By Matt Murphy, Michael Norton,

Colleen Quinn and Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- The House on Wednesday approved a freeze in unemployment insurance rates paid by employers as part of a $154 million spending bill that also steers millions of additional dollars into government efforts to address housing and homelessness problems in Massachusetts.

"The reason we are adopting the freeze today is really one of management because the bills have to go out and if we do not take action today it becomes a very challenging situation," House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey told the House before debate on the bill turned into behind the scenes negotiations over amendments.

House members filed dozens of amendments but showed no interest in debating their recommendations, silently withdrawing the majority of their proposals. About a dozen amendments were actively adopted or rejected by the House before a recorded vote on the spending bill (H 3899) showed overwhelming support, 146-2.

The Senate has passed separate bills raising the minimum wage and reforming the unemployment insurance system, including a freeze on rates this year. House Speaker Robert DeLeo wants to tackle both issues together in a combined bill, but that legislation remains in the drafting stage.

"It does not mean we will not be addressing unemployment insurance. We will be addressing that in the coming weeks," Dempsey said, assuring his colleagues that the rate freeze plan was not the end of debate on the issue.

Unemployment insurance bills reflecting steep increases are due to go out in March, and by freezing rates lawmakers can ensure employers get another reprieve from higher costs associated with funding jobless benefits.

The mid-year spending bill, based on one filed by Gov. Deval Patrick in January, also included $2.8 million for the Department of Children and Families as a down-payment to begin hiring 150 new social workers who will help reduce caseloads from 18 to 15 families per caseworker.

"Every single member has been deeply troubled by reports relative to the agency," Dempsey said.

The money will allow the department to hire an additional 150 social workers, Dempsey said.

The bill also includes $20 million for low-income home heating fuel assistance, $45.6 million for the renewal of existing state housing contracts and the addition of 650 congregate housing beds for the elderly and disabled, and $12 million for the explosion of hotel and motel costs for homeless families.

Dempsey reflected on how just last year the homeless hotel and motel population was on the decline at 1,200 families. Today, the motel population is at an all-time high with more than 2,000 families in temporary hotel and motel shelter. Dempsey said House leaders would try to do more to address the situation in the fiscal 2015 budget.

DeLeo is also planning later this year to roll out an economic development bill that will recapitalize certain programs that lawmakers see as effective. The budget includes $15 million for the rehabilitation of brownfields that House leaders separated for early action to make sure existing projects can continue, Dempsey said.

The spending bill also includes $14.1 million for a State Police collective bargaining agreements, $8 million for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, $4.8 million for the Safe and Successful Youth program and $7.9 million for the Department of Youth Services stemming from a law enacted last year extending the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system to include 17-year-olds.

Dempsey said the spending bill needed "immediate attention" even as he urged legislators that continued caution is necessary. Accounting for federal assistance, he said the net state cost of the bill would total $135.1 million. Annual revenues are currently $83 million above revised benchmarks, but Dempsey said sales taxes continue to be below benchmarks. 

"I share that because it does indicate we are clearly moving in a positive direction, but at the same time I think it's important for all of us to continue to be cautious with respect to our spending," Dempsey said, adding, "We're not completely there."

At a MassDOT meeting ahead of the bill's passage, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said, "Language in the pending supplemental budget legislation will allow the Highway Division to pay our snow plow contractors in full. As we all know, snow and ice operators are small businesses and are critical to maintaining our public safety."

Highway Administrator Frank DePaola said the snow and ice budget was $43 million and through the last storm, MassDOT spent about $71 million on snow and ice.

"We expect to be pretty much paid up through the end of December with most of our vendors this week," DePaola said, and the bill has a "boost of $50 million in it," which would leave about $23 million going forward.