Competitiveness is watchword on Beacon Hill, but what does it mean?
House, Senate, and Healey have different definitions on some key issues
BEACON HILL’S favorite buzzword these days is “competitiveness,” but the meaning isn’t always the same among the three big players in state government and their different approaches to the topic are shaping the upcoming budget debate.
The Senate appears to be leaning into its more liberal reputation in defining competitiveness, proposing beefy investments in human capital with free community college and a more welcoming approach to undocumented students. The House, meanwhile, has tacked toward tax breaks as a way to make the state more competitive. Gov. Maura Healey seems game for a grab bag of policies.
A change to in-state tuition rules, long sidelined by the Legislature, is included in the Senate’s $55.8 billion initial version of the budget. If a student attends a Massachusetts high school for three years and graduates or achieves the equivalent degree, the Senate proposal would allow them to pay in-state tuition rates at public institutions regardless of their immigration status.
In remarks after the budget announcement, Senate President Karen Spilka said the tuition change was more than a moral move. “Twenty-three states plus DC already have this,” she said. “We need to be competitive as well.”
Healey is “supportive of efforts to provide in-state tuition to students who are living in MA and going to high school here,” spokesperson Karissa Hand said in a statement. “Expanding access to education and training is also important to address our workforce needs.”
The Senate budget also steers a bigger chunk of money toward free community college than the House. Like the House plan, it allocates $20 million for Mass Reconnect, a Healey proposal to make community college free for those age 25 and older. But it also throws in another $35 million to build out the program generally and specifically train more nurses, at a time where health care providers are hammered by workforce shortages.
Meanwhile, House leadership has leaned on tax relief to make Massachusetts, as Mariano put it last month, “more competitive with other states.” The House tax plan mirrors what Healey proposed with cuts in capital gains and estate taxes along with breaks for elders, renters, and caregivers, and tosses in two other measures, one benefitting low-income residents and one for businesses.
Spilka says the Senate will seek “permanent progressive tax relief that is smart and sustainable,” which remains a bit of a mystery in the face of an April tax revenue downturn.
Even online Lottery sales have created a competitiveness flashpoint. The Senate, at this point, isn’t biting on a House pitch to boost early education and childcare by allowing online lottery sales. While supporters of the plan say it would generate $200 million for child-centered grant programs, Senate leaders opted to fund them through other sources at a slightly lower amount. “We think it needs more time to be vetted,” Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues said of online Lottery.The House is pushing online Lottery sales, while Healey has jumped on board in part because she is concerned the state’s gambling enterprise can’t compete against DraftKings and other online sports betting operations.
As always, the chambers will need to hash out their philosophical and practical differences in a conference committee, and it remains to be seen if they can find common ground on the best ways to keep the state competitive.