By Stella Lorence
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — Nearly $4 billion in federal funding, including funding for Attleboro-area organizations, hangs in the balance as Massachusetts lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on how to dole out the aid before the end of formal sessions for the year.
A conference committee made up of three lawmakers from each chamber failed to produce a consolidated version of the House and Senate bills before the mid-session recess beginning on Nov. 18.
While both versions of the bill provide similar broad support for economic stimulus, public health, infrastructure and other key areas, the two chambers differ in the details, including local earmarks.
“The funding in this bill will help a lot of people throughout our district, especially the most vulnerable, so it’s important we not only get this done, but that we take the time to get it done right,” Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, said in a statement.
The Senate’s version, which came out to $3.82 billion, had over 700 amendments, about half of which were adopted.
Among those adopted was one Feeney proposed that earmarks $300,000 for New Hope, a nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The money would go toward consolidating the organization’s two shelters into one bigger location that can serve up to 14 clients at once and is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The clients we see today have very different needs than those we served in 1980,” said Marcia Szymanski, CEO of New Hope, referring to the date the first shelter opened.
“We’ve become de facto transitional housing,” she said, explaining that some people stay at the shelter for up to a year.
Szymanski said she has worked closely with Feeney and Sen. Rebecca Rausch, D-Needham, who represents a portion of the Attleboro area, and is grateful for their support. New Hope has been “inundated” with calls and people seeking support during the pandemic, Szymanski said, adding that it’s getting to be “more than we can handle.”
The set-up of the new shelter would include on-suite bathrooms for each room, which Szymanski said is a considerable improvement from the current shelter.
“One of the things we hear repeatedly from clients is that the hardest thing about being in a shelter is the lack of privacy,” Szymanski said.
Rep. James Hawkins, D-Attleboro, said he was pleased that the House bill — which had over 1,000 proposed amendments — included $125,000 toward construction of a homeless shelter in Attleboro.
The shelter would have crisis beds, as well as dormitory-style rooms and onsite services for those in need of transitional housing, Hawkins said.
The local earmark is in addition to a proposed $150 million set aside more generally for supportive housing which is included in both bills. The Senate bill stipulates at least $75 million of that would target the chronically homeless population.
Hawkins is optimistic that lawmakers will reach a deal and pass a bill during the informal session, despite differing rules that allow any one legislator to hold the bill up.
“I’m pretty confident the earmarks will go through,” he said. “I think a lot of the big picture things went through.”
One of those big picture items included in both bills is $500 million for bonuses to low-income essential workers who worked during the height of the pandemic, which Feeney said was a “top policy priority.”
“Massachusetts frontline workers put their lives on the line so that the rest of us could remain safe from the comforts of our own homes,” Feeney said in a statement. “These workers were deemed essential and should be compensated for their work as such.”
Eligible workers can receive up to $2,000 under the provisions outlined in the bill.
Despite the expansive nature of the spending, a few of the earmarks missed the cut. Among those was $6.2 million to upgrade the ventilation and cooling systems in Attleboro public schools. While a few towns remained singled out for such funding in the House’s final version, the rest, including Attleboro, will only be able to access the money by applying for a grant from the state.
“These kids are breathing stale air,” Hawkins said. “The only way to change the world is to change young people.”
Hawkins said the pandemic brought the public’s attention to the issue of ventilation in schools, but that classrooms with windows that don’t open and schools with malfunctioning heating or cooling systems had been a problem long before then.
Gov. Charlie Baker had wanted the spending bill on his desk by Thanksgiving. He released a plan to spend the federal aid back in June, but legislators decided to take the more deliberative legislative path for doling out the funds.
Baker’s press secretary Terry MacCormack issued a statement from the administration Thursday after lawmakers failed to reach a deal, chastising them for holding up the bill.
“Massachusetts was already behind most of the country in utilizing these funds before the latest setback, and further delay will only continue to leave residents, small businesses, and hundreds of organizations frozen out from the support the rest of the country is now tapping into to recover from this brutal pandemic,” MacCormack said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston, said negotiations between the House and Senate will continue during the seven-week informal session.
This article originally appeared in the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle.