Healey offers sympathetic ear in business address to Associated Industries of Mass.
NEWTON — Three weeks into her tenure in the corner office, Gov. Maura Healey told business leaders her administration is ready to "do more" to address their pressing concerns and targeted workforce strain, tax relief and health care investment as broad areas of focus.
Addressing hundreds of business leaders last week, Healey said she is keyed into their concerns about competitiveness, tax burdens, a shortage of employees, runaway housing prices and unreliable transportation services. But her speech included few specifics about what her nascent administration will do to tackle those issues.
The new governor said her address at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts event came at "a pivotal time for our state, particularly with all that you are confronting day in and day out."
"We are the greatest state in this country. I also know we have to be honest about the realities, and the fact is, Massachusetts is expensive — high housing costs, high child care costs, high electricity costs, unreliable transportation. Remote work flexibilities, as wonderful as they have been, also have changed dynamics within a workforce," Healey said, adding that due to a confluence of potent inflation, widespread hiring challenges and economic upheaval, "We know it hasn't been easy."
Business leaders call for more discussion about economic health
Higher-ups at AIM, an influential business group, have called for undertaking a "more expansive discussion about what constitutes economic health" for Massachusetts, including not just competitiveness — a theme Healey targeted in her remarks — but also ways to make the Bay State affordable and attractive for workers.
The group called in December for lawmakers and the new Healey administration to revisit and approve a suite of proposed tax reforms Gov. Charlie Baker pursued, including breaks for renters, seniors and caregivers and changes to the state's estate tax. Those tax policies were shelved over apparent affordability concerns but supporters of the proposals say the state's fiscal condition is strong enough to support the changes.
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In its list of priorities, AIM also urged state government to reduce the individual income tax rate by an unspecified amount, deploy American Rescue Plan Act funds to reduce unemployment insurance system debt, overhaul regulations to promote new housing development and boost spending on workplace training.
Healey made tax reform and relief a central promise of her campaign, and she told assembled business leaders her "position on this has not changed."
"We need tax reform. We need tax relief. Making Massachