Beacon Hill Roll Call: March 4 to March 8, 2024


Published: 03-14-2024 10:31 AM

Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ votes on roll calls from the week of March 4 to March 8. There were no roll calls in the Senate last week.

Supplemental budget (H 4460)

The House, 121-33, approved and sent to the Senate a supplemental budget that includes $245 million for the emergency family shelter system that houses migrants.

The measure limits the maximum length of stay to nine consecutive months and an additional three months for those who are currently employed or enrolled in a job training program. The bill allows some families or individuals, including veterans, pregnant women, victims of domestic violence and people with a disability, to be eligible for 12 consecutive months.

Other provisions keep in place some pandemic-era programs that were set to expire, including allowing restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails for takeout and expanding outdoor dining.

“Ensuring that people exit the shelter system in a timely manner is crucial to the Emergency Assistance Program’s long-term viability,” said House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy. “This is the current reality due to the status of the migrant crisis, the lack of federal support, the number of people on the waitlist and the revenue challenges facing Massachusetts. It’s also critical that we ensure that folks in the shelter system receive ample support aimed at helping them to successfully enter the workforce, which is exactly what this legislation does.”

“Since the beginning of the migrant crisis, we have attempted to uphold the commonwealth’s right-to-shelter law while also being mindful of the long-term fiscal sustainability of the program,” said House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston. “The reforms contained in this proposal will ensure that right to shelter is maintained by capping the length of stay while also refocusing the emphasis on workforce development. By concentrating on job training, we can focus on getting migrants the job skills they need while also enhancing the commonwealth’s economic output.”

“By committing an additional $245 million in state funding to cover the ongoing costs of providing emergency housing to migrants, [the bill] does nothing but throw more taxpayer money at the problem without addressing the underlying causes driving up the program’s costs,” said House Republican Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading. “If you factor in the $325 million that was included in the fiscal year 2024 budget and the $250 million added through the supplemental budget that was approved in December, the state has now committed over $820 million to the Emergency Assistance Program in fiscal year 2024 alone, with no end in sight. This money drain is already crowding out other priorities in the budget and has created a financial situation that is simply unsustainable without implementing meaningful reforms to the program.”

“To the credit of Democratic House leaders, the bill did propose several new limits to migrant housing stays in an effort to curtail expenses,” said Rep. Steven Xiarhos, R-Barnstable. “However, in my opinion, these new limits don’t go far enough and the bill is fiscally irresponsible. Our state very simply cannot afford to continue paying these ever-mounting expenses.”

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A “Yes” vote is for the budget. A “No” vote is against it.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — No

Residency requirements (H 4460)

The House, 28-128, rejected an amendment that would change the right-to-shelter law, which requires the state to provide shelter and other necessities to homeless parents with young children, pregnant women and recently the many migrant families arriving Massachusetts. Homeless individuals are not covered by the law.

The amendment would require that people provide proof that they have lived in the state for at least six months to qualify for the program. It also exempts from the requirement a victim of domestic violence or a person whose living situation has been affected by a fire or other natural disaster that occurred in Massachusetts.

Amendment supporters said the current interpretation of residency in Massachusetts by the Healey administration is that the person can be in the state for a matter of minutes to qualify to get services.

“We’re a huge incentive for groups at our southern U.S. border to send folks here, directly here, because they know we’re going to take care of them, we’re going to give them shelter of some kind, food, health care and what have you,” said amendment sponsor Rep. Paul Frost, R-Auburn. “The solution is you can’t be eligible the day you show up. You just can’t. Let’s make it six months — you have to be a resident of Massachusetts for six months before you can access the program. I think that’s fair and I think it’s reasonable.”

Some amendment opponents said the amendment might be unconstitutional. Others said people from around the world who are the victims of rape, violence and oppression are coming to Massachusetts and the state should not impose residency requirements on these suffering migrants.

A “Yes” vote is for the six-month requirement. A “No” vote is against it.

Rep. Natalie Blais — No

Rep. Aaron Saunders — No

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Require competitive bidding process for companies supplying food (H 4460)

The House, 154-0, approved an amendment that would require any funds spent for providing food for people through the program be subject to a competitive bidding process.

Amendment supporters said that according to news reports, the state is currently spending $64 a day per person to feed people in the Emergency Assistance Program under a six-month, $10 million no-bid contract, including $16 for breakfast, $17 for lunch and $31 for dinner.

“These meal costs far exceed the necessary funds to feed families in the Emergency Assistance Program and go well beyond what most families in the commonwealth can afford to feed their own families,” said amendment sponsor House GOP Minority Leader Rep. Brad Jones, R-North Reading. “At a time when state revenues are declining, we must ensure that we spend responsibly and conserve our resources to best serve the residents of Massachusetts. By requiring a competitive bidding process, we can ensure that the state is getting the best price and that spending is brought down to a more reasonable level.”

A “Yes” vote is for the amendment.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Training programs (H 4460)

The House, 25-128, rejected an amendment that would expand eligibility for a program, created in the bill, which allows employers to offer training programs to assist individuals in the Emergency Assistance Program in developing the skills needed to enter the workforce. Under the program, employers would be eligible for a tax credit of $2,500 for each qualified trainee who receives training. The amendment would allow low-income Massachusetts residents to participate in these training programs even if they are not in the Emergency Assistance Program.

“The supplemental budget offers a pathway to entering the workforce by going through a job training program, but it is limited to those individuals who are already in the emergency shelter system,” said amendment sponsor Rep. Brad Jones, R-North Reading. “This amendment would open up these training programs by also giving low-income Massachusetts residents who are eager to work an opportunity to participate.”

Opponents said this funding is aimed at helping people in the Emergency Assistance Program. They noted the state already has programs for low-income residents and is developing even more of them.

A “Yes” vote is for the amendment allowing low-income residents to be eligible. A “No” vote is against the amendment.

Rep. Natalie Blais — No

Rep. Aaron Saunders — No

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Veterans’ preference (H 4460)

The House, 154-0, approved an amendment that would require that veterans in the shelter program are automatically given the maximum length of time to stay in the program, regardless of other factors.

“My amendment prioritizes veterans when it comes to our emergency shelter program,” said amendment sponsor Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth. “We give priority to veterans in many other state programs. I believe they deserve priority when it comes to shelter and this amendment enshrines that priority.”

A “Yes” vote is for the amendment giving veterans preference.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Aaron Saunders — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Also up on Beacon HillLearning Disability Screening Day (H 4210)

The House gave initial approval to a bill designating Oct. 2 as Learning Disability Screening Day to raise awareness of the necessity of screening for reading disabilities.

“Former Duxbury Rep. Josh Cutler filed this legislation to promote awareness around dyslexia and other reading disabilities,” said Cole Angley, a Cutler spokesperson. “Dyslexia affects an estimated 20% or one in every five people of the U.S. population. However, only around one in 20 of the population are diagnosed. This legislation would help to promote awareness and screening across the commonwealth.”

Cutler resigned from the House on Feb. 4 to become Gov. Maura Healey’s undersecretary of apprenticeship, work-based learning and policy in the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Local planning boards (H 3555)

The House gave initial approval to a bill that allows associate members of local planning boards to act on any matter before a planning board, mirroring the current law that applies to associate members of zoning boards of appeal. An associate planning board member is one that is appointed to act in place of a regular member because of absence, conflict of interest or when a seat is vacant.

Supporters of the bill said the attorney general has ruled that associate members may only act on a special permit application, and none of the other many functions of a planning board. They said the attorney general’s ruling can handicap a planning board when trying to attain a quorum to open a meeting, or when voting on other matters and permits before them, such as site plans or subdivisions.

“Planning boards have many responsibilities, including but not limited to long-range planning and permitting of special permits, site plans and subdivisions,” said sponsor Rep. Kristin Kassner, D-Hamilton. “This will help the planning boards in our communities keep permitting on track and move through the business in front of them. Amendments like this clear up confusion in the law and provide needed tools for community success.”

$22 million to expand high-speed internet in affordable housing units

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) at MassTech announced the launch of the Residential Internet Retrofit Program, a $22 million statewide program that will be used to equip public and affordable housing units across the state with high-speed internet.

“A substantial portion of public housing buildings are more than 50 years old,” said MBI Director Michael Baldino. “Low-income families in these buildings face barriers to accessing the speeds offered by broadband service if the wiring in their apartment pre-dates the internet age. The Retrofit Program will lead the charge to engage with property managers and then to engage internet service providers, who will work together to build out cutting-edge infrastructure that fully connects public and affordable housing units to high-speed internet.”