Governor Maura Healey on Wednesday outlined an ambitious second-year agenda in the face of fiscal headwinds, pledging to ramp up spending on the MBTA, to help steel Massachusetts against climate disasters, and to overhaul how the state teaches children to read.
Healey sprinkled the promises throughout her first State of the Commonwealth address, a primetime platform during which she pressed her fellow Democrats to “go big now” to help residents stretched thin by the high cost of housing.
The first-term Democrat laid out a series of proposals, urging the Legislature to embrace universal pre-K across the state and touting an effort to make Massachusetts a world leader in the climate tech industry.
She simultaneously cast her administration as prepared to tackle the state’s most stubborn problems — soaring child care costs, a beleaguered public transportation system, and outdated literacy instruction — at a time when Massachusetts is confronting an uncertain revenue picture.
“We need to be smart with how we spend our money — your money,” Healey said. “The good news is: Our economy and our fiscal health are strong.”
Most of the proposals Healey announced Wednesday included spending more money, not less, just weeks after she slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from state programs and earmarks for this fiscal year. She said her administration will propose to “double our support for MBTA operations,” and also fund permanent, reduced fares for low-income T riders, the latter of which could cost tens of millions of dollars a year.
The MBTA currently receives a portion of the state’s sales tax, but also relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in other state funding. Many details — including how much money it will take to realize her plans, or where the funds would come from — won’t be clear until she files her state budget plan that’s due next week.
The goal, Healey said, is “to build a system worthy of our economy.”
“Congested roads and slow trains steal our time and our joy,” she said. “It’s frustrating. . . . I promise, under my administration, we aren’t kicking the can down the road any longer.”
She and other elected officials also expressed confidence in Healey’s hand-picked general manager, Phil Eng, the very mention of whom drew a round of applause from the packed House chamber.
“In eight months of Phil Eng and Governor Healey’s leadership, more has gotten done than in eight years before” under former governor Charlie Baker, said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who wore a “T” token necklace to the address.
Healey also outlined plans to spend an unspecified amount of money, over five years, to overhaul how schools in Massachusetts teach literacy. She said the state would ensure schools use “the right materials” to teach reading and mandate that educator training programs teach evidence-based instruction.
A Globe investigation found that fewer than half of public school third-graders in Massachusetts can read proficiently, and among hundreds of districts for which the Globe obtained data, almost half used a reading curriculum in kindergarten through third grade last year that the state classified as low quality.
“Our schools are the best,” Healey said, “but not for every student.”
Healey also said she plans to propose additional funding for local road and bridge work, and to create a permanent Disaster Relief Resiliency Fund.
Healey also sketched plans to spur the state’s climate technology industry, framing the effort as one that would make Massachusetts the “climate innovation lab for the world.” Healey is expected to use an upcoming economic development bill to supercharge the quasi-public Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, though what level of funding she’s willing to commit was not clear Wednesday.
The much-anticipated speech helped solidify her priorities three months after she signed a sweeping $1 billion tax relief package, realizing her most prominent promise from the campaign trail.
This year, legislative leaders are already sizing up a $4 billion housing bill the first-term Democrat filed, as well as a newly announced proposal to dramatically expand child care options in more than two dozen cities that she is expected to tuck into her upcoming budget plan.
She also hinted at a larger plan for universal pre-K, saying in her address that she eventually wants access for every 4-year-old in Massachusetts.
“Let’s do it,” she told legislators.
Healey cited both child care and housing as among the most important issues to tackle this year, and called passing her housing bill “our top priority.” A legislative committee is scheduled to take testimony Thursday on the bill.
Home prices have climbed to unforeseen heights, and a shortage of available housing stock has boxed many out of the dream of home ownership. Those escalating costs have helped drive tens of thousands from the state in recent years, and some still are calculating a move to lower-cost locales.
“This isn’t just a few unlucky people,” Healey said. “It’s the heart of our workforce. It’s the soul of our communities. It’s the future of our state. . . . To get costs down, we have to go big, and we have to go big now.”
Her ability, and the Legislature’s, to realize all those initiatives could cut against a darkening financial picture.
Healey this month slashed $375 million from the current budget amid underperforming tax collections, and officials now project the state will take in less tax revenue next fiscal year than they had planned for the current one.
Despite the slowing revenue, House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano said there won’t be a need to raise taxes to accommodate Healey’s myriad spending proposals.
“Life goes on. We’re not raising taxes. We just lowered taxes,” he told reporters outside the House chamber Wednesday after Healey’s speech. “We’re not schizophrenic.”
Healey is also projecting the state will spend nearly $1 billion both this fiscal year and next on an emergency shelter system that has absorbed thousands of new migrants. Her administration has told lawmakers she intends to file a proposal to dip into the state’s surplus account to help cover the mounting costs, though some legislative leaders are already fretting over pouring more money into the system.
“Massachusetts did not create this problem,” Healey said. “We will continue to demand Congress take action to fix the border and get us funding.”
Healey and lawmakers do have some financial options. The governor’s upcoming budget proposal, slated to be unveiled next week, will include ideas on how to spend $1.3 billion state officials expect to raise through the so-called millionaires tax, the new surtax on annual income over $1 million. The revenue is designed to support new spending for education and transportation.
Her plan to spur new housing relies on borrowed money, not the state’s operating budget.
But Beacon Hill Republicans cast a more dire picture. State Senator Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican who delivered the minority party’s response to Healey’s address, said the state has to more forcefully respond to the influx of migrants by reshaping the right to shelter law that, for decades, has guaranteed eligible homeless families a place to stay.
“We can have a brighter future in Massachusetts if we come together to solve the financial burden taking over our state,” Durant said.