Gov. Maura Healey reflects on her first year in office
Her first year in office is winding down, and Gov. Maura Healey is enthusiastic to point out where she thinks she has succeeded: signing into law a billion-dollar tax relief package, overseeing a hiring blitz at the MBTA, and creating a standalone housing secretariat, to name a few.
She is less eager about providing specifics on how she will try to guide the state in the next year through some of its most pressing challenges, such as an emergency shelter crisis that now features a system packed with about 7,500 families and more than 200 more on a waitlist or what, exactly, might be the best way to rein in exorbitant child care costs.
Healey named action to make housing more affordable —something she targeted with a $4.1 billion housing bond bill that has not yet moved in the Legislature — and her administration's economic development plan as top priorities headed into 2024.
Emergency Shelter Woes
One of the biggest challenges Healey faced during her first year was the sudden swell of new entrants into the state's emergency shelter system.
The topic has grabbed statewide and national attention, as Massachusetts joined other states in taking in thousands of new immigrants fleeing humanitarian crises in Central and South America and Europe.
The state has struggled to keep up with soaring demand for shelter over the past year. After 40 years of Massachusetts being the only state in the country to guarantee a safe place to stay for every eligible family, Healey said the system had run out of room this fall, and capped the number of families shelters could hold at 7,500.
As of Tuesday, 242 families were on a waitlist standing by for a call to tell them a space has opened up in the shelter system. The state has worked with a patchwork of charities and public institutions to try to provide a bed for people without a place to stay as they've been turned away into cold weather.
Asked Wednesday if she was confident that everyone on the waitlist was successfully finding a place to stay, Healey did not explicitly say yes.
"Let's just zoom out and recognize what's going on here," the governor said. "We're seeing numbers that we have never seen before in our shelter system. And let's look at what happened. I mean, we have a situation geopolitically that's resulted in so many people coming into this country who are fleeing abuse and persecution and hardship."
Healey pointed out that these immigrants are in the state lawfully, but many are prohibited from working due to federal immigration policy. She said her administration has been focused on getting work authorizations for these individuals, pointing to clinics the state and federal officials hosted a few weeks ago to help accelerate the process.
"We're going to get people working, we're housing people now. The shelter system, of course, exists around the state, right? There's shelters and housing, through the emergency shelter system, around the state. So that's the existing infrastructure," Healey said. "We have tried to stand up, particularly from March forward, sites that would accommodate the numbers that we were seeing."
She continued, "People have worked really, really hard, and I think, you know -- I just want to express my gratitude to so many in Massachusetts and the partnerships that we've had to keep people housed and work through what really is an unprecedented occurrence that we're seeing here in Massachusetts and in this country."
The governor said the administration is working to stand up a state-run overflow site, as mandated by the Legislature in a spending bill she signed earlier this month.
Asked for more details, such as when and where it would be stood up and how many beds it would have for shelter-seekers, Healey deferred to retired Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, the administration's emergency assistance director. Rice will have more details soon, she said.
Lawmakers directed another $250 million towards the shelter system in a supplemental budget, though there is some uncertainty about just how far that money will go.
Top House and Senate Democrats have said they believe the additional $250 million will keep the system funded only into the spring, signaling that another debate and vote on the topic might be necessary even before completion of the next annual budget.
Asked how long the current allocation will support the system, and if she was planning to file another supplemental request for shelter funds before fiscal year 2024 ends, Healey responded, "I think this is a fluid situation."
"We continue to monitor where we're at in terms of numbers," she said.
The News Service asked, "Do you think that the money you have now is enough to get through the fiscal year? Because it seems as if the Ways and Means chairmen don't think that's the case. Are they under a different impression than you?"
"I think we're all looking at the same numbers and we're continuing to share information real time about what's happening," Healey responded. "We're just going to continue to work on this problem. It's a problem not unique to Massachusetts. I mean, other states are dealing with this, and it's why we need immigration reform. It's also why we need to continue to press for funding and support from the Biden administration to help us."
Healey came into office with the MBTA in disarray, looming as a potential albatross for her administration.
The problems are still there, but the new leadership team Healey picked has sought to put plans in place to fix some of the most glaring issues. A series of rolling partial closures will disrupt riders throughout 2024 with a goal of lifting all of speed restrictions that currently slow down travel for riders and blanket more than a fifth of the subway system.
"Obviously, there's going to be some pain points with all this because we're going to have to shut down certain lines while we fix them, and then we're going to work this problem," Healey said. "We're going to move through it and we're going to look to get the contractors in place to make sure that we're working through this as quickly as possible."
As its leaders wrestle with restoring some semblance of reliable service, the MBTA continues to face financial uncertainty. Agency budget-writers project they will have an operating budget deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars in the next few years, and the T newly estimates it would cost $24.5 billion to achieve a state of good repair for all of its assets.
Healey and Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt have raised eyebrows in recent weeks with comments that suggest an interest in reopening debate on how the state funds transportation. Tibbits-Nutt said in November that "we want to bring in additional sources of revenue," and Healey told WBUR last week that talks are already underway with the Legislature and unnamed stakeholders about "revenue for larger investments in infrastructure in the long term."
While sitting down with the News Service, Healey said she is not planning to pursue any new taxes to fund MBTA investments.
"I'm not proposing that right now, no," she said. "What I'm proposing is that we focus on and we work the plan that we're working on right now."
