Massachusetts state lawmakers will enter their final formal session of the year locked in negotiations over a multibillion-dollar spending bill, dictating how Governor Maura Healey can spend a $250 million infusion into the state’s struggling emergency shelter system.
The state Senate, on Tuesday, passed a version of the $2.8 billion spending bill on a 36-3, party-line vote, roughly a week after the House approved its own proposal. Legislative leaders now have literal hours to reach a deal on the bill — and send it to Healey — before lawmakers wrap up formal sessions Wednesday and begin a scheduled year-end holiday break.
What they negotiate can have wide ramifications for thousands of homeless and migrant families. The state’s emergency shelter system last week hit a self-imposed limit of 7,500 families, a cap Healey instituted after she said a surge of migrants into Massachusetts left the program with dwindling money and space.
With the limit breached, state officials began prioritizing some families over others for shelter, and moving those not placed to a newly created waitlist. There were 22 families on the wait list as of midday Monday, state officials said.
While both chambers agree on providing $250 million in additional funding for the system, the House included more restrictions on how it can be spent. Most notably, its bill dictated that $50 million must go toward creating a state-funded overflow site for families who land on the state’s waiting list. The House proposal would also require that any overflow sites must open within 30 days; should the state fail to do so, the 7,500-family limit would be “revoked” until the sites are up.
Senate leaders, however, erased that language from their version, effectively giving Healey more leeway in navigating what they called a “fluid” crisis.
Senators spent hours debating potential additions to the bill Tuesday. That included a lengthy discussion about an amendment from state Senator Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, that sought to exclude those who have lived in the state for less than six months from the emergency shelter program. That effectively would bar any newly arrived migrant families from the system.
Fattman argued that the demands on funding the system were turning into an unsustainable “black hole.” Senators ultimately rejected it, 36-3.
The House’s approach of requiring the state to create overflow shelter sites was embraced by advocates on the front lines of homelessness crisis, fearing that families waitlisted by the state would then go to hospital emergency rooms, the airport, or the streets without a temporary option.
State officials last week announced plans to seed the United Way of Massachusetts Bay with money that it could spread to faith-based groups and other local organizations to set up overnight sites for families on the waiting list.
But at $5 million, the program’s funding is far short of what House lawmakers sought to dedicate — and lawmakers acknowledge even their proposals may only have enough money to last until the spring.
Healey’s office said the governor would review the bill once it reaches her. The Democrat has not specifically said whether she supports or opposes the House’s approach.
For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed shelter under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state with a so-called right-to-shelter requirement. But the current statute makes the mandate “subject to appropriation” — in other words, the state is required to follow it only as long as it has enough funding.
Healey framed her decision to limit the number of families in the system as a difficult yet necessary step to ease the burden on the emergency shelter system.
Should legislative leaders not reach a compromise by the end of the day Wednesday, a deal between the chambers could emerge in upcoming informal sessions, which are typically sparsely attended and do not feature any roll call votes.
But any delay would further push off any cash infusion into the shelter system, which the Healey administration has warned could run out of money in the coming months.
The shelter system is also not the only thing the $2.8 billion bill touches. It’s designed to close the books on the fiscal year that ended in June, and includes a provision to move the 2024 state primary and another that could enable the Kraft Group to build a roughly 25,000-seat soccer stadium for the New England Revolution in Everett.