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Mass. Democrats fail to reach spending deal, sparking uncertainty over shelters

Mass. lawmakers fail to reach a deal to address shelter crisis
WATCH: Reporter Samantha J. Gross explains what’s next as families sit in limbo.

Democratic lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal on a wide-ranging spending bill Thursday threw into limbo hundreds of millions of dollars designed to sustain Massachusetts’ emergency shelter system, pushed to the brink by a tide of homeless and migrant families.

The collapse of a potential agreement on billions of proposed spending on the Legislature’s final day of formal session this year capped a days-long scramble on Beacon Hill.

Acting months after Governor Maura Healey made her request for additional shelter funding and other items, the Democrat-led chambers passed differing versions of the $2.8 billion bill only in the last week. As midnight came and went, they remained at odds early Thursday on how exactly the state should spend $250 million designated for an emergency shelter system shouldering a crush of migrant families.


The road ahead could be fraught. The delay in reaching a deal transfers notable leverage to the Legislature’s small Republican caucus, whose members all voted against the package. If legislative leaders try to push a deal through any of the usually lightly attended informal sessions that dot the calendar until the end of the year, any one Republican could object and stall it.

“The [Democratic] leadership made Washington actually look functional,” quipped House minority leader Bradley H. Jones, a 30-year veteran of the Legislature who said leaders did little to engage him during negotiations. “It was the least productive last day of session I recall, and perhaps have ever seen, in my time in the building.”

After lingering at the State House past 1 a.m. Thursday, House and Senate leaders said they intend to continue to meet in closed-door talks, with the goal of reaching a deal in the coming weeks.

They face pressure on a variety of fronts to act, perhaps none more so than in addressing the overwhelmed emergency shelter system.


The program last week hit a state-imposed limit of 7,500 families set by Healey in October. With the limit breached, homeless families who were once guaranteed shelter under a decades-old law are now put on a newly created wait list. State officials said there were another 48 on the wait list as of Tuesday evening.

House leaders sought to require Healey to use $50 million of the proposed funding to create an overflow shelter for families with no other place to go. That measure appeared to be at the heart of the legislative impasse.

The House proposal would also require that overflow sites must open within 30 days; should the state fail to do so, the 7,500-family limit Healey set would be “revoked” until the sites are operating.

The Senate omitted that requirement, and the chamber’s lead negotiator said Thursday that he continues to support giving Healey more flexibility in where to direct the money.

The uncertainty sparked by the elongated negotiations has unnerved advocates on the front lines of the homelessness and migrant crisis, who fear families could idle on the wait list for weeks, or even months, and who are pushing lawmakers to adopt the House approach.

“We feel that it’s really critical that the Legislature require the administration to establish state-funded overflow sites,” said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s not clear how long families will be on a waiting list. . . . But based on information we have received from the administration, it seems like it could be weeks or months.”


Meanwhile, migrant families, many of whom arrived in Massachusetts fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, remain caught between policy makers on Beacon Hill and in Washington, D.C..

“We just want to prevent people from sleeping in the streets, or sleeping in our airports, or sleeping in our train stations or emergency rooms,” Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the North End Democrat and the House’s lead negotiator, said early Thursday. “We feel very strongly that without a real plan put in place to protect those that are above the cap . . . we need to be reevaluating how we’re going forward. I think that our plan, in particular, sets an agenda, sets a course.”

Healey administration officials have warned that the state was quickly running through its $325 million shelter budget, and had estimated roughly 1,000 families were entering the system each month before Healey imposed the cap.

But it was not clear Thursday how long the current funding could last. State officials had previously said that if they had not limited the number of families in the system — and it received no other funding — they expected the state to exhaust its shelter funds by Jan. 13.

The shelter money is not the only proposal that remains tied up in talks. The spending proposal is designed to close the books on the fiscal year that ended in June, includes nearly $400 million to cover pay increases for state workers baked into collective bargaining contracts, and, should the provision survive, could enable the Kraft Group to build a roughly 25,000-seat soccer stadium for the New England Revolution in Everett.


Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, said other funds, including a proposal to help cover damages from catastrophic floods and other natural disasters, are also “urgently needed.”

“Our administration believes it’s critical to pass the supplemental budget as soon as possible,” Hand said.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said her “hope and anticipation” is that lawmakers reach a deal to fund the shelter system before the money runs out. She also noted it’s not unusual for lawmakers to move major spending bills through informal sessions, where a single lawmaker in opposition can stall a bill.

“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 [committee negotiating it],” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, his chamber’s lead negotiator and a Westport Democrat.

But that course carries higher-than-usual risk for Democratic leaders. The GOP caucus in each chamber roundly opposed the package, and Republicans — warning about the state’s ability to keep funding the shelter system — unsuccessfully pushed amendments that would have barred those who have lived in Massachusetts for less than six months or a year from being housed in the shelter program.

GOP lawmakers see an opportunity to wield outsized influence.


“I’m not afraid to shut down this session, in whichever chamber I happen to be in, to get some concessions,” said Representative Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican who is slated to join the Senate in the coming weeks after winning a special election this month. He also acknowledged that without other Republicans on board, it’s difficult for one person to stall a bill over repeated or lengthy informal sessions.

“Sooner or later,” he said, “you have to go to the bathroom.”

Matt Stout can be reached at Follow him @mattpstout.