Fiscal Crunch Forcing Massachusetts House Democrats To Scrutinize Cost of Emergency Shelter Program Benefiting Illegal Immigrants

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By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

Months after they brushed aside Republican attempts to change how the state’s emergency family shelter system works, Massachusetts House Democrats are now weighing a host of reforms to navigate the crisis.

At a caucus of House Democrats, state representatives privately discussed Governor Maura Healey’s proposal to drain $863 million from a state savings account to cover shelter system costs. Afterwards, state Representstive Aaron Michlewitz (D-North End), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, lawmakers need to think about “how this program is going to work long-term.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano (D-Quincy) said his team is discussing “a lot of different options” to balance the record level of shelter demand and ballooning costs with other realities, particularly the recent slowdown in tax collections that is creating budget pressure.

“We’re looking at a billion-dollar bill next year in the midst of declining revenues. Do you realize what that will do to us?” Mariano told reporters. “So we have to take a look at how we administer this program.”

Their remarks represent a shift from the fall, when the Massachusetts Legislature approved Governor Healey’s request for $250 million more in shelter funding. That spending measure required the administration to submit regular reports about the shelter system, but Democrats last year passed on the opportunity to make other major policy changes.

Republicans pushed last year to set some new limits on shelter access, such as by requiring applicants to live in Massachusetts for at least a year before gaining eligibility, and Democrats rejected their ideas.

Neither Mariano nor Michlewitz specified what kinds of changes to the emergency assistance shelter law they are now considering, though they said they are not interested in eliminating the underlying “right-to-shelter” policy.

“The right-to-shelter law has worked for 40 years. We’re continuing forward with the right-to-shelter law,” Michlewitz said. “How we manage the [emergency assistance] program going forward, I think, is up for discussion to be able to manage it and make it sufficient and sustainable long-term with no help coming from Washington. We’re going to have to look at some potential changes.”

When a reporter asked if Democrats were considering implementing a residency requirement, Mariano replied, “We’re talking about a lot of different options.” Asked about setting a time limit on shelter stays, he repeated the same answer word for word.

The Quincy Democrat also made clear he now believes Massachusetts must navigate the shelter strain alone, a contrast from Beacon Hill’s repeated previous calls for the federal government to approve immigration reform and steer funding to affected states. Momentum behind immigration reforms dissipated in recent weeks, and efforts appear dead until after the elections.

“We’re not expecting any help from Washington. They’re in such disarray that we are on our own on this,” Mariano said. “We realize that now.”

When lawmakers approved a $250 million injection into the system late last year, Michlewitz said, they thought “there was a glimmer of hope of some type of federal relief.”

“None of that is happening right now,” Michlewitz said. “It’s become basically political football that’s being played between both sides down in Washington. That has left us here in the commonwealth and our municipalities kind of in limbo, and we have to figure out exactly how we’re going to manage this going forward. We are certainly going to have to look at changes to the program.”

The open-mindedness Democrats displayed Wednesday, February 28 seemed to please the top House Republican.

“They agree with us. They agree with my caucus,” an upbeat state Representative Brad Jones (R-North Reading), the House minority leader, replied when State House News Service asked him about Mariano and Michlewitz’s remarks. “Better late than never, I guess.”

“I’m happy that they are open to those changes. I wish they’d been open to those changes at an earlier point,” Jones said. “One, it would have maybe saved some of the dollars that we spent that we’re going to need going forward, and two, it may also have sent a message about the number of people still trying to come to Massachusetts.”

Healey last month hinted that her administration was “making certain reforms to the EA system as well,” referring to emergency assistance — suggesting that she wanted to ensure the state is “doing things in a smart way.” But like Mariano and Michlewitz on Wednesday, Healey did not offer any details about what kinds of changes she is considering.

“We’ll talk about that when we’re more fully formed with some of that,” she replied during a press conference January 24 when asked which specific reforms she supports. “I think we know that this is a system that has been in place for a long time and currently right now is really overburdened.”

Massachusetts is the only state that by law guarantees access to shelter services for some families and pregnant women, and the statute has come under scrutiny amid a sustained surge in demand for shelter, fueled in part by newly arriving migrants.

The number of families seeking shelter began to surge right as Healey took office, soaring to new record highs, and the governor in the fall implemented a 7,500-family cap. 

As of last week, 3,745 families in the system — roughly half — were migrants, refugees, or asylum-seekers, according to the most recent report from the Healey administration. The other half are families who already lived in Massachusetts.

Administration officials project they will need to spend more than $900 million annually this fiscal year and next fiscal year to cover the costs of providing shelter, even with the capacity limit in place. That’s more than four times as much as the fiscal year 2022 state budget — the last full year before the crisis exploded — appropriated to the shelter system.

Michlewitz said Wednesday he still expects the system’s current funding to run out this spring. House Democrats will likely pursue a vote on the supplemental budget Healey filed to provide another appropriation “at some point by the spring,” he said.

Healey’s bill would tap into the state’s transitional escrow savings fund, which Beacon Hill previously built up using prior years’ surpluses and federal pandemic aid, to cover remaining fiscal year 2024 costs and then fully drain the account in fiscal year 2025.

Michlewitz said Wednesday that using the escrow funding for this year is “one option that we are certainly looking at,” but was less clear on whether he would support doing the same in the upcoming budget cycle.

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