Governor Charlie Baker, a second-term Republican who first ran more than a decade ago on calls to cut Massachusetts residents’ taxes, on Tuesday said he will pursue a wide-ranging package of tax breaks for low-income workers, renters, and seniors that could come to define his final months in office.
Baker announced the proposals during his last State of the Commonwealth address, using the widely televised speech to implore the Democratic-dominated Legislature to buy into changes he said are about making the state’s tax code fairer and enhancing its competitive position.
“We’ve asked the people of Massachusetts to do a lot these past few years,” Baker told hundreds of attendees who gathered at the Hynes Convention Center. “It’s time to invest in Massachusetts families, to give them back some of the tax revenue that they created through their hard work.”
Among the most dramatic-sounding proposals he sketched Tuesday was one to “eliminate income taxes” for the lowest-paid 230,000 taxpayers in the state, framing it as a way to soften the hit on those stretching to pay for necessities such as food, housing, and transportation in the face of rising prices.
He also said he’d seek to double the tax break people can claim on children and dependents; offer renters a “bigger tax break” on their monthly payments; and give seniors a break on property taxes and “make our estate tax more competitive with the rest of the country.”
Baker’s pronouncements were short on specifics, making it impossible to determine how much the changes could save residents. He intends to file detailed proposals as part of his final state budget plan on Wednesday.
But on their face, they appear to collectively represent the most sweeping tax changes Baker has pursued since he took office in January 2015, and if passed, they could frame both his final year and the legacy he wants to leave as a Republican governor who campaigned on holding the line on spending in a deep-blue state.
Baker said in December that he would not seek an unprecedented third consecutive four-year term.
As in past addresses, Baker laced Tuesday’s speech with appeals for bipartisanship, knowing he’ll need approval from the Legislature to realize the plans.
Asked about their appetite for the tax breaks Baker proposed, Democratic legislative leaders were noncommittal Tuesday, saying they would wait to see the details.
“We realize that people are still hurting from COVID, so we’ll take a hard look,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said.
House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano said the Legislature has to make sure that any tax breaks target those who need it most. “The devil is always in the detail in these things,” he said.
Baker also advocated for a batch of public safety bills he’s repeatedly filed, including one to outlaw so-called revenge porn or the nonconsensual sharing of sexually explicit photos or videos. And he cited a desire to push legislation addressing the treatment of mental health in the state’s health care system, a priority he shares with many legislators.
It’s his tax proposals, however, that will likely dominate discussion about state spending in the days and weeks ahead.
Baker hasn’t sought permanent, broad-based tax cuts during his seven years in office, despite once supporting slicing the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent — as an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2010 — and voicing support for reducing it during his 2018 reelection campaign.
He last year pitched a two-month sales tax “holiday” to give residents a New Hampshire-style break on most consumer goods while the state basked in billions of dollars in unexpected revenue. But the idea died in the Legislature almost as soon as Baker proposed it.
His new proposals come as the state is facing the potential for another hefty surplus by the end of the fiscal year, and as inflation squeezes people’s spending power even further.
Consumer prices nationally have surged 7 percent over the past year, the fastest pace of inflation in nearly 40 years. Massachusetts is also already among the costliest states in the country for child care or to retire, and prices in the greater Boston housing market set a new record last year.
Baker said his proposals are a bid to not only help those struggling, but encourage people to stay in the state. “The pandemic has proven that we now live in a new world where people have more flexibility about where they live and work,” he said.
He’s now asking Democratic leaders for buy-in just months after they voted to advance a measure to the November ballot that would raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and spur billions in more revenue.
There was also an emotional emphasis in Tuesday’s address, during which Baker waxed about the seven-plus years since he became Massachusetts’ 72nd governor on a chilly January day in 2015.
He claimed victories in fixing the state’s Health Connector and touted the state’s embrace of offshore wind. He also said his administration “rescued a bankrupt and unaccountable” MBTA following the devastating winter of 2015 — an assertion Democrats and transit advocates may challenge given the T’s continued problems.
Baker also underscored that he accomplished many things with Democratic legislators’ help. And he took the opportunity to go off-script. Greeting US Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, Boston’s former Democratic mayor with whom he forged a close working relationship, Baker said, “I miss you, man.”
And as he began to recite the administration’s accomplishments, he warned a laughing audience: “It’s a long list, folks.”
But like most of the last two years, Baker’s address was consumed at times by the pandemic. He has faced questions about how he intends to navigate the ever-prevalent virus, both in the interim as Omicron continues to rack the state’s hospitals and before handing the reins of the state to his successor less than 12 months from now.
Baker described the state and his administration as being nimble over the last 22 months, navigating unprecedented challenges to limit the virus’s impact and eventually get more than 80 percent of eligible residents fully vaccinated. He said the state is a “national leader,” which prompted a standing ovation from the crowd of political luminaries.
“Together, we set the course for a comeback — and it’s working,” Baker said.
The confines of the speech also veered from tradition, shifting from the Massachusetts House chamber to the downtown convention center in an effort to safely house the hundreds of people in attendance amid the pandemic. It also moved because the State House remains closed to the public nearly two years after legislative leaders shuttered it at the onset of the pandemic.
After Baker’s address, hundreds of attendees gathered for a reception, mingling at the bar, over a selection of passed hors d’oeuvres, and at buffet stations offering a selection of sliders, as well as three varieties of mac and cheese.
The response to Baker’s speech from Democrats seeking to succeed him was muted. Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said Baker did not show “urgency” in his speech, particularly in addressing the pandemic.
Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor and Cambridge Democrat, said it was “good to see” Baker propose the tax breaks, but that there was still more to do to lower the cost of living for residents.
And Attorney General Maura Healey offered no critiques, saying she was “honored” to be at the address and to hear Baker’s “message of collaboration and resilience on the part of so many across Massachusetts.”
Baker, as he has in nearly every State of the Commonwealth speech, said it’s collaboration and trust that matter, reminding those in the room that at a time when much of the public dialogue is designed “to manipulate facts and to pull people apart,” political leaders in Massachusetts have found ways to work together.
“Trust,” he said, “is where possibility in public life comes from.”