Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano indicated Wednesday that lawmakers could begin tackling the exorbitant costs of child care in Massachusetts “right away,” if in a more limited fashion than advocates have sought.
The Quincy Democrat’s remarks offered a window into how the Legislature could address an issue many parents say demands sweeping change and traditionally has been met with sticker shock by policy makers.
With roughly four months left in the legislative session, State House leaders have touted the need for — but have yet to formally debate — legislation to reshape a child-care system plagued by costs that, by some measures, are the highest in the country and are coupled with low early educator salaries.
A special legislative commission formed to study early education said a raft of recommendations it produced this month could cost up to $1.5 billion annually. Advocates have pushed other legislation to create a universal early education system, potentially at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The price tag for sweeping changes can be a “bit staggering,” Mariano said during a State House News Service-sponsored forum Wednesday with Senate President Karen E. Spilka. But he suggested that lawmakers could take certain elements of the proposals to “do right away,” including in the state budget proposal the House will debate next month.
“To say we’re going to roll out a billion dollars … it may not be the instant solution that we need for this problem. This problem is immediate,” Mariano said, calling sky-high child-care costs a hurdle for people reentering the workforce at a time when employers say they are struggling to fill jobs.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily going to take a bill to implement the whole thing,” he said. “There are things that we might be able to do in the budget … There are a lot of things in there that can be done independently.”
Legislative leaders have long suggested addressing child-care costs remains a focus before formal sessions end July 31, but the details have been murky, including when they’d take up a potential proposal and how the state would pay for any wide-ranging changes.
Mariano’s comments offered the first sense of how lawmakers in the House could pursue it, potentially absent omnibus legislation. But it’s also unclear if the approach would also satisfy advocates who have pushed for wholesale, transformative changes to a system that became even harder for parents to navigate amid the pandemic.
The average annual cost for infant care in Massachusetts is more than $20,000, and on average families spend 30 percent more on infant and toddler care than they do on rent, according to the legislative commission’s study.
“Child care is just like infrastructure. We need to do this,” Spilka said Wednesday, without detailing how the Senate might address it.
Mariano and Spilka touched on a variety of other issues in a wide-ranging hour-long forum, including commitments on other bills that could cement the legislative calendar in the coming months.
Mariano said the House would tackle legislation on mental health care access in the coming months, aligning with one of Spilka’s main priorities. The Senate late last year passed its own sprawling bill, which included language requiring free annual mental health exams and carving out funding to recruit thousands of new mental health professionals.
The House would pursue its own legislation, Mariano said, but promised it would “complement and combine” with the Senate’s bill.
“Mental health has always been the poor stepchild that’s been dragged along as just part of the changes” to other parts of the healthcare system, Mariano said. “It is a significant segment of the health care economy that’s been neglected.”
Spilka indicated the Senate will also tackle climate change-focused legislation, including one helping bolster the state’s offshore wind industry, potentially by Earth Day on April 22. “We’ll see if we can do it. That is the hope,” the Ashland Democrat said.
Mariano also said he is endorsing Attorney General Maura Healey in her two-way Democratic gubernatorial primary with state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, citing a years-long working relationship on healthcare-related issues.
Spilka, who counts Chang-Díaz as a colleague in the Senate, said she was not endorsing “at this time.”