Massachusetts legislative leaders failed to reach a deal on a $2.8 billion spending bill before closing out their final formal session of the year early Thursday morning, leaving in limbo hundreds of millions of dollars intended to keep the state’s strained emergency shelter system running amid a crush of homeless and migrant families.
After lingering in the State House past 1 a.m., House and Senate leaders said they intend to continue to meet in closed-door talks, with the goal of reaching a deal — including on a proposed $250 million infusion for the shelter program — that they could push through an informal session in the coming weeks.
But the failure to reach a compromise before lawmakers embarked on a holiday break cast uncertainty over not only the bill itself but the thousands of families currently relying on the state’s shelter program.
The program last week hit a state-imposed limit of 7,500 families, a cap Governor Maura Healey announced last month. With the limit breached, state officials began pushing families once guaranteed shelter under a decades-old law to a newly created wait list, where they’ll linger for an unknown amount of time. There were 7,521 families in emergency shelters, including state-subsidized hotels and motels, as of Wednesday, according to the most recent data. State officials said there were 22 on the wait list as of Monday.
House leaders suggested that a disagreement over whether to restrict how Healey could spend the money, including whether to mandate that she create an overflow shelter for families with no other place to go, was at the heart of the impasse.
The House included in its version language specifying that $50 million of the funding must go toward creating a state-funded overflow site for waitlisted families. Its bill also required that overflow sites must open within 30 days; should the state fail to do so, a 7,500-family limit that Healey set would be “revoked” until the sites are up.
The Senate omitted that requirement, arguing instead to give Healey more flexibility in choosing where to direct the money.
“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,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the North End Democrat and the House’s lead negotiator. “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.”
Speaking separately to reporters at the State House, state Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, his chamber’s lead negotiator, said he was “very disappointed” they couldn’t real a deal.
“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,” the Westport Democrat said.
But that path ahead carries inherent risk. With no formal votes on the calendar until January, a single lawmaker can stall a bill during any of the upcoming informal sessions. And while versions of the spending bill passed each chamber overwhelmingly, Republicans roundly opposed it, raising the potential one, or more, could oppose it during one of the lightly attended sessions.
The uncertainty about the bill unnerved homeless advocates, who’ve urged lawmakers to dedicate more money to the shelter program amid warnings from the Healey administration that it could run through its budget in the coming months.
“We’re really concerned for families tonight who’ve been placed on a waiting list and don’t have a place to stay,” Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, told reporters early Thursday morning at the State House. “We’re really in uncharted territory.”
The shelter funding is not the only piece now facing an uncertain future. Language in the bill also could enable the Kraft Group to build a roughly 25,000-seat soccer stadium for the New England Revolution in Everett, just across Route 99 from the Encore Boston Harbor casino. The package also includes a provision that would move the 2024 state primary, and it would effectively close the books on the fiscal year that ended in June.
The proposed funding for the state’s shelter system, however, had demanded most of the attention.
Healey first sought an additional $250 million more than two months ago. But the proposal didn’t emerge in the House until last week, and the chambers quickly were at odds over how specifically the $250 million should be spent.
But the House’s approach was embraced by advocates on the front lines of the homelessness and migrant crisis, arguing it would mandate a crucial safety net in an unprecedented situation.
“We feel that it’s really critical that the Legislature require the administration to establish state-funded overflow sites,” Turley said. “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.”
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 the House was seeking to dedicate. Lawmakers also acknowledged that the total $250 million infusion may only be enough to last the winter months — raising the likelihood that they’ll have to return at some point this fiscal year to again keep the system funded.
Meanwhile, migrant families who have come to Massachusetts, and are often fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, remain caught between Beacon Hill and Washington, D.C.
Those who are hoping to be put on the waiting list for emergency shelter are facing dire situations — sleeping on airport floors, in crowded apartments with friends, or in some cases, the street. And those living in shelters are hoping for more funding and expedited work permits so they can gain employment, earn money, and eventually move into apartments of their own.
It’s a goal state officials share, too, though moving families out of shelter has proven challenging. State officials said this week that about 400 families have left the system since Sept. 1. But that’s been dwarfed by those entering, with state officials estimating at one point that roughly 1,000 families were entering the system each month.
At the current pace — and without a cap in place — state officials estimated that nearly 13,500 families could be in the shelter system by the end of June, which would drive the cost of the program to $1.1 billion this fiscal year.
The collapse of a deal on the spending bill capped a lengthy day in both chambers on the final day of votes before the Legislature’s holiday break.
The Senate passed legislation designed to curtail prescription drug costs, including limiting out-of-pocket spending on certain drugs that treat diabetes, asthma, and heart conditions. The bill also would create a process to license pharmacy benefit managers, the “middlemen” who Democratic leaders say have operated with little oversight while negotiating prices with manufacturers. Versions of the bill cleared the Senate in both 2019 and 2021, but stalled in the House.
The House, meanwhile, approved on Wednesday a separate bill designed to increase oversight of the state’s long-term care industry, including by hiking civil penalties on facilities, or the individuals who work there, where patients are abused and neglected.
Jon Chesto and Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.