Shelter money fading, but ‘not at the end of the line’

The Massachusetts State House

The Massachusetts State House MATT STONE/BOSTON HERALD/TNS


State House News Service

Published: 04-19-2024 10:53 AM

BOSTON — State dollars for the emergency family shelter system are dwindling, and restaurateurs who for years enjoyed expanded outdoor dining and the ability to sell drinks to go remain “in limbo” amid a sustained period of legislative disagreement.

House and Senate Democrats broke for another long weekend Thursday without announcing any deal on a spending bill that would replenish shelter funding for the remainder of the fiscal year.

While negotiators remain at odds over how much they want to draw from state savings and exactly what kind of time limits to place on shelter stays — plus whether restaurants should resume takeout drink sales — funding could run out in less than two weeks, a Healey administration official confirmed Thursday.

“Direct funding for emergency assistance shelters has been expected to be exhausted early this spring. It’s possible that could occur as soon as this month,” Matt Murphy, a spokesperson for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, said in a statement. “We are both grateful to the Legislature for the work they have done so far to advance our supplemental funding request and hopeful that legislation can be finalized quickly for our review to address this time sensitive need.”

“If we do exhaust the direct funding available for shelters, we have some flexibility to shift other available funds as a short-term measure to avoid any disruption in services until the supplemental budget passes,” he added, referring to “additional money from the last [emergency assistance] supp that wasn’t direct shelter funding that can be used.”

Murphy said the administration “continues to call on the federal government to address this federal problem, including by providing additional funding to states.”

Both branches have already approved competing versions of a mid-year spending bill that would steer more money to the shelter system, but they cannot send it to Gov. Maura Healey’s desk until they iron out differences.

The House and Senate adjourned with plans to return Monday, April 22, which is the earliest they could act to send a compromise to the governor — if top Democrats can strike an agreement by then.

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Sean Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues, declined to make the senator available for an interview Thursday but said the conference committee is “continuously engaged and remains focused with ongoing and productive conversations.”

“We remain optimistic that we’ll have an agreement soon,” Fitzgerald said.

A spokesperson for House Ways and Means Committee Chair Aaron Michlewitz did not reply to a News Service request.

Legislative leaders have said for months that the money currently propping up shelters is set to run out by spring, though they and the Healey administration have been less than forthcoming about when exactly that might be.

Michlewitz was the first to identify the “early spring” timeline, way back in November when his chamber approved the last multi-million dollar injection into the state’s emergency family shelter system.

That supplemental budget, signed in December, steered $250 million to the emergency shelter crisis, with $50 million set aside for overflow shelter and $75 million targeted for school funding relief related to the shelter crisis.

“From what we gather, this would take us through the winter, neatly through the winter, and probably early into the spring,” Michlewitz said at the time. “Then it will all depend at that point moving forward on how many families we have in the system.”

Since Michlewitz’s remarks last fall, the number of families looking for a spot in shelters has only grown, with 713 families as of Wednesday on a waitlist set up by Healey.

Healey got the ball rolling on the next funding injection for the overburdened system on Jan. 28, saying the additional supplemental budget would have enough money to keep the shelters running through the end of June.

Michlewitz said again in February that they were “managing with that timeline” that “the [Emergency Assistance] shelter money will run out in the spring.”

When asked at that point exactly when in the spring the funding was set to run out, the chairman and House Speaker Ron Mariano laughed.

“When are the crocuses?” Mariano quipped. Michlewitz jumped in, “What, is March 21st the first day of spring?” as the speaker chuckled.

The House approved its version of Healey’s supplemental budget bill on March 6, and the Senate took its vote on March 21. Now, almost a month later and nearly a third of the way into spring, it still has not emerged from negotiations.

Rodrigues said last week that the administration told him family shelter money could run out “sometime mid- to end of April” and that the administration has “other flexible funds that they can use,” which Murphy appeared to confirm Thursday. Mariano said Sunday on WCVB that he “never got a date from the governor as to when it was gonna run out,” only that “sometime in the spring, it would run out.”

Republican Sen. Peter Durant of Spencer told the News Service on Thursday that the conference committee’s delay could indicate the money is not needed as urgently as some Democrats have said.

“We’ve also heard that the governor has said that she has a few more levers to pull somewhere, so we can finance it,” Durant said. “So I’m not sure it’s as critical as everybody might think that it is. Certainly as this drags on, it would appear that it’s not as critical as it’s made out to be.”

He said financing the emergency family shelter system through supplemental budgets over the course of the year, rather than a lump sum through the annual budget, which could be the approach Democrats take again in fiscal 2025, leads to uncertainty.

“That’s a real challenge for the leadership here. How exactly are we going to pay for it, how does it look going forward? And I just don’t think that we have a lot of really good answers to that yet,” Durant said. “Even when the speaker says, ‘We’ll fund this budget for half the year and then we’ll see what happens in December, maybe we’ll have the same president, maybe we’ll have a new one’ — there’s just so many unanswered questions. Everybody’s just playing it by ear.”

Sen. Nick Collins of South Boston, a Democrat, said there’s not “too much concern just yet” about shelter funds running out, as “the indications from the administration tell us that we’re not at the end of the line here.”

“The number-one issue in the state of Massachusetts on taxpayers’ minds is the cost of this. So there’s a lot to think about,” Collins said. “And I think that’s what’s taking the time.”

The lack of consensus on the legislation does not only impact the emergency assistance shelter system. Legislative leaders opted to use the supplemental budget bills as the vehicle for revisiting some pandemic-era policies that have been in place on a temporary basis for years, like a streamlined process for restaurants securing permission to serve patrons in certain outdoor spaces.

Both branches voted in favor of making permanent the outdoor dining overhaul and a graduate student nursing program, but they were split on whether to allow restaurants to continue selling alcoholic beverages to go. The House is in support and the Senate is in opposition.

Because the branches still have not found compromise on the underlying bill, all of those provisions, including the ones both the House and Senate back, expired March 31, pushing many restaurants back toward a pre-COVID status quo.

“Marathon Monday is always the first sign of the weather turning the corner in Boston and around Massachusetts. That day has come and gone, and I think I speak for most people that we are ready to welcome some great weather,” Steve Clark, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “With great weather, comes the want and desire to eat outside. Unfortunately, a number of restaurants across the state are in limbo without extended outdoor dining authorization, hopefully we are able to get this issue resolved quickly.”

Clark added that many of his members have asked about the prospects of bringing back takeout drinks.

“Menu evolution is always happening, but it takes time and effort to remove items off of menus; at the same time, license holders take their responsible service of alcohol seriously and do not want to run afoul of the laws that come with it,” he said.

However, the policy might be up against a major hurdle, as one of the lead negotiators has come out against the idea.

“I personally do not support cocktails to go. I believe we have cocktails to go, it’s called package stores,” Rodrigues said earlier this month. “We have bricks and mortar businesses, retail establishments, that that’s what they provide.”

The chairman said he has not heard about to-go alcoholic drinks from one restaurant. “I’ve heard a lot from inside the building, I hear a lot from the media, but from restaurants, they want outdoor dining,” he said.

Mariano, asked on WCVB’s “On The Record” to respond to Rodrigues’ comments, gave a vague endorsement of the idea.

“It was something we came up with during the pandemic to help restaurants. It seemed to be successful, some people liked it. It didn’t really cause any problems that we were aware of. So we just thought if restaurants want to do it, we’ll let them do,” he said.