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Massachusetts legislators want new limits on shelter stays

The Massachusetts Statehouse.
Jesse Costa
The Massachusetts Statehouse.

House Democrats will pursue a vote Wednesday on legislation that would steer another $245 million to the state's emergency shelter system while capping the maximum length of stay, a move they say will balance the immense demand for services with the state's strained financial outlook.

The House Ways and Means Committee opened a poll Tuesday morning on a redrafted spending bill that would impose new limits on how long Massachusetts residents and newly arriving migrants can stay in emergency shelters, while leaving the state's right-to-shelter law in place.

Most people would be allowed to stay in shelters for no longer than nine consecutive months, according to a summary provided by House Speaker Ron Mariano's office. Those who are employed or enrolled in a job training program could stay for three months longer, while pregnant women and people with certain disabilities would be eligible for 12 continuous months of shelter.

The bill would also require Gov. Maura Healey to seek federal waivers for expedited, temporary and provisional work authorizations to help more migrants exit the shelter system, Mariano's office said, and create a new $10 million per year tax credit program offering a $2,500-per-trainee tax credit to businesses that provide workforce training to people in shelters.

Mariano's office said House Democrats intend to bring the bill to the floor for a vote Wednesday, one week after the speaker and his top deputy signaled they were considering changes to how the state administers the emergency shelter program. In the fall, when the Legislature approved a previous Healey request for more shelter funding, Democrats brushed aside Republican calls to reform the system.

Healey in January proposed draining a roughly $860 million state savings account to cover additional shelter costs —projected to surpass $900 million annually — this fiscal year and next fiscal year. At the same time, state tax revenues have repeatedly fallen short of expectations, tightening the spending outlook.

The supplemental budget House Democrats unveiled Tuesday appears only to fund remaining costs in fiscal year 2024.

It would also extend for another year a slate of pandemic-era policies, such as cocktails to-go and expanded outdoor dining, that are set to expire March 31 without action.

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