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Healey's $55B budget boosts public higher education, green energy

 Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey talks through details of her fiscal 2024 budget proposal at a Statehouse news conference Wednesday, which included her budget chief Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz, at right.
Sam Doran
State House News Service
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey talks through details of her fiscal 2024 budget proposal at a Statehouse news conference Wednesday, which included her budget chief Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz, at right.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey's first state budget is a $55.5 billion package described as a "down payment" on the governor's goals of making Massachusetts a more affordable place to live, driving the state's decarbonization push and addressing the impacts of climate change, and preparing students for careers in an evolving economy.

The bottom line for fiscal year 2024 spending represents a 4.1 percent increase over the current year's budget as originally adopted last summer, exactly the same growth rate that the administration and lawmakers expect to see from state revenues in fiscal 2024 when accounting for $1 billion from the state's new income surtax.

That $1 billion from the surtax on income in excess of $1 million will go under Healey's plans towards education ($510 million) and transportation ($490 million) and Administration and Finance Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz said that some of the investments the new governor's first budget (H 1) proposes in those areas "would be very challenging" to have made without the new revenue stream.

On the education side, Healey is proposing to use the surtax money to pay for $100 million in child care grants to providers, $140 million in higher education capital funding, a $20 million free community college program, a $93 million expansion of a state scholarship program, a $59 million effort to stabilize tuition and fees at UMass and other public higher education institutions, and more. The proposed package includes a program that would pay for community college in full for residents 25 years old or older.

Kevin Babic is a student at Greenfield Community College and lives with his family to save money.

Babic, 25, said he may be biased but, but Healey's program isn't a cost for taxpayers. He said the state funds that would fully cover tuition, books and supplies and is an investment and a game changer.

"Something like this would really be able to help me and students like me who have kind of figured out what it is we are trying to do and just need that extra instrumental or financial support so they can focus more on their classes and not have to focus on say, their bills," he said.

Healey's proposed higher education spending is part of her attempt to get more people working and address the state's labor shortage.

Including the surtax investments, higher education would be in line for an increase of $371 million or 23 percent in the Healey budget. That includes a 3 percent increase to the base funding for each higher education segment, including the University of Massachusetts system.

"Governor Healey and Lt. Governor Driscoll have made a bold statement about the importance of the University of Massachusetts to the socio-economic future of the Commonwealth," UMass President Marty Meehan said. "These transformational investments would expand access to our world-class education and enhance the impact of our statewide research enterprise. On behalf of the UMass community of 74,000 students, 17,000 faculty and staff, and 500,000 alumni, we thank the Healey-Driscoll administration for their commitment to UMass."

For transportation, the surtax revenues would go towards $181 million in MBTA capital investments, launching a $100 million municipal partnership program, providing $100 million for highway bridge maintenance and preservation, and making $25 million available in regional transit funding and grants.

The budget plan also ratchets up funding for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which sits at the center of the state's efforts to reduce carbon emissions to a net-zero level by 2050 and to electrify buildings, vehicles and more.

EEA would get $543.6 million under Healey's budget -- an increase of $105.2 million or 24 percent that would allow the secretariat to hire 240 new staff members. The administration said it would be the first time that an annual state budget dedicates at least 1 percent of its total to EEA.

After watching state revenues surge nearly 40 percent over the last two fiscal years, accommodating a nearly 11 percent increase in spending in the current budget, the administration and Legislature are preparing for a "slowcession" over the next year and a half -- not a downturn from the elevated revenue levels, but a definite handbrake on the eye-popping increases of recent years.

Ahead of Wednesday's official filing of the complete budget, Healey previewed many of the central elements of her first spending plan.

She told local officials she would propose a total of $8.36 billion for local aid programs, which the administration said would be a $635 million or 8.2 percent increase over the final budget Gov. Charlie Baker signed for fiscal 2023. Along with $1.26 billion for general government aid (a $24.6 million or 2 percent increase), cities and towns would share $6.585 billion in Chapter 70 school funding (a $586 million or 9.8 percent boost) under Healey's plan.

The Healey administration said the Chapter 70 total it proposed represents full funding of the Student Opportunity Act school finance reform law passed in 2019 and, if enacted, would be the largest increase since at least 1999. The fiscal 2024 state budget will mark the third budget cycle for the Student Opportunity Act, which aims to address education equity gaps with $1.5 billion in new funds rolled out over a seven-year span.

She also telegraphed her plan to ask lawmakers to allocate $20 million to create MassReconnect, a program that will "offer students last-dollar financial support to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies as well as provide funding for career and wraparound support services to encourage retention and degree-completion."

And Healey earlier this week also rolled out a tax relief and reform package that could swell to cost as much as $1 billion annually.

Jill Kauffman from NEPM contributed to this report.

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