Bay State court order seen as plus for homeless. But legislature could refuse to go along

A court order instructing the Massachusetts governor to ask the state legislature for more welfare funds is being considered a victory for the homeless - even though the order ultimately lacks teeth. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on Tuesday does not actually require the state to spend a penny in additional money. It simply says that Gov. Michael Dukakis must submit to the legislature a welfare budget that will enable recipients to live in their own homes rather than in temporary shelters or motels.

Activists say that welfare benefits in Massachusetts are 40 percent below the federal poverty line.

But the legislature could just say, ``Sorry Duke.''

It could even repeal the 1913 law upon which the court based its decision. Because it is based on this unique Massachusetts law, moreover, the decision has little if any immediate effect on people in other states who can't afford housing.

Nevertheless, advocates for the homeless in Massachusetts are calling the decision an important victory. While it doesn't make the legislature lay out any cash, it ``shifts the frame of the debate,'' says Robert Schaeffer, a consultant to low-income groups and former research director to the Joint Legislative Committee on Human Services.

In past years, Mr. Schaeffer says, the Massachusetts governor would request, say, a 6 percent increase for welfare recipients, even though housing and other costs were increasing much more rapidly than that. The legislature would tack a little on, but it would still not be enough to cover escalating rents.

Now, however, the governor has to start the bargaining at a much higher funding level. ``It's Civics 101,'' says Lucy Williams, the lawyer who represented the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless in the case. ``Once the administration asks for a 25 percent funding increase, the ballpark is totally changed.''

The decision is likely to spur a more-intense debate over the whole issue of housing costs, in a state where these have been exploding since 1984.

If the legislature were to go along with the decision tomorrow, then welfare costs could increase by $500 million or even more, doubling what the state spends now. (The federal government picks up half of these costs.)

Currently, a mother with two children is getting $550 a month. Under the decision, that amount would increase to roughly $926 a month.

In the Boston area, a two-bedroom apartment renting for $800 is considered a bargain.

But the decision left open the possibility of alternatives to bigger welfare payments. That could refocus attention on such measures as housing production and even rent control, housing activists say.

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