$280M to boost food aid, shelter programs

By CHRIS LISINSKI

State House News Service

Published: 03-02-2023 4:35 PM

The state House of Representatives on Wednesday unanimously approved injecting more than $280 million into emergency shelter, school meals and food aid programs on the verge of running out of capacity or money.

And with the governor already making a push to extend some of the popular food programs for another year, questions loom about whether legislative leaders will have the political appetite or financial bandwidth to replace eroding federal supports with state dollars in the long term.

“I don’t expect there to be any more federal money coming for some of these programs. We’re going to have to make some decisions. We’re going to have to identify our priorities,” said House Speaker Ron Mariano. “We have to be mindful of the fact that the economic picture is changing, and we’re going to be expected to pick up a lot of programs that people are used to having. The problem is going to be: we may not be able to afford them.”

The House voted 153-0 to advance a combined spending and borrowing bill (H 57) that would direct $86 million toward expanding the emergency shelter system by about 1,100 units and placing affected students into local schools, $65 million to prevent the universal school meals program from exhausting its funding this month, and $130 million to blunt the impact of enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits expiring on Thursday.

In addition to the trio of spending measures, the bill that sailed through the House features more than half a billion dollars in bond authorizations aimed at housing and economic development programs, pieces of which Gov. Maura Healey included in a separate $987 million “immediate needs” bond bill.

It also extends authorization for some pandemic-era policy changes that have proven popular, like expanded outdoor dining and remote public meetings.

Representatives approved a single amendment bundle that added $50 million in technology and innovation matching grants to the bill while dispensing with all 27 amendments filed.

On the same day the House advanced her time-sensitive spending bill, Healey set her sights on keeping some of the same programs in place even longer.

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The fiscal year 2024 budget bill Healey unveiled Wednesday proposes $324 million for the emergency assistance shelter program, a 48% bump that would annualize the one-time increase — which has not yet won Senate approval — and allow the state to keep running an expanded network of about 4,700 shelter units.

Administration officials said they expect the elevated level of need, fueled in part by an influx of migrant arrivals, to remain in place in the fiscal year that runs from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.

“As a right to shelter state, the commonwealth is committed to providing safe temporary shelter to these families,” Healey wrote to lawmakers in January.

Administration and Finance Secretary Matt Gorzkowicz also signaled plans to include funding for another year of the universal school meals program in a supplemental budget due to be filed “in the next few days.”

“The request was to extend the pilot for another year,” Gorzkowicz said.

The FY23 state budget included $110 million to keep the pandemic-era program in place after federal waivers expired, but that was not enough, and the program is set to run out of funding this month. Healey and the House are backing $65 million more to cover the rest of the school year.

Her latest push to increase funding for the shelter program and keep the school meals program around for longer tees up decisions in the Legislature. Top House Democrats said Wednesday they are already weighing what role state government should play in keeping pandemic-era programs the federal government launched in place once the funding from Washington D.C. dries up.

“The balancing challenge that we have here is that, obviously, they’re very popular programs. Members have a great interest in them. I think they’ve been really successful within each member’s district,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Aaron Michlewitz. “These are things that we’re going to have to see how much we can or can’t afford during this discussion for FY24.”

Healey’s annual budget does not seek another extension to boosted SNAP benefits, and a spokesperson said the administration plans via the forthcoming supplemental budget to seek funding for more caseworkers to help families navigate the impending decrease in aid.

The federal government expanded the food assistance program early in the pandemic, allowing eligible households to receive at least $95 more per month, but aid amounts returned to pre-pandemic levels on Thursday.

The short-term spending bill Healey filed and the House approved Wednesday would provide more than 630,000 families who receive SNAP benefits with 40% of the previously boosted allotment for another three months, softening the scheduled decrease.

Healey’s office previously said repurposed enhanced Medicaid reimbursements would cover the SNAP “off-ramp.”

“I think you can expect that in the coming weeks, we’ll probably put forward another supp budget to address further needs that families may be facing with respect to expiration of particular programs,” Healey said Wednesday. “But we’re very sensitive to the cliff that some were facing. That’s exactly why we sought to address that in our supp.”

The legislation seeking to avert that drop-off will not reach Healey’s desk until at least next week.

If senators make any changes, House and Senate negotiators will then need to iron out a final bill.

Michlewitz said he has had discussions with his Senate counterparts, including Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues, but “wouldn’t call [the bill] pre-conferenced.”

“It’s certainly been talked about because of the immediacy of a number of these initiatives. I think we wanted to stay close together in that conversation,” Michlewitz said. “I think Chairman Rodrigues is working on it currently right now too, so once we get it over to him, I’m sure he will try to work on it as quickly as possible.”

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