Senate bill signals another showdown over emergency shelter system – NBC Boston

Massachusetts Senate Democrats on Monday teed up their own proposal to cap how long people can stay in the strained emergency family shelter system, while enabling more than $800 million in state savings to flow toward the crisis response.

The Senate will vote Thursday on a redrafted bill imposing new limitations on family shelter stays, a potential cost-controlling measure after months of record demand inflicted massive pressure on the state’s balance sheet and shelter systems.

Like the bill that cleared the House earlier this month, the Senate bill could push some people out of the system after nine months, which would mark a shift in a state that by law guarantees access to shelter for eligible families and pregnant women.

But some noteworthy differences between the House and Senate measures, including the bottom line and whether bars and restaurants should remain able to sell drinks to go, portend tricky negotiations ahead for Democrats who have often struggled to move timely compromises to Gov. Maura Healey’s desk.

The bill Senate Democrats rolled out would require the state to create a “rehousing plan” for every family and pregnant women enrolled in the emergency shelter system, according to a Senate Ways and Means Committee official. Shelter residents would remain eligible for nine months, after which the administration would need to review their eligibility.

At that point, officials could award one or more 90-day extensions to shelter residents who meet certain criteria, such as single parents of children with disabilities or those who need an extension to avoid losing a job.

It’s a slightly different approach to limiting shelter stays than the House pursued. The bill representatives approved along party lines would temporarily limit shelter residents to stays of no more than nine months, plus give another three months to those who are employed or enrolled in a job training program, pregnant women, people with certain disabilities, veterans and those facing domestic violence risks.

Families and individuals could only receive a single three-month extension under the House bill, rather than multiple extensions under the Senate bill.

Emergency family shelters have been withstanding record demand for months, driven in part by a significant increase in migrants newly arriving to Massachusetts. About half of the system’s residents are migrants, according to the Healey administration, which projected it would spend more than $900 million per year on the system in fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

Healey in the fall capped the number of families that can be in shelters at one time at around 7,500. The system has been full for months, and as of Monday, there were 781 families on a waitlist, according to an administration official.

Officials have estimated the average length of stay in the shelter system is 13 to 14 months, and legislators hope that trimming a few months off will keep the program from, as House Ways and Means Committee Chair Aaron Michlewitz put it, “collaps[ing] under its own weight.” 

Policymakers have not, however, offered any clear estimates on how much money the reforms will save.

Republican Sen. Patrick O’Connor warned on Monday that the crisis has “reached a point where we are threatening to really stress some of the most important elements of everyday life for Massachusetts citizens.”

“We need to get really deep into this, because just throwing money at this problem through supps every couple months is not a long-term solution or answer to what we have going on right now,” O’Connor told the News Service. “We need to do better when it comes to what we’re doing in this space, and better doesn’t mean just the price tag. Better means stronger policy, stronger communication and dialogue with our federal delegation — to actually tell them to get something done, because this has gone on for far too long.”

Another area of divergence between the House and Senate is how to fund the added shelter needs in the near future.

The House bill would steer $245 million more toward the shelter system in fiscal 2024, dipping into a savings account known as the transitional escrow fund, while leaving fiscal 2025 needs to be debated at a later date — fiscal 2025 budget deliberations are scheduled in the House in April and the Senate in May and both branches routinely pass spending bills during each fiscal year. 

The Senate bill would direct $10 million in new spending toward shelter costs like job training and English instruction, plus allow the Healey administration to redirect about $825 million from the escrow fund toward the crisis over the next 15-plus months.

The measure would permit the Healey administration to draw down tens of millions of dollars per month from the savings account, starting with up to $75 million monthly for the remainder of fiscal year 2024. That monthly limit would drop to $65 million for the first three months of fiscal 2025, which begins July 1, then decline to $55 million per month from Oct. 1, 2024 through Dec. 31, 2024, $45 million per month from Jan. 1, 2025 through March 31, 2025, and $35 million per month from April 1, 2025 through June 30, 2025.

Healey officials estimated in January that the transitional escrow fund, which contains budget surpluses and federal aid built up from prior years, had an uncommitted balance of about $863 million.

House Republicans voted against the latest spending bill with policy reforms after pushing unsuccessfully to limit shelter eligibility only to those who have lived in Massachusetts for at least six months.

No senators on the Ways and Means Committee outright opposed the legislation as it advanced Monday. Four — O’Connor, Republican Sens. Ryan Fattman and Peter Durant, and Democrat Sen. Cindy Friedman — reserved their rights, declining to take an up or down position, according to poll results.

O’Connor said Monday that he views the proposal his chamber will take up as “a start.”

“I saw the opposition in the House in regards to placing these limits, but I think we need to do something,” the Weymouth Republican said. “I fully and continuously blame the federal government for this problem. I think that this is an example of federal inaction and that sort of partisan divide that’s going on down there.”

The Senate bill also calls for making permanent pandemic-era provisions allowing expanded outdoor dining and a graduate student nursing program, but in another contrast from the House, it would not allow restaurants to continue selling alcoholic beverages to go.

Takeout drinks proved popular among consumers during the COVID-19 state of emergency, and the policy has now morphed into a battle between restaurant industry groups who want to keep it and package store owners who view it as a threat.

Healey also endorsed making to-go cocktails permanent as part of a separate municipal reform bill.

Lawmakers extended the suite of pandemic policies several times.  They are set to expire at the end of March without additional action.

Adding another item to the Legislature’s to-do list, Healey on Monday filed a separate $535 million supplemental budget proposing more money for human services workers, safety net hospitals, early education and care subsidies and other spending initiatives. Healey’s office said most of the bill’s bottom line would be covered by federal reimbursements, leaving a net cost to the state of about $88.5 million. 

Tax collections were expected to rise this fiscal year but have fallen slightly, forcing the Healey administration to lay out budget-balancing plans and raising questions about the affordability of new midyear spending. 

Sam Doran contributed reporting.

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