massachusetts has been entrusted with what may be as high as $11.9 billion in public funds and that carries with it great responsibility to make sure that the money is properly spent," Rep. David Linsky, co-chairman of the Legislature's new 18-member Temporary Standing Committee on Federal Stimulus Oversight, told the News Service.

"We have a role because the public doesn't want another Big Dig," Linsky added. "There was a feeling that that was a huge public construction project that was way over budget, completely out of control and quite frankly there was money that was wasted and not well spent. Although he project itself was important, it shouldn't have cost what it did. We need to make sure that doesn't happen again."

According to the order creating the committee, lawmakers expect some of the stimulus funds to be spent at Gov. Deval Patrick's discretion on infrastructure projects with other funds, including those targeted for Medicaid, to be determined by the Legislature through the budgetary process.

Patrick said last week that the Commonwealth would likely receive between $1 billion and $2 billion for infrastructure. The governor has proposed spending plans for this fiscal year and fiscal 2010 that collectively call for $1.2 billion in federal economic recovery funds to be spent in the state's operating budget.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Investment Act. The administration says the bill will save or create 3.5 million jobs nationwide over the next two years, including 79,000 in Massachusetts. Supporters hailed it as a monumental plan to lift Americans and the economy with a wide array of direct investments while critics say it spends too much on government programs and features too little tax relief.

The Beacon Hill committee's charge is to perform ongoing review of stimulus spending in Massachusetts, coordinate efforts with the Patrick administration, ensure compliance with federal requirements on stimulus spending and make recommendations, after reviewing state laws and regulations, "that will allow Massachusetts to access additional funding or to spend money more quickly to stimulate the economy."

Through December, Massachusetts employment had tumbled to 139,000 jobs below its previous peak, with employment reaching its lowest level since June 2006, according to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

The order creating the committee also stipulates that it may hold hearings on federal stimulus plans, audit expenditures, and work with Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Inspector General Gregory Sullivan and Auditor Joseph DeNucci "to ensure transparency and accountability for federal stimulus spending."

Linsky said Washington has recognized a need for states to use stimulus funds to balance budgets, but added: "It really has to be spent on capital projects." Projects without long-term public staffing costs are preferable, he said.

Linsky said he's seen the "wish list" from every city and town.

"I'm sure that there is a constituency for everything that's been asked for but we need to make sure that the money is appropriately spent and is also in keeping with the idea of stimulating the economy," he said. "Money should not be spent just for the sake of spending money."

Sen. Marc Pacheco, the panel's Senate chair, said supervision of the cash disbursement was critical, and said he wanted to "have the administration come in and explain what they plan on doing."

"I see this as a collaborative effort in trying to make sure we are not seen as a roadblock in any way to the funds getting out there, but just making sure there's a guardrail up along the way, making sure there's some oversight," Pacheco said.

"A lot of the money is directed as to where it will go, and it's a matter of how the money gets out on the street as quickly as possible," he added,

"Hopefully," Pacheco said, "we can all work together and get this thing right."