With Democrats united, Healey signs $56b budget
Calls spending plan ‘a product of shared values and deep collaborative partnership’
GOV. MAURA HEALEY on Wednesday signed into law her first state budget, setting a different tone than the Republican who held the corner office for the previous eight years.
She invited Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano to join her at the signing ceremony, signaling a united front among the top three Democrats on Beacon Hill. It was a departure from past practice under former governor Charlie Baker; Mariano called it a new precedent.
Overall, the $56 billion budget gives all three Democrats items they can crow about. Healey trumpeted a measure she initiated to cover “last-dollar funding” so students over age 25 can attend community college for free. She also highlighted a big boost in funding (1 percent of the state budget) for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the largest increase ever in K-12 school funding, and a 48 percent increase in funds for the state’s emergency shelter program.
Spilka heralded a measure granting in-state tuition rates and state financial aid at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts to undocumented students who have attended high school for three years or obtained their general equivalence degree.
The speaker also heralded a pilot program that provides access to low or no-cost health insurance through ConnectorCare for families with incomes at 500 percent of the federal poverty level, rather than the previous 300 percent. Mariano said the provision would benefit 50,000 families.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, was critical of the pilot program, saying it would provide government-subsidized health care to a family of four with income of $150,000. “Will the Legislature really allow this to expire after two years?” he asked.
Healey did not criticize the Legislature for getting the budget to her a month after the start of the fiscal year or for failing to pass a tax cut package before its August recess. (The budget sets aside roughly $580 million for future tax relief.)
Instead, Healey praised the product the Legislature delivered.
“The bottom line, this is a budget that meets the moment here in Massachusetts and sets our state up for success,” she said. “It’s a product of shared values and deep collaborative partnership.”
Just looking at the numbers, Healey vetoed $276 million in spending, far more than Baker vetoed in the previous four years combined. But a closer look indicates the spending she vetoed was the expenditure of one-time money left over from earlier state surpluses and federal aid. Healey said she didn’t think it was appropriate to use one-time money to fund ongoing programs.
Mariano didn’t seem upset, suggesting an override was unlikely. “The [money] that they vetoed was understandable – their logic behind it,” he said. “Our logic was that it freed up some money that we could now use for programs that needed immediate help.”
For example, she pushed back to December 31 the effective date for a provision making prison phone calls free to inmates. She called the change a product of “collective common sense.”
By contrast, Baker filed 41 amendments to the Legislature’s budget last year as he tried to bring a body controlled by Democrats around to his way of thinking on a variety of issues.
For example, he filed an amendment to free prison calls legislation that was contained in last year’s budget. The amendment married the free-phone-call measure to a criminal justice initiative Baker favored and the Legislature had refused to take up.The tone of Baker’s veto letter was very different from Healey’s. “Providing free phone calls, a benefit our state government provides to no one else, to inmates while dismissing the pleas of victims of crime is contrary to the traditions of, and frankly beneath the dignity of, the Massachusetts Legislature,” Baker wrote.
As a result of Baker’s amendment, neither measure moved forward last year.