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EDITORIAL

Lawmakers’ brinksmanship on migrant housing a dangerous game

Homeless families and state workers due a raise all held in limbo as politicians dither.

Alexandre Madelene and three of her four children wait for the school bus in the front of the West Springfield motel where many migrant families are staying.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

It’s easy to laugh over the kind of dysfunction the Massachusetts Legislature has put on display now for all to see. An overwhelmingly Democratic House picks a fight with a Democratic governor and gets pushback from an overwhelmingly Democratic Senate.

It would be easy, sure, because it’s a ludicrous situation — a fight over $50 million in a $2.8 billion budget bill. But it’s not so funny to the migrant families whose shaky hold on shelter in this state is put at risk. And it’s not so funny to the thousands of state employees whose raises — already negotiated in collective bargaining agreements — are put on hold.

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Yes, once again lawmakers are intent on playing political games — not just with budgets, but with the people whose lives are impacted by this one.

For 13 hours Wednesday — the last day this year of formal legislative sessions on Beacon Hill — the House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz and his Senate counterpart, Michael Rodrigues, tried to reach agreement on a Supplementary Budget to close out the state’s fiscal affairs for the year that actually ended last June 30. At 1 a.m. Thursday they gave up.

By all accounts the major sticking point was a $250 million appropriation for the state’s already overburdened emergency shelter system. The House continued to insist that the Healey administration be mandated to use $50 million of that to set up a larger “overflow shelter” to accommodate families waitlisted for temporary shelter space, now capped by the administration at some 7,500 families. They proposed to give the governor one month from passage of the bill to set up such a shelter or her cap would be declared null and void.

“Changing the right-to-shelter law was a huge change in the conversation,” Michlewitz told the editorial board. “Frankly, what we put in the bill displays our frustration with the limited information [offered by the administration] on what their plan is.”

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The Senate wanted to preserve the governor’s flexibility on how the $250 million was used and required only that the administration report to the Legislature every other week on how the money was being allocated and how many families were being accommodated.

Yes, that’s the dispute that now threatens to send to whole shelter system — not to mention anything resembling sane budgeting in the state — into chaos. Because by running out the clock on the formal end of the legislative year, the bill now becomes subject to the whim of any single lawmaker, who can obstruct its passage.

Of course, this critical act of passing a budget bill filled with such crucial spending items — it also includes some $800 million needed to fund the state’s MassHealth account — shouldn’t be left until the last day of the session. Right? That’s a prescription for disaster.

So this is how we got here:

Governor Maura Healey filed her version of the budget bill, calling for spending $2.1 billion on MassHealth, those collective bargaining agreements, and that $250 million for shelters to provide “safe, temporary shelter to thousands of families in need” on Sept. 13.

It didn’t emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee (where all money bills must originate) until Nov. 8 — giving both branches exactly five business days to get the job done. The House passed the bill that same day. The Senate passed its version Nov. 14.

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And then the closed-door games began.

The Senate version also contained a provision — unrelated to its money sections — that would ease the way for the Kraft Group to build a proposed 25,000-seat soccer stadium for the New England Revolution in Everett on land currently occupied by a shuttered power plant on the Mystic River. That remains a point of contention but not one as serious as the shelter provisions.

Budget negotiators, Michlewitz insists, have “not stopped talking.” But with lawmakers having missed the critical deadline, the bill — and any new funding for emergency shelters — remains in limbo.

Rodrigues told reporters during an impromptu news conference late Wednesday night, “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. I can’t speak for the House.”

And while Republicans in both branches have expressed their opposition to the shelter funding piece of it, Michlewitz noted the House did pass an economic development bill last year in an informal session.

A spokesperson for the governor, Karissa Hand, said: “Our administration believes it’s critical to pass the supplemental budget as soon as possible. It includes urgently needed funding to close the books on the last fiscal year, including hard-earned raises for workers, support for municipalities with special education and flood relief, and sustaining the shelter system.”

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If the bill doesn’t pass before Jan. 2, 2024, the process will have to start all over again — a provision unique to money bills.

That, of course, raises the question of how far existing funds for the shelter system will go. An affidavit filed earlier this month by the deputy chief financial officer for the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities revealed that without the governor’s imposed cap, the $325 million already appropriated for the shelter system would run out by Jan. 13, 2024.

There is no further calculation of to what extent the cap and the administration’s triaging of needy families will extend those funds.

But one thing is certain — it is those families and state workers who will pay the price for the games Massachusetts lawmakers have grown too accustomed to playing.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.