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Mass. lawmakers reach deal on delayed $2.8 billion spending bill with shelter funding, but its fate remains unclear amid GOP objections

A rally in front of the Massachusetts State House in October called on the Healey administration to uphold the right-to-shelter law.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Weeks after talks stalled ahead of the holiday break, Massachusetts Democratic leaders on Thursday unveiled a deal on a $2.8 billion spending bill that would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the struggling emergency shelter system and mandate the state create overflow sites for families with nowhere else to go.

Leaders in the Democrat-led House and Senate released the wide-ranging package more than two weeks after closing out formal sessions for the year without an agreement. The delay stalled a $250 million infusion into the shelter system, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for raises owed to state employees and already agreed to in dozens of union contracts.

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The package, however, ran into an immediate roadblock.

The few Republican members of the House — who have opposed the shelter funding without tying it to measures to stem the flow of migrants into the system — blocked the bill from advancing by using a parliamentary move. That forced Democrats, who hold a supermajority, to adjourn the informal session and schedule another for Friday. In informal sessions, a lone objection can stall legislation.

House Speaker Ron Mariano called the holdup “incredibly disappointing,” arguing that the changes House Republicans are seeking were already voted down weeks ago.

GOP leaders said they also will try to force both chambers to meet in a formal session, where debate and roll calls are allowed. But Democratic leaders indicated Thursday that they are not considering calling such a session, leaving it unclear what the next step may be.

“House Democrats are committed to ensuring that this attempt at obstructionism fails to prevent the vital investments being made in this legislation from being approved as soon as possible,” Mariano said in a statement.

A key provision of the agreement would require Governor Maura Healey to use up to $50 million of the shelter system’s $250 million allotment to create overflow shelters for homeless families.

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But the package removes the teeth House officials had sought. While the compromise language would require Healey to open overflow sites by Dec. 31 — and keep them “operational” until the end of the fiscal year — lawmakers agreed to remove language that would have revoked the 7,500-family limit Healey set on the program if the sites weren’t up and running. House lawmakers had created the requirement after the Healey administration started to limit the number of families allowed into the shelter system in early November.

The compromise bill stipulates that none of the remaining shelter funds included in the bill can be spent “until said site is secured and operational.” But it’s possible that the mandate may already be satisfied. State officials last week converted conference rooms in the state transportation building in Boston into a congregate shelter site, setting up green cots and pop-up playpens to accommodate up to 25 families.

That site is expected to be open until at least Dec. 7, according to a top Healey administration official, who said the state is also seeking to establish “bigger, more permanent places” for temporary shelter during the winter.

The bill said the overflow sites should be for wait-listed families, but does not specify if they should accommodate a certain number.

“Back two, three weeks ago when we [first] passed this bill, there really wasn’t much of a plan,” Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chief, said of the Healey administration’s intentions of handling wait-listed families. “I think they’re starting to formulate a plan . . . and I think we feel a lot more comfortable where this is heading.”

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The overflow shelter requirements proved a key sticking point in legislators’ closed-door talks over the $2.8 billion bill. Senate leaders had touted allowing Healey the flexibility to decide how to spend the $250 million at a time when her administration was already scrambling to set up temporary overflow sites.

The agreement released Thursday also dealt a blow to a potential stadium for the New England Revolution rising along the Mystic River in Everett. The deal omits language that could enable the Kraft Group to build a roughly 25,000-seat stadium on a site currently home to the shuttered portion of a sprawling power plant.

The provision, while approved in the Senate, hit an obstacle during negotiations after Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration expressed surprise and disappointment about being left out of negotiations over a stadium that would sit on the city’s doorstep.

Senator Michael Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chief, said in an interview that while the language was “controversial,” the Senate still supports it, and left open the possibility of it emerging again this session.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to a soccer stadium in Everett,” said Michlewitz. “I think there’s still a lot to be discussed on this and needs to be fleshed out for us to feel comfortable about it going forward.”

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Pressure has been mounting for weeks on lawmakers to act on the spending package after they closed out their final formal session of the year on Nov. 15 without a final bill.

The bill includes more than $300 million to fund raises and other changes included in union contracts covering tens of thousands of state employees, some of which were agreed to months ago. Without a deal, the state has also been unable to tie up the loose ends on the fiscal year that ended June 30 — a commonplace, and legally required, maneuver that lawmakers have increasingly delayed.

The bill also would move the 2024 state primary to the day after Labor Day.

Whether it would actually reach Healey’s desk in the near future remains unclear.

As of late Thursday, the chambers had only informal sessions scheduled for the rest of the year.

House Republicans, frustrated by what minority leader Bradley H. Jones called a lack of “reforms” in the legislation to stem the flow of migrants into the shelter system, said they “strongly oppose” passing the multibillion-dollar package outside of a formal session, where lawmakers can take a roll call vote.

The House GOP halted Thursday’s lightly attended session by using a parliamentary move where they doubted the presence of a quorum, or whether there were enough of the chamber’s 159 representatives present for a vote. At the time, there were roughly 17 lawmakers in the chamber.

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“This voluminous document, that spends nearly $3 billion of funding on a wide range of items, needs and deserves to be taken up in a formal session, where it can be carefully scrutinized, debate can occur, and members can be recorded through roll calls,” said Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr.

For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed shelter under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state with a right-to-shelter requirement. But in November, the emergency assistance shelter program — which serves families with children and pregnant adults — instituted a new cap of 7,500 families, no longer guaranteeing children, women, and others a place to stay.

With the limit breached, state officials began pushing families to a newly created wait list, where they’ll linger for an unknown amount of time. There were 7,546 families in emergency shelters, including state-subsidized hotels and motels, as of Thursday, according to the most recent data available. Officials said that 91 other families were on the wait list as of Monday, and are being placed as units open.

Samantha J. Gross and Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this story.



Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.