Lowering the staggering cost of housing and child care, improving the state’s roads and rails, and strengthening schools were among the goals for 2024 that Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey outlined in her State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday.
The Democratic governor delivered the speech – typically used by governors to tout their recent achievements and lay out their priorities for the coming year – to a packed crowd of state lawmakers and members of her administration in the House of Representatives chamber at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Other goals Healey pointed to included making Massachusetts “the climate innovation lab for the world” and helping businesses and workers thrive – even as she acknowledged a mixed economic picture for the state.
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“Yes, our economy is strong – Massachusetts has more jobs than ever before, and unemployment has been at all-time lows,” she said. “But we also know prices are high, and too many families have a hard time making ends meet.”
But the biggest challenge, Healey said, remains the lack of affordable housing, which threatens progress on all other fronts.
“You know the numbers. Rents and prices are at all-time highs,” Healey said. “We have to act, and we have to act now, to make it easier for everyone to find affordable places to live.”
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Healey said the administration is trying to tackle the problem by pushing a $4 billion housing plan, which she said would make it easier to find affordable places to live in the state. She plans to testify in favor of the bill at a Statehouse hearing Thursday.
“If you’re born here or come to school here, I want you staying here. If you run a business here, I want you to expand and hire employees who can afford to live here,” she said.
The governor also highlighted an initiative she unveiled Tuesday aimed at giving parents across Massachusetts, and particularly in the state’s former industrial “Gateway Cities,” better access to child care and early education.
The plan would guarantee that every 4-year-old in the 26 cities – including Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford, Taunton and Chelsea – has the chance, at low or no cost, to be enrolled in a high-quality preschool program by 2026.
Healey’s proposal would also help an additional 4,000 low- and moderate-income families afford child care by increasing eligibility for Child Care Financial Assistance – the state’s programs that help families pay for child care and out-of-school programs.
Healey also vowed Wednesday to set a new goal for early education in Massachusetts: universal pre-K available for every 4-year-old in the state.
Her budget proposal will also call for $10 million to ensure the most vulnerable young people in the state have access to mental health care.
“Let’s be a state where every young person knows that they are not alone, that they can ask for help, and that they will get help,” she said.
The address came a little more than a week after Healey announced $375 million in budget cuts for the current fiscal year as the administration seeks to close an expected $1 billion shortfall with monthly revenues coming in at a slower pace than expected.
Republican state Sen. Peter Durant said Healey glossed over many of the hardships facing Massachusetts.
“As we enter 2024, we find ourselves asking some simple, yet familiar, questions: Are we better off today than we were 12 months ago, and are we headed in a direction that will make us better off? Unfortunately, for too many families the answer is ‘no,’” Durant said in written statement.
Over the past year, Durant said, the state has become less affordable, finances are in trouble and the state is grappling with a migrant crisis costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year.
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“It doesn’t have to be this way. As we enter this new year, we’re at a critical juncture, and with some course adjustments, bipartisanship, and collaboration we can get back on track,” he added.
During the speech, Healey pointed to a series of accomplishments during her first year in office, including cutting taxes, making school meals free and letting students aged 25 and older attend community college for free.
The state has also come under increasing pressure as it tries to cope with a continued influx of migrants, straining the state’s homeless shelter system – a challenge Healey acknowledged in her speech.
“This is a hard issue, with no easy answers. And I want to be clear: Massachusetts did not create this problem,” Healey said during the speech. “But we’re also showing a way forward. In November, we put on a Work Authorization Clinic – and now, nearly 3,000 newcomers have work permits.”