Senate resurrects Russian divestment plan | News

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BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate has resurrected a plan to purge the state’s pension fund of Russian holdings in response to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

During debate on a nearly $1.7 billion supplemental budget bill on Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed an amendment that calls for stripping the retirement fund of an estimated $140 million in stocks and investments tied to the country.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said pulling out those investments would show solidarity with the Ukrainian people’s fight against Russia’s unprovoked war.

“We should not be complicit anyway in any way — direct or indirect — with what Russian government is pursuing in Ukraine,” the Gloucester Republican said.

The measure’s inclusion in the massive spending bill — which includes money for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, transportation projects and rental assistance — revives a plan that was all but dead after its rejection in the lower chamber.

Last week, the House voted to reject a similar amendment to its version of the supplemental budget from Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, and others calling for pulling Russian holdings from the pension fund.

The issue is likely to be a sticking point in negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers, who will have to resolve differences between the spending bills before sending a final version to Gov. Charlie Baker for consideration.

House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, defended the chamber’s rejection of the divestment plan, saying it was unlikely to accomplish much because the Russian stock market remains closed. He said untangling Russian investments through second or third parties “would be too difficult” under the circumstances.

Treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose office oversees the pension fund, said the nearly $87 billion retirement system has roughly $140 million in Russian investments.

Goldberg told lawmakers she doesn’t have the authority to divest holdings in the Pension Reserves Investment Trust Fund, which requires legislative action.

The Legislature has responded to other wars and international crises in the past by directing state pension fund managers to divest from regimes in countries like Iran, Sudan, South Africa, and Northern Ireland for humanitarian reasons.

Tarr has filed a separate proposal that would give authority to the state to seize Russian bank assets and cancel contracts with the state that may have ties to President Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.

It’s not clear how much money, if any, the Russian government has tied up in Massachusetts banks or if there are state contracts with ties to Russian companies.

Two weeks ago, Baker signed an executive order directing executive branch agencies to conduct a review of state contracts to determine if there are any ties to Russian businesses that can be severed in response to the invasion.

That review is still ongoing, according to Baker administration officials.

Baker’s directive also calls on the state’s independent agencies, public colleges and universities, and other constitutional offices to adopt similar policies.

President Joe Biden, who is in Europe holding emergency meetings with NATO officials to discuss the war in Ukraine, announced a package of new sanctions against Russia on Friday and pledged further aid for Ukrainian refugees.

He also pledged more U.S. military support for NATO countries concerned about Putin’s territorial ambitions following the invasion.

“Putin was banking on NATO being split,” Biden said at a press briefing. “NATO has never been more united than it is today. Putin is getting exactly the opposite of what he intended to have as a consequence of going into Ukraine.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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