BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) - House lawmakers unanimously passed a $94.6 million spending bill to close the books on fiscal year 2013, after adding $20 million to the bottom line during debate to fund low-income heating assistance.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said the money for heating assistance was necessary to help families who cannot depend on the federal government to come through within the next few weeks, despite signs out of Washington that Congressional Democrats and Republicans were nearing a resolution to reopen the federal government.
More than 200,000 families rely on heating assistance, according to Rep. Shelia Harrington, a Republican from Groton, who filed one of three amendments to authorize the state to fill the immediate need for low-income heating assistance before the Nov. 1 program start date.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the Legislature would usually wait until after the New Year to supplement the federal LIHEAP program with state money, but could not risk further federal delays.
“We hope to be reimbursed but we don’t have the luxury of waiting,” Harrington said.
The spending bill, filed Friday by the House Ways and Means Committee, includes both new spending and authorizations to carry over unspent funding from fiscal 2013 into fiscal 2014. Most of the 55 amendments filed by lawmakers were withdrawn without debate Wednesday. The Senate plans to take up the budget bill on Thursday, with amendments from senators due by 12:30 p.m.
One of the largest amounts of new spending included in the bill comes for families seeking shelter in hotels and motels following a "surge" in homelessness over the summer. Families seeking emergency shelter in hotels and motels climbed to more than 2,000 last week after hovering around 1,200 in April, down from the previous all-time high of 1,800 last November.
The House bill would dedicate $13 million in additional resources to pay for the shelter programs, about $7 million less than requested by Gov. Deval Patrick.
Dempsey called the rise in the number families seeking emergency shelter discouraging, considering investments and efforts the state has made over the past two years to prevent homelessness.
The Legislature increased the number of housing vouchers, boosted funding for the Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program to $8.5 million and worked with the Patrick administration to rehab more than 200 units of public housing, Dempsey said.
“Despite all those very good efforts made by the Legislature and the administration, unfortunately we are seeing that number go up,” he said.
Speaker Robert DeLeo said cutting the number of families seeking shelter in hotels and motels has been a priority of his, and he felt the state had been making progress. “Now it appears as though we may be taking a step backwards and some folks are going back into the hotels and motels, so I will say this. What we’re doing today is more of a stop gap measure,” he told reporters.
DeLeo said its more cost-effective for the state and healthier for families to have more stable living situations, suggesting the issue may come up again in future supplemental budgets and may be addressed with a longer-term solution when the House releases its version of the Senate welfare reform bill
The spending bill also allows Secretary of State William Galvin to carry over more than $8 million into fiscal 2014 for reimbursements to cities and towns for special election costs, and authorizes $16 million for MassHealth fee-for-service payments.
The bill also would reimburse Watertown $81,517 for expenses the town incurred in April when law enforcement were in a standoff with the Boston Marathon bombing suspect that were not eligible for federal reimbursement.
Lawmakers rejected an amendment that called on the state auditor to perform an audit on the Department of Transitional Assistance.
Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican, said DTA has failed to verify that the reforms it implemented to cut out fraud are working.
“We are being told a lot of reforms are being done. And I hope they are. But we need proof. And we don’t have that,” she said.
Dempsey said he spoke with the auditor’s office, which indicated it was too soon to conduct another audit. A report on the department’s progress is due to the Legislature on March 1.
The House also rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Donald Humason (R-Westfield) to take down the western Turnpike tolls between Exits 1 and 6 that were just reinstated this week as part of the Legislature’s broader transportation financing package approved earlier this year.
Copyright State House News Service