Healey pointed out that "we do have new revenue" coming in from the voter-approved surtax on high earners, which is designed to be earmarked just for education and transportation uses. The Department of Revenue estimated last week that the surtax will generate between $1.58 billion and $2.06 billion in revenue this fiscal year, significantly more than the $1 billion allocated in the state budget.
Asked if the MBTA has access to enough resources to achieve a state of good repair, Healey replied, "I believe so."
"Certainly in the first instance, and then the instance of accomplishing what we need to do right now, which is to make the system safe and reliable and running on time and at speeds that people are actually going to use the T," she continued.
Early Care's Importance
In Healey's inaugural address last January, she pledged that Massachusetts would be the first state to solve the child care crisis.
"Let's finally pass legislation in line with Common Start to make sure that every family pays what they can afford. This is something that our families, our workers, our businesses all agree on," she said in her first speech as governor.
The Common Start bill (S 301 / H 489) would largely subsidize expensive early childhood education for more lower-income families, leading to huge increases in the percentage of young kids in such programs by reducing the cost burden for families. It also seeks to invest in the industry to keep teachers in the field -- and would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding every year.
All three of Beacon Hill's most powerful leaders have identified this as a priority, but it has gotten little traction this session. The Joint Committee on Education spent hours listening to testimony on the bill in mid-October, and it hasn't emerged from the committee since.
Healey spoke generally about her desire for action to make child care less expensive, calling it an "economic imperative" in the business community, but on Wednesday she did not repeat her inaugural endorsement of the Common Start proposal itself.
She said the state made significant investments in child care in last year's budget, and "we're going to continue to find ways to support providers and to lower the cost of child care in the state."
Pressed on whether she would like to see something like the Common Start bill specifically emerge for a vote this session, Healey said only that she and lawmakers agree on the importance of addressing child care costs.
"I'm going to continue to work with our legislative partners on this. I think we all recognize the need to drive down the cost of child care," she said. "I've supported Common Start, and I'll obviously review anything that gets to my desk, but in the meantime, let's focus on, as we have an opportunity to do through the next budget, continued investment in child care and lowering the cost of child care in the state."
Massachusetts has ambitious emission reduction targets. The state has committed to slashing greenhouse gas emissions 33 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, 75 percent by 2040 and at least 85 percent by 2050, all compared to the baseline of 1990 emissions.
And on the path to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the steepest reductions are envisioned to occur between 2025 and 2030 -- the first two years of which will fall during Healey's term.
The governor appointed a standalone climate chief responsible for organizing the climate change response across the executive branch and boosted environmental spending in the fiscal 2024 budget.
While the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has said the state is currently on track to hit decarbonization targets, Massachusetts has run into major renewable energy hurdles this year.
The Bay State once positioned itself as a national leader on offshore wind. Over the past year, developers behind the SouthCoast Wind and Commonwealth Wind projects have withdrawn -- with permission from the Department of Public Utilities -- saying they could no longer afford to finance and build the installations under previously agreed contracts, slashing the amount of wind capacity in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, delivery of hydropower from Quebec has been delayed and efforts to install solar panels and convert the grid to handle new power sources are inching forward.
While sitting down with the News Service, Healey said she is still confident that the state's 2030 and 2050 decarbonization targets are realistic.
"Yes, yes. Will it require some innovations and workarounds? Perhaps. We need to go as hard as we can, though, in this area," Healey said.
Healey's Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer recommended a host of climate policy ideas this year, including major reforms to Mass Save, building up the clean energy workforce, and even reducing "short hop" flights for trips such as between Boston and New York.
"We also are working with other states, and that's something that our secretary of EEA has really demonstrated tremendous leadership on," Healey said. "We've got a grid that needs to be modernized; we've got transmission lines that need to be built; and we've got energy sources that need to be brought in. These things cross state lines and cross state boundaries."
Healey's first year in office was also, by some metrics, a less productive and more sluggish stretch for the Legislature, which is already notorious for its procrastination.
Democrats who control the House and Senate notched a few major accomplishments, including a tax relief law that lawmakers were unable to complete under former Gov. Charlie Baker and policy reforms in the state budget like funding free school meals for all students.
But they also delivered Healey the second-latest annual budget since fiscal year 2002 and the second-latest closeout budget since the turn of the millennium. Legislative leaders spent long stretches of the year publicly sparring over how to advance gun-related legislation -- not so much the substance of the actual reforms -- and the joint committee process.
Other areas that Healey has identified as key, like housing production, are not exactly getting rapid responses.
Healey, who on the campaign trail said she would not be shy about calling out the Legislature, appears not to be sweating the way business has unfolded under the Golden Dome.
"Results matter, and I'm about how do we deliver results for people in this state," she replied when asked about the Legislature's pace of work.
Healey has already been drawing attention from national pundits as a future standard-bearer for the Democratic Party and a potential candidate for higher office.
A POLITICO Magazine profile of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offhandedly referred to Healey as one of a few new governors who might have eyes on a national post in 2028. When Healey recently took over a position helping to elect more women governors, NBC News described the role as "a national platform for one of the party's rising stars in state office."
The governor downplayed that commentary during her interview with the News Service.
"I'm laughing. Look, I am governor, and I'm so privileged to be governor here in the state and I pay no mind to any of that," she said.
Healey might still get involved in elections beyond the state's borders in 2024. She's campaigned for other Democrats in the past and "expect[s] that to continue," especially with her new role leading the Women Governors Fund for the Democratic Governors Association.
"I will do all I can to help President Biden," she said. "I know what's at stake in this election."