A new initiative geared toward intervening with families at risk of becoming homeless and putting a "significant dent" in those sheltered at hotels and motels will be featured as part of Gov. Charlie Baker's budget as the governor changed gears on Monday after outlining several ideas to cut costs in state government.
Calling family homelessness a "human tragedy" that disrupts the lives of children, Baker said the budget for fiscal 2016 that he will file on Wednesday will include $20 million for a new "End Family Homelessness Reserve Fund" focused on prevention and keeping families in their communities.
Though the governor anticipates spending the same $180 million on emergency homelessness assistance next year as has been budgeted in fiscal 2015, Baker said he hoped to reallocate resources to the "front end" to focus on shortening shelter stays and giving families access to support services before they become homeless.
"We're proposing a series of initiatives to mitigate and hopefully over time end the use of shelters and hotels and motels, especially hotels and motels, for families in troubled circumstances here in the Commonwealth," Baker said at a press conference, joined by homelessness prevention advocates and members of his Cabinet.
Baker said his budget would also include an additional $1.5 million for the HomeBASE program, which provides short-term financial housing assistance, and $2 million for support services for the homeless battling mental illness.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito suggested that reducing the use of hotel and motel shelters will also generate savings for cities and towns who host these shelters and take on added costs associated with schooling and other expenses.
The budget the governor intends to file will include a year-long tax amnesty program to start on July 1 targeting taxpayers who have not filed previously in Massachusetts, a group called non-registrants. By waiving penalties for these filers, Baker hopes to collect an additional $100 million in taxes that might not have been paid otherwise.
The governor also intends to file separate legislation to offer as many as 14,000 state employees an early retirement incentive package. The program, if accepted by the Legislature, is expected to net $178 million in savings in fiscal 2016 as part of the Baker administration's strategy to close an estimated $1.5 billion structural gap between available revenues and level-service spending.
House and Senate leaders on Monday said they were keeping an open mind on the early retirement proposal, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo said it's an idea lawmakers have looked at in the past during tight budget years and opted against.
"Having gone around this issue before, I can remember there have been a number of early retirement plans we have taken a look at in the past and have decided they were not in our fiscal interest to do it. Now, it may be an immediate benefit but over the period of time it was not in our interest," DeLeo said. "Having said that, I'm going to wait and see how exactly the governor words it in his budget and it may be something that works and I'm hopeful it will be."
Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka also said she needed to review the specifics of Baker's proposal before deciding on its merits.
"There are ways that it's been done in the past that it's worked out better. I haven't look at this yet, so I really can't comment. It's premature," Spilka said on her way to a meeting with Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey and DeLeo.
Baker said he doesn't anticipate having "any trouble" reaching the target of 4,500 voluntarily early retirements that would negate the need for layoffs, but said it will require ongoing "discipline" to manage the payroll and prevent rehiring for those jobs in large numbers.
Asked about possibly laying off state workers if an early retirement program did not entice enough state workers to leave voluntarily, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said, "Obviously we face serious budget constraints and in any operation, including state government, a large part of the operation is personnel costs and so if you're going to close a budget gap that's anywhere between $700 million and a billion and a half dollars you have to look at personnel costs if you're going to be able to close that. I personally think the administration is putting an idea on the table which would help make that an easier transition than it otherwise would be."
The governor's budget will provide one of the first major tests of the developing relationship between the Republican governor and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate who, even with a Democrat in the Corner Office, often had their own differing ideas of how to tackle challenges.
"Budgets are a combo platter. They're a function of the points of view and perspectives of three different branches of government and my view on this is I expect we will continue to be able to work collaboratively with the House and Senate on this," Baker said.
Though Baker said lawmakers and the public can expect his budget to include investments in education, snow and ice and other priorities consistent with what he discussed on the campaign trail, he said there would be no curveballs.
"I think for the most part, most of the initiatives we will be pursuing are things that have some demonstrated capability to succeed. I don't think you're going to see us propose anything that's sort of wild-eyed and ridiculous," he said.
Baker outlined his family homelessness prevention initiative after an hour-long meeting with House and Senate leaders. The proposal calls for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to take the lead on working with families at risk of homelessness to stabilize their housing situation and provide support services to match their needs.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said she intends to hire just one person to run the program and to contract with private and non-profit organizations to provide case management services.
With more than 5,000 families in Massachusetts currently living in emergency shelters, hotels and motels, officials said the state numbers continue to rise while family homelessness nationally has been on the decline. The average length of stay of a family in a hotel or motel is 7.5 months at a cost of $25,000 per family, Sudders said.
Baker and Sudders also said they would be "reinvigorating" a special initiative for the homeless mentally ill that worked well in the 1990s by leveraging federal housing money and Medicaid funds to provide housing supports and services for the mentally ill.
"It's heartening to see Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito addressing homelessness in the Commonwealth. Providing $65 million in funding for family homelessness will ensure that children are put on a path toward permanent housing," said St. Francis House Executive Director Karen LaFrazia on behalf of the Coalition for Homeless Individuals.
In addition to the $20 million reserve fund and $1.5 million for HomeBASE, Baker filed a mid-year spending bill on Friday with $44 million for emergency shelters.