BOSTON (SHNS) – The Massachusetts Senate on Tuesday night approved a plan that injects $250 million more into the state’s emergency shelter system, opening a window of just about 30 hours for House and Senate Democrats to hammer out differences before lawmakers depart on a holiday break.
Senators voted 36-3 to approve a roughly $2.8 billion spending bill that, in addition to directing more funding to the emergency shelter crisis, would also close the state’s financial books for the fiscal year 2023, schedule the next primary for Sept. 3, 2024, and remove barriers to the construction of a professional soccer stadium in Everett.
There’s consensus in both branches on most of the spending, including about $2.1 billion for MassHealth, hundreds of millions of dollars for collective bargaining agreements, and $75 million to support school districts saddled with a spike in special education costs.
But House and Senate Democrats have different visions for how the state should respond to an unprecedented surge of demand on the emergency assistance shelter system, much of it involving migrants who recently arrived in the United States.
The House wants to dictate specifically where the funding will go and force the Healey administration to create at least one “overflow site” as a backup for waitlisted families, or else eliminate a limit on shelter capacity, while the Senate bill would instead let Gov. Maura Healey and her team continue to call almost all of the shots.
Now, months after Healey first requested a $250 million infusion into the system, House and Senate Democrats appear once again headed for familiar territory: working outside public view to get on the same page before an imminent deadline hits.
Legislative rules call for no formal sessions to take place this year after Wednesday. Starting Thursday, lawmakers will shift into a seven-week stretch of light work with no roll call votes. GOP opposition to the bills in both branches points to the need for a quick compromise or Democrats risk leaving important matters to the uncertainty of informal sessions when a single objection can stall any bill’s progress.
If Democrats fail to reach an agreement on strings attached to the emergency shelter funding before they break, they risk being unable to get the measure to Healey until January, the same month the administration estimates existing shelter funding will run out.
It was not immediately clear Tuesday evening if legislative leaders would convene an official conference committee to tackle the negotiations behind closed doors, or if Ways and Means Committee Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues — the architects of each branch’s plan — would try to hash out a compromise themselves.
The Senate debate revealed deep, bipartisan concerns about the long-term outlook for the shelter system, which has been pushed to its limits by the surge of demand, and disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about the degree to which state services should remain available to newly arriving migrants.
Deliberations about the new funding on several occasions spilled over into proxy debate about broader immigration and housing issues.
With migrants representing roughly half of the families in the Massachusetts emergency shelter system, Republicans pushed unsuccessfully to constrain eligibility under the state’s right-to-shelter law only to people who have lived here for at least six months.
An amendment filed by Sutton Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman would have exempted some families, such as victims of domestic violence and those affected by natural disasters within the state’s borders, from the six-month residency requirement.
Fattman pointed out that Massachusetts is the only state that guarantees shelter access to some families and pregnant women, and he argued that failing to limit access could leave Bay Staters unable to access necessary services.
“This is an unsustainable program, and there’s no security at our border. While we don’t control that federal immigration policy, we do control the emergency housing policy,” Fattman said. “This crisis is within our control to make a difference.”
“Continually throwing more money at a problem with no end in sight is not a solution,” he added.
Democrats countered that constraining who can access emergency shelter would not solve underlying housing and immigration problems that have driven demand to record levels, and they suggested that blocking support for newer migrants would run counter to state values.
Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton said the proposal “comes dangerously close to characterizing those who are worthy and those who are unworthy of humane treatment.”
“This crisis will not go away simply by denying services for six months to new arrivals,” she said.
Senators voted 36-3, along party lines, to reject Fattman’s amendment.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Massachusetts for months have been urging the Biden administration to take more action to speed up work authorizations and offer states funding to mitigate the crisis, and several senators used Tuesday’s session to air additional grievances with the federal government’s response.
Sen. John Velis of Westfield described “dysfunction” in the nation’s capital as “absolutely disgusting.” Minority Leader Bruce Tarr warned that “the cavalry isn’t coming.” And Sen. Patrick O’Connor mentioned that a U.S. senator on Tuesday challenged a union leader to a fight.
“The federal government has totally abdicated their responsibility and walked away,” Rodrigues said on the Senate floor. “They establish immigration policy, we don’t establish immigration policy. They are nowhere to be found. They announce $100,000 here, $1 million there when we’re talking — to date — close to $600 million in this fiscal year that is only four months old. We all know and we all expect more from our friends and our colleagues in government in Washington, D.C.”
Lawmakers railed against the federal government’s dysfunction but also made clear that calling for federal help remains a central part of the state’s plan as it navigates in uncharted waters.
Not all blame was aimed at the nation’s capital. Sen. Lydia Edwards, who co-chairs the Housing Committee that on Tuesday heard hours of testimony about rent control bills, said state policymakers contributed to the shelter crisis by failing to address sky-high housing prices.
“The reason why we’re full is because we failed, not the federal government, us, our local zoning, the way we chose to build or not to build,” the Boston Democrat said. “We failed, and now we’re being exposed in many different ways.”
Both chambers have fairly full agendas on Wednesday. The House plans to take up an omnibus long-term care industry reform bill, while the Senate will vote on the latest iteration of a prescription drug pricing proposal that has failed to win House support in two prior sessions.
Asked Tuesday afternoon about the chances of completing a final spending bill by Wednesday, Rodrigues replied, “It’s my goal.”
“The Senate is preparing to take up its version of the bill today with the goal of getting something to the governor hopefully by Wednesday, so quick turnaround time,” Administration and Finance Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz told the Local Government Advisory Commission on Tuesday.
The so-called closeout budget would shut the state’s books for fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30 with a tax revenue shortfall, and allow the state comptroller to finalize a financial report that is now two weeks past its statutory deadline of Oct. 31.
In addition to the $250 million for the emergency shelter system, the bill features another $10 million to help resettlement agencies that support immigrants and refugees.
Like the House bill, the Senate bill would schedule next year’s statewide primary election on Sept. 3, 2024, the day after Labor Day.
Needham Sen. Becca Rausch, who has long been a vocal critic of the existing primary election schedule, pushed unsuccessfully to change the primary to the second Tuesday in June, arguing that the September dates continue to run into scheduling conflicts and drive down voter engagement.
“Every election cycle since 2012, every single one, this Legislature has had to change the primary date. Every single cycle for more than a decade. How much proof do we need?” Rausch said on the Senate floor. “These date changes have happened for all sorts of reasons, including direct conflicts with the Jewish high holy days and the important element of complying with federal election laws. Our current law, the one we keep changing, is a detriment to democracy.”
No one spoke in opposition to Rausch’s amendment changing the primary date to June before the Senate rejected it on a voice vote.