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The State of the Commonwealth and the Healey Governorship One Year in…

Maura Healey

Healey says it was a good year. Was it? (WMP&I)

BOSTON—Looking past criticisms of Beacon Hill inertia, Governor Maura Healey gave her first state of the commonwealth address feting the efforts of her administration since she took office. The speech looked ahead, including as soon as Thursday when Healey testified on her housing push. Its lookbacks to 2023, however, emphasized efforts Healey had undertaken on her own.

At one point, Healey spotlighted $3 billion in federal funding, which included $108 million Uncle Sam awarded for East-West rail. However, these and other executive initiatives only underscore the dearth of legislation that escaped Beacon Hill in 2023. The exceptions were tax cuts—Healey emphasized increased credits above all else—and disaster recovery funds that helped the 413 in particular.

“We set high goals for our first year in office. I stood here one year ago and made promises,” Healey said during the policy section of her speech. “And because we came together, and we acted with urgency, we delivered results. We met every one of our goals.”

Energetic as always, Healey had little reason to be otherwise. She is not delivering the speech from any weakness. Despite imposing unilateral cuts to balance the budget earlier this month, economic storm clouds are not gathering so far. Still, the budget situation reanimated criticism of Healey’s tax cuts, both in substance and tone.

The other subtext of the speech was Beacon Hill’s lack of productivity. Healey implied 2024 should be a year of legislative action after a more executive 2023. Nevertheless, her speech opened with something that had a legislative component from last year.

The first special guests that Healey recognized were Jay and Lisa Savage, whose potato farm in Deerfield lost its crops in flooding last year.

“In Western and Central Massachusetts, I stood with families, like the Savages who were staring down the total loss of their crops, just before the harvest. They kept working hard, as they always do. And our state rallied around them,” she said.

Healey touted the community, donations and legislation that kept those farms running. She later connected it to climate change and recent flooding near the close of her speech. There she touted progress such as her appointment of the commonwealth’s first climate czar.

Jo Comerford

Comerford has taken up disaster relief after several devasting storms hit her district since she took office. (still via malegisalture.gov)

However, with the climate-related impacts only growing, Healey also pointed to the need to preparing for future disasters. Healey recognized Northampton Senator Jo Comerford and Sunderland State Rep Natalie Blais for proposing a permanent disaster resiliency fund. It now has gubernatorial backing.

In an interview Wednesday, Comerford welcomed Healey’s remarks. She did not know the resiliency bill would be in the address, but the senator called the issue “imperative.” Echoing Healey’s observation about the increasing threats, Comerford noted several disasters have hit her district. As Massachusetts has no standing disaster relief system, each occasion required a separate relief effort.

“In the five years I’ve been in office, I have had to four times get one-off appropriations for communities I represent repair from a disaster,” she said.

Comerford said the issue was especially important in Western Massachusetts and other regions which lack the tax base to quickly recovery from disasters. She and Blais launched their bills in November after consultations across government.

“This is something we have been talking about in the legislature and also with the Healey-Driscoll administration for a long time,” Comerford said.

There were other notes resonant to Western Mass ears. In her climate section, Healey mentioned Sublime Systems, a startup aiming to build low-carbon building materials like concrete in Holyoke.

That was exactly what the city’s mayor, Joshua Garcia, wanted to hear. He was among several local officials, among them Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and the Valley’s district attorneys, who attended the address. Companies like Sublime Systems, he said, are “going to produce the jobs and expand our tax base.”

Holyoke

Holyoke had a number of cameos in Healey’s speech both the good and the tragic.
(WMP&I)

“I love the governor’s vision and leadership around what we’re trying to do to attract new industry, the, you know, being the tech hub of ideas and industry,” he said in an interview at the State House. “These are things that have a direct impact to our city.”

Garcia also noted Healey’s push for universal pre-K access for four year-olds in Gateway Cities (of which Holyoke is one), part of her promise for a “whole of government” approach to making childcare accessible and affordable.

Not all reviews have been positive. Healey’s mention of her tax cuts drew ire from her left. Technically some of her tax bill is spending via the tax code, credits which touch a range of people from parents to renters. Healey tried to humanize the situation a bit by recalling a time her mother, then a single mom, had to borrow a bit of cash from her 11 year-old son earnings babysitting to pay a tax bill.

Many credit increases were essentially inflation adjustments. These took up much of the time Healey dedicated to the cuts.

“We now have the most generous child and dependent tax credit of any state in the country, and we got rid of the two-child cap!” Healey said at one point.

Healey has largely lumped these together, rhetorically at least, with the more politically troublesome cuts. Healey did not mention the capital gains cut, but referred to passing on more “hard-earned money” thanks to a cut to the estate tax. The estate tax threshold moved from $1 million to $2 million. It includes a credit to mitigate cliff effects as the tax hits qualifying estates’ whole value not just the amount over the threshold.

Packaging the estate tax as Healey did in her speech earned rebukes from progressives on social media. The political director of one larger lefty group called it “right-wing.

Though Healey has rejected such implications, there might have been a touch more damnation in the feint praise of Beacon Hill’s accomplishments last year. Aside from the tax bill and breaking out the housing department from economic development, the only legislative batter to escape the oven before the cake fell was budgetary. There were wins here, such as free school lunch forand fully funding the Student Opportunity Act, passed in 2019.

However, other legislative-y things were from years past such as implementation of the Veterans Services reforms. In that way, Healey appointed the first secretary to the Executive Office of Veterans Services. She presided over the groundbreaking of a new facility for the now-Veterans Home in Holyoke.

Healey state of the commonwealth

From executive to legislative focus? (WMP&I)

In addition to the $3 billion collected from the feds for transportation, she celebrated Massachusetts winning bids to host hubs for advanced research in health and under the Chips & Science Act. Other executive actions covered a wide gamut. She touted work to rehabilitate the ever-troubled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Beyond installing professional general manager, under her, MBTA has reversed attrition that has kneecapped state government more broadly.

There were the earliest pardons for a governor in decades and new clemency guidelines. While the influx of migrants from the southern US border has challenged the Healey administration, she touted the clinic that helped thousands become eligible for work.

Still, Healey was looking for more from the legislature this year. In addition to hints of things she wanted in the budget, Healey had a long list legislative priorities.

She mentioned the HERO Act, a legislative package for veterans she filed in November. On Wednesday, Healey herself testified on behalf of her Affordable Homes Act. She called housing the commonwealth’s biggest challenge. This bond bill also includes changes to law such as legalizing accessory dwelling units statewide.

Healey will be seeking to greatly expand early childhood education, as maintain the record funding in primary and secondary education. However, she also committed to continue investments in behavioral health for young people. Healey also underscored literacy amid recent devastating data on test scores.

These were some of the items that Chicopee Rep Shirley Arriaga looked forward to hearing more about.

Shirley Arriaga

Rep Arriaga. (via malegislature.gov)

“I’m all about the kids. We need to help them now so they can have a better future. I did like to hear that we’re going to be doing more with literacy. The MCAS scores from last year were definitely, surprisingly, shockingly terrible. That’s the word they’re terrible, which means we’re not doing enough,” Arriaga, who took office last year, said.

“And we need to do more for our kids, which means more help for our teachers, educators. We need to focus on what’s going wrong, so I want to hear more about the plan,” she said.

Healey closed the speech extolling the commonwealth’s history of working “in each generation, to make America’s founding promise real for all our people.” In an ominous acknowledgment of the 2024 election she added, “And it’s why, whatever happens in national politics, Massachusetts will defend democracy.”

In concluding by noting the difficulty challenges the commonwealth has overcome, it was impossible not think Healey was suggesting that legislation more aggressively should pale in comparison.

Perhaps if the attitude of some like Representative Arriaga becomes more common, the legislature can meet that challenge.

“I like the attitude that we’re not gonna deter away from hard work,” she told WMP&I after the speech. “We are aware of the work that needs to be done, and we’re ready to do it.”

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