HOUSE SPEAKER Ron Mariano offered some interesting advice to Gov. Maura Healey as she struggles to navigate the state’s emergency shelter crisis, urging her to declare an executive order tweaking the law as she sees fit.
Under a 1983 Massachusetts law, the state is required to provide shelter to families with children and to pregnant women. Due to an influx of migrants from other countries, the state’s shelter system is being overwhelmed.
Healey a week ago said she planned to cap the size of the emergency shelter population at 7,500 families on Wednesday and create a waiting list that would allow her administration to fill vacancies as they arise with those most in need. Healey said she wasn’t doing away with the law, but it seemed clear she was tinkering with it.
Now she finds herself under fire. The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless are planning a rally against her plan on the State House steps, and the advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights is taking her to court, seeking to block her cap plan as a violation of the 1983 state law.
Amid this turmoil and the continued rise in those seeking shelter, Mariano issued a one-paragraph statement on Monday afternoon saying the House was not going to ride to her rescue by changing the right to shelter law and wasn’t even ready to replenish shelter funding, which could run out as early as January.
“Any temporary policy changes would be better addressed by the Administration through the issuance of an executive order formally declaring a state of emergency, as they have real-time information regarding capacity issues and staffing shortages, and are in constant communication with local officials during this rapidly developing situation,” Mariano said.
Healey on August 8 declared a state of emergency in regard to the shelter crisis, but she did not invoke any special powers or issue any executive orders. Her spokeswoman described the state of emergency as “both an alert and a call to action.”
At the time, Healey seemed to be counting on the federal government to deal with the crisis by providing more financial assistance and speeding up work authorizations for migrants. But her pleas have gone largely unheeded in Washington, leaving her with little choice but to deal with the crisis herself as the situation worsens.
According to the state’s website, the governor can declare a state of emergency “in the event or imminent threat of a natural or man-made disaster.” Under a state of emergency, the website says, the governor “is authorized to issue executive orders to meet the needs of a threat, emergency, or disaster. These orders are to be treated as law and may override existing law for the course of the disaster.”
The website lists Healey’s August 8 emergency declaration as one of 14 issued by Massachusetts governors dating back to 2011. The website also notes that the emergency declaration remains in force. As Mariano suggested, the governor could make the Lawyers for Civil Rights legal challenge go away by issuing an executive order overriding the 1983 shelter law and replacing it with her cap plan.