By STEVE LeBLANC Associated Press
BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey unveiled a proposed $55.5 billion state budget on Wednesday — a plan that would increase spending by more than 4% over the current fiscal year while offering insights into the Democrat’s priorities during her first year in office.
One of those priorities is Healey’s campaign promise to cover the cost of community college for all Massachusetts residents age 25 years and older who have not yet earned a college degree or industry credential.
Healey’s budget also outlines how she thinks Massachusetts should spend an estimated $1 billion in extra revenue the state is expected to collect this year after voters last November approved a so-called “millionaire tax” amendment to the state constitution.
“For us, this starts with making Massachusetts more affordable,” Healey said. “It means relieving the very real financial burdens placed on our residents who enjoy being here and want to stay here.”
Healey’s plan would offer students financial support to help cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies as well as provide funding for career and support services, according to Healey.
The $20 million proposal, which Healey dubbed MassReconnect during her campaign last year, would also include investments in other education and workforce development programs and apprenticeship initiatives.
Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka has called for the state to make community college free for all students.
The new $1 billion in estimated revenue from the “millionaire tax” — which imposes a 4% surtax on the portion of an individual’s annual income that exceeds $1 million — is split nearly evenly between transportation and education programs in Healey’s budget.
Healey’s plan drew criticism from the group that had pushed for the millionaire’s tax, also known as the “Fair Share Amendment.”
Leaders of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of unions and community groups, credited Healey for not trying to divert the new tax dollars away from education and transportation even as they criticized her tax relief package.
Healey’s tax-cutting plan includes nearly $400 million in tax cuts targeted at the ultra-rich and “would ultimately undermine the Fair Share Amendment’s goals of a fairer tax system and greater investment in critical public goods,” the group said in a written statement.
On Monday, Healey unveiled the $742 million tax-relief proposal she said would provide savings for families, renters, seniors and others. The proposal was filed with lawmakers Wednesday along with the budget.
Healey’s proposed budget drew criticism from conservative voices.
“This budget doesn’t include broad based tax cuts and tax eliminations that Massachusetts desperately needs to compete with states like New Hampshire and Florida. Instead, it explodes state spending,” said Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.
Among the education programs in Healey’s budget is an initiative that would help stabilize higher education expenses by locking in costs like tuition and fees for each incoming class of students at the University of Massachusetts and state universities through graduation.
New spending on transportation would be focused in part on major projects like ongoing efforts to create a passenger rail link connecting Boston and western Massachusetts. The budget would also set aside $5 million to look at income-based public transit fares.
During her inaugural speech in January, Healey said her first budget “will include funding to hire 1,000 additional workers focused on the operation of the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) within the first year of our administration.”
Budget officials said the money to hire the workers is already in place at the MBTA, but the administration is ready to help with the process of finding new workers. The transit system is suffering from a shortage orf workers, including drivers, which has contributed to bus and subway delays.
Healey’s budget proposal also recommends setting aside about $20 million to provide those incarcerated in state prisons with up to 1,000 minutes of free phone calls per month. Advocates have argued that allowing prisoners to maintain contact with family and friends will help them integrate back into society when they are released.
The release of Healey’s budget kicks off the long process of crafting a final state budget for the 2024 fiscal year that begins July 1.