Mass. Legislature fails to agree on more shelter funding in last formal session of the year

The Massachusetts Legislature ended formal sessions for the year Thursday with no agreement on a spending bill which would steer money toward the emergency shelter system.

After keeping sessions open for roughly 13 hours over the course of the day while top Democrats traded proposals via email and phone, the House and Senate abruptly pivoted after midnight to naming a conference committee to embark on more formal negotiations.

Ways and Means Committee Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues told reporters — in separate press huddles — that they were unable to find agreement to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of a broad $2.8 billion spending bill.

"We weren't close enough to try to see it through tonight. Obviously, over the last couple of years, we've had some late nights here, and I think at those points in time, we felt we could really get something done and so we really wanted to see it through," Michlewitz said. "But I think at the point where we are at, both us and our Senate counterparts felt it was time to pack it up for tonight and try to see if we can talk tomorrow."

Rodrigues said he was "very disappointed" in the outcome.

"Our goal was to get it done tonight, but we just weren't able to," he said.

While Democrats got tripped up on their differences, both the House and Senate bills would put $250 million toward the shelter system while also scheduling the state primary on Sept. 3, 2024, funding collectively bargained raises for state employees, and clearing the way for contract renegotiations on a hydropower transmission project that is key to Massachusetts' clean energy goals.

The failure to complete a deal means Democrats will need to steer a final bill through informal sessions. The committee has the next seven weeks to negotiate a deal and any single lawmaker's objection can delay a bill's passage. Spending bills like the supplemental budget die on Jan. 2, 2024, so lawmakers cannot achieve a deal by then, the entire process would need to restart from square one.

Republicans in both chambers opposed the spending bills over concerns about the state's response to a sharp spike in demand for the emergency shelter-system, which hit a Gov. Maura Healey administration-imposed cap of 7,500 families on Nov. 9. It's unclear if they would use their newfound leverage to prevent a final version from reaching Healey's desk.

"I'm confident, at least in the Senate, that we'll be able to secure the votes to pass the bill once we get it through the conference," Rodrigues said. "I can't speak for the House."

House and Senate Democrats both agree on fulfilling a request Healey made more than two months ago to inject $250 million more toward emergency shelters, which already received $325 million in the state's annual budget, amid a period of unprecedented demand. But they are split on whether to dictate how the new money must be used.

The House plan would set more specific requirements on shelter spending, and it would also order the Healey administration to create at least one overflow site within 30 days for families unable to access shelter. If officials failed to do so, they would be ordered to lift a capacity limit Healey imposed on the system, citing a lack of providers, space or funding to continue expanding.

Senators did not support that prescriptive approach and instead have said they want to continue to give the administration leeway to decide how to manage the shelter system.

"We just want to prevent people from sleeping in the streets or sleeping in airports or sleeping in our train stations or emergency rooms," Michlewitz said. "... Our plan in particular sets an agenda, sets a course, of making sure that those that are above the cap at least have a place to temporarily stay while they're going through the waitlist process."

Anti-homelessness advocates lamented the Legislature's inaction, warning that families currently on the administration-imposed waitlist — most recently estimated at nearly two dozen — "don't have a place to stay."

"We're really in unchartered territory. For 40 years, Massachusetts has had a right to shelter, has guaranteed shelter placement for every eligible family, so this is the first time that we're seeing the state impose a waiting list and talk about establishing a cap on how long families can stay in shelter," said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. "It's really unknown what's next for families experiencing homelessness and families who right now in Massachusetts are facing eviction, facing housing instability."

Turley said although she sees "room for compromise" between the branches in how the $250 million should be used, she believes lawmakers need to embrace the House's plan to order the launch of overflow sites.

The lack of a deal prevents the state from closing its books on fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30, and leaves in limbo billions of dollars in spending.

The supplemental budget also includes hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver on collectively bargained raises to state employees, schedules the 2024 state primary elections, and includes language to allow Avangrid to renegotiate contracts with energy distribution companies for parts of a transmission project linking hydroelectric power generated in Quebec to the regional grid. That project, which could become a source of clean energy for Massachusetts, had been upended by a ballot question in Maine and lengthy delays before a legal resolution.

The Legislature operates on a two-year session and the thousands of bills filed for consideration earlier this year remain in play through 2024, although the House and Senate are now expected to hold only light, twice-weekly informal sessions through December.

Lawmakers and Healey agreed to a major tax relief law this year and significant spending increases backed up by a new stream of revenue from the income surtax on wealthier households that voters approved in 2022. Action on scores of other issues, including clean energy, transportation woes, and the housing affordability crisis, will have to wait until next year.



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