Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday agreed to a $389 million spending bill that seeks to patch up the state’s fraying social safety net, in part by pumping millions of dollars into the state’s struggling emergency shelter system and temporarily beefing up a food aid program.
The House and Senate each voted unanimously to send Governor Maura Healey the supplemental budget bill, nearly two months after the Cambridge Democrat initially filed a similar package intended, in part, to address a surge in demand for emergency shelter. The wide-ranging legislation also would extend several pandemic-era policies, including allowing restaurants to sell cocktails-to-go into the spring of 2024.
The bill would contribute $85 million to the state’s shelter system, including money that could go toward local school districts absorbing new students whose families are moved to a state-subsidized hotel.
The number of families living in such settings — which state officials say they consider only when there are “no other available options” — has ballooned in recent months, reaching 600 on Tuesday. That marked a nearly 55 percent increase in three months, according to state numbers.
There are 98 shelters and 14 motels or hotels operating as family shelters statewide, according to state officials. But there are plans to open new sites as the existing system is increasingly strained by a housing crisis, a swell of migration, and a growing population of homeless people.
Massachusetts has a legal obligation to immediately provide emergency shelter to homeless people due to a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law. It’s the only state in the country with such a requirement.
The shelter funding matches what Healey proposed in January. The state has also set up a temporary central intake center at a community center in Devens, where families can receive a variety of services, including immigration-focused case management and health checkups. But that center is expected to wind down operations this spring, and state officials have said that a Concord hotel-turned-shelter would evolve into a new central intake facility.
The bill would also dedicate $130 million to help pay for a recently expired Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit.
Early in the pandemic, the federal government allowed eligible households to receive at least $95 more in SNAP benefits per month, but the clock ran out earlier this month, setting benefits back to pre-pandemic levels.
The new legislation would soften the reduction by providing more than 647,000 families who receive SNAP benefits with a bit more than they got pre-pandemic, for another three months. The $130 million would fund about $65 in extra SNAP a month, about 40 percent of the roughly $160 in expanded benefits Massachusetts residents have received for the last three years.
Senator Michael Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chairman, on Thursday described the funding as a “ramp-down” from the now-expired federal aid. It’s one of several programs policymakers have considered extending, even if temporarily, as different types of federal aid dry up.
Legislative leaders had spent recent weeks in informal negotiations ironing out differences between versions of the spending bill that passed the House and Senate.
The legislation that emerged Thursday would do a variety of other things:
- $65 million would go toward keeping a universal school meals pilot program through the end of the school year;
- Another $68 million would fund so-called C3 grants for child care providers through the end of the fiscal year;
- The bill also allows for $740 million in borrowing for a variety of projects, including making available $125 million for matching funds for federal grants;
- And an additional $2 million would go toward reimbursing those who had their SNAP benefits stolen over several months last year amid a nationwide surge in benefits theft.
The legislation also extended various pandemic-era policies that officials originally embraced to help businesses and local officials amid the initial health emergency. In some cases, they will now remain in place more than four years later.
The bill would allow for remote public meetings and expanded outdoor dining, as well as extend until April 1, 2024 rules allowing restaurants to sell cocktails-to-go with takeout meals.
The cocktails-to-go measure was slated to expire next week before lawmakers agreed for a third time to continue it. The measure has been at the center of a fight between restaurant owners and liquor stores, and the Senate was originally cool to another extension before agreeing to it Thursday.
Its passage frustrated some addiction prevention advocates, who argue that even as a temporary measure, allowing to-go cocktails could provide another avenue for underage drinking.
“This was a measure that was supposed to help out local businesses during the height of the pandemic, but it’s time for it to be terminated,” said Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Addiction Prevention Alliance. She said she was particularly surprised that it passed without lawmakers from both branches forming a conference committee to negotiate its inclusion. “This was sneaky the way it was done.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.