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Mass. Senate budget would make undocumented students eligible for in-state college tuition. Healey says it’s ‘a really good thing.’

The Massachusetts State House in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Massachusetts Senate leaders on Tuesday unveiled a $55.85 billion spending plan that echoes much of what the House and governor have already put forward but also would deliver a major policy change — allowing high school students without legal immigration status to qualify for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

The Senate’s budget also introduces other new proposals, including one that would tap so-called millionaires tax revenue to cover costs for students attending community college nursing programs, and another to create a loan repayment program for behavioral health workers.

It also includes a House-backed proposal to make phone calls free for the state’s incarcerated people.


The state Senate’s version of the budget, however, leaves out some key pieces championed by House lawmakers, like permanent free school lunch and funding for rail service between Boston and the western part of the state. The Senate also skipped a House proposal to make state lottery games available online, a proposal Governor Maura Healey later backed.

The budget, “reflects our values and priorities and a lot of what we want to accomplish over the coming year,” state Senate President Karen E. Spilka told reporters Tuesday.

There is still opportunity for the Senate proposal to change; senators may file amendments before a 2 p.m. Friday deadline. The Senate will start debating the bill and its accompanying amendments Monday, May 22.

In-state tuition

One of the most unique elements contained in the Senate’s budget plan is a proposal to make undocumented high schoolers eligible for in-state tuition rates at public colleges or universities in Massachusetts.

The proposal, which applies to any student who attends high school in state for at least three years, or who obtains a GED certificate, aims to increase college enrollment and address workforce shortages across the state. In doing so, Senate officials say the measure would remove a barrier to attending college for undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, a group they say contributes about $184 million in state and local taxes per year.


If passed, Massachusetts would join 23 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing students to qualify for in-state tuition rates.

“We are falling behind other states, including the red states,” Spilka told reporters Tuesday, noting that Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, are among those who have adopted such policies.

Officials did not provide an estimate of how many additional students might qualify under this change and said the change won’t come at a cost to the state.

At an unrelated event in Cambridge on Tuesday, Healey told reporters she “was pleased to see” the Senate’s proposal.

“That’s a really good thing,” she said, noting many of these undocumented students have lived their entire lives in Massachusetts. “You’ve seen so many states do it already.”

The Legislature approved a similar measure in an annual budget bill in 2004, but then-governor Mitt Romney a Republican, vetoed the measure.

In 2006, the House rejected a standalone bill that would have done the same. Those who voted “no” included now-Speaker Ronald J. Mariano, assistant majority leader Alice Peisch, and then-representative Michael J. Rodrigues, now the Senate’s budget chief, who introduced the policy Tuesday as a top priority.

Higher-earners tax

The Senate budget also marks the chamber’s first pass at how it would like to spend at least $1 billion in projected revenue from the so-called millionaires tax voters passed last fall.


The constitutional amendment increases the state’s 5 percent income tax rate to 9 percent on annual income exceeding $1 million, with all revenue required to flow to education and transportation initiatives.

The Senate budget proposes splitting the surtax dollars evenly between education and transportation. It also would establish a separate fund to account for the new revenue stream in an “open and transparent” way, Rodrigues told reporters Tuesday.

The Senate budget would spend the funds on a variety of investments, including $80 million for early education and care, $110 million for K-12 education programs, and $310 toward higher education. That dollar amount includes $55 million toward making community college free for those age 25 and older, including the $20 million for nursing students attending community college programs.

The Senate plan goes further than similar measures proposed by Healey and the House, which embraced spending $20 million to cover tuition costs for many residents 25 and older at the state’s 15 community colleges.

“We’ve heard from every healthcare provider and every hospital around the state,” Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, said. “There’s just not enough nurses.”

At least $500 million would go toward transit, including funds for capital projects in the MBTA, means-tested fare programs, grants for Regional Transit Authorities, and aid for roads and bridges.

Health care

The Senate budget also seeks to address a looming challenge facing MassHealth. In April, roughly one-third of the state’s population had to re-enroll in state-sponsored health insurance, a massive undertaking that state officials project will ultimately remove approximately 300,000 people from the MassHealth rolls.


The Senate budget includes an extra $5.1 million in funding for outreach to help people who were removed from the program transition to alternative health care coverage.

The Senate’s budget also highlights mental health, an issue Spilka has made a priority as Senate president. Lawmakers are proposing a $100 million loan repayment program for behavioral health care workers and $45 million in funding to support various unpaid work, like clinical hours required for internships or supervision of interns and providers-in-training. It also includes $3 million for one-time training or practice costs such as exam preparation.


The Senate proposed pouring $1.05 billion into housing, including a House- and Healey-backed proposal to spend $324 million to bolster the state’s strained emergency assistance family shelter program. Similar to the House, the Senate would dedicate $195 million for a rental assistance program that would offer $7,000 per household in assistance each year; Healey had proposed allowing $7,000 every two years.

Echoing the House’s proposal, the Senate’s budget would also revive and make permanent a pandemic-era renter protection law, which would slow down the court process in eviction proceedings in cases where the tenant has applied for rental assistance.

The Legislature allowed the original — but temporary — measure to expire at the end of March despite pleas from homeless and housing advocates to keep it in place until at least July of next year.


Early education

The Senate’s plan for the state’s child care sector hews closely to the House’s, with one notable difference.

The House proposed $490 million in Commonwealth Cares for Children funding, known among providers as “C3″ grants — a bump over the $475 million the Senate and Healey both proposed. House leaders suggest paying for roughly half of the grants using millionaires tax revenue and revenue generated by allowing the lottery to sell its products online.

The Senate does not include a proposal to allow online lottery sales; rather it would fund its $475 million grant program through the state’s general fund and a trust fund dedicated to early education and care.

Tax relief?

While both Healey and the House also unveiled tax code overhauls to accompany their budget proposals, the Senate is not quite there yet.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday leaves room for about $575 million for tax relief investments, but a concrete plan won’t be released until “after the budget,” Spilka told reporters Monday.

Rodrigues said a package will be released “soon after the budget is done,” and that the price tag will be “in the same ballpark” as the House’s plan.

“But we don’t know what it’s going to be,” he said.

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from State House News Service was also included.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at Follow her @samanthajgross.