Reviving debate on an issue that lawmakers left untouched at the end of last session, Gov. Maura Healey on Monday filed a $282 million spending bill she said is necessary to manage a surge in demand for emergency shelter and prevent the free school meals program from running out of money.
Healey called on top House and Senate Democrats to make quick work of her new supplemental budget bill, which would steer $85 million toward an emergency shelter “crisis,” allocate $130 million to keep expanded nutrition assistance in place for a few more months, and appropriate $65 million to ensure a universal school meals program remains afloat through the end of the academic year.
Her bill (H 47) targets the same growing shelter strain, fueled in part by an influx of migrant arrivals to Massachusetts, that prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to unsuccessfully seek $130 million in November.
Healey’s office said about $65 million would help the Department of Housing and Community Development expand shelter options, projecting the state will need more than 1,100 units beyond its baseline to meet demand. Another $21.9 million would help schools place a surge of students who have arrived through the process of shelter placements.
“The demand for emergency shelter by families experiencing homelessness in the Commonwealth has significantly increased, and the emergency temporary shelter system is at capacity,” Healey wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “While the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has been working to place vulnerable people and expanding capacity to meet its revised caseload projections, Emergency Assistance (EA) funds have been depleted. As a right to shelter state, the Commonwealth is committed to providing safe temporary shelter to these families.”
Healey also said she would press Congress to pursue immigration reform, warning that Massachusetts has “too many people here who aren’t able to work who would like to work and we have employers who are ready to hire people, frankly.”
Top House Democrats declined to advance Baker’s measure before the 2021-2022 term ended and said they had had several unanswered questions.
The Baker administration warned in late December that the system was close to capacity and, within 90 days, would no longer be able to immediately place eligible families into emergency assistance shelter.
House Speaker Ron Mariano said last week he viewed that timeline as an “artificial deadline.”
After meeting privately with Healey and other legislative leaders Monday, Mariano drew a contrast between Healey’s request for $85 million and Baker’s request for $130 million.
“The supp budget presented us with realistic options today on the immigration money. The prior administration gave us a number of $115 million, and we often asked for details on how many people are going to be affected by that, how many people they’re dealing with,” Mariano said. “This present administration has given us some numbers and reduced the amount necessary by about $30 million. That’s a significant change in the way we want to do business.”
Asked if he was more amenable to Healey’s proposal than Baker’s, Mariano replied, “We’re more amenable to the real numbers, yeah, absolutely.” He did not say when the House would take up the legislation.
Healey told reporters she took “very seriously the call for more detail and more information about what current needs are and what future needs are likely to be.”
“We went back and ran the numbers, went through the information. There are a lot of folks coming in. We expect more folks to be coming in, so we want to make sure we’re in a position to handle that,” Healey said, adding that she would press for federal aid where possible.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency stood up a temporary central intake center at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center in Devens, and Healey said in her letter that the state “urgently need(s) to invest in and build the capacity of the EA system.”
Healey’s bill also seeks to inject a pair of food aid programs with additional dollars.
The fiscal 2023 state budget included $110 million to extend a pandemic-era program making school meals available at no cost to all students. Massachusetts was just one of five states to do so after federal waivers expired in June.
But Healey warned Monday that the free meals option is on the brink of folding if lawmakers do not make more money available.
“The funding for that program has now been depleted, which would result in the program’s early end in March,” she wrote in her letter.
Healey called for another $65 million — more than half the original appropriation — to “continue the universal school meals pilot program statewide for the remainder of the 2022-2023 school year.”
She told reporters that figure “is the best estimate we could get in terms of meeting the needs of children and families around the state.”
“None of us want to see kids go without food, without meals, so we talked and we’ll see where that goes from here,” Healey said.
Added Senate President Karen Spilka, “The funds were provided on the federal level previously. The federal government cut, and we stepped in to supplement and to cover.”
“As the governor said, nobody wants our kids to go hungry. They can’t learn if they’re hungry,” Spilka said. “This will ensure they will have enough funds for that program until the end of the year.”
Anti-hunger advocates and some lawmakers had set their sights in recent weeks on legislation to make the temporary program a permanent option. Massachusetts now has about 56,000 more children eating lunch daily in school than in 2019, before the federal program began, according to Project Bread President Erin McAleer.
Neither Mariano nor Spilka referenced that legislation in their remarks Monday about the latest spending bill.
Another federal program’s looming end featured in Healey’s proposal.
Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, the federal government expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, allowing eligible households to receive at least $95 more per month to purchase food. SNAP aid is now set to return to its pre-pandemic levels in March.
Healey called for using $130 million to provide recipients with 40 percent of their previous enhanced SNAP allotment for another three months, which her office dubbed an “offramp” to stave off a more abrupt end to the expanded benefits that more than 630,000 families receive.
The governor’s office said that move would be covered by “repurposed enhanced federal Medicaid reimbursements, resulting in an approximately net $0 cost to the Commonwealth.”
“The extra COVID SNAP benefits have provided critical support for individuals and families to buy food, and have also indirectly supported our local grocery stores and farmers,” Acting Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Beckman said in a statement. “The Healey-Driscoll Administration is aiming to be a leader among states in providing households with an offramp to the abrupt end of these extra benefits and will continue to be a food security leader through systemic initiatives like this.”
(Copyright (c) 2022 State House News Service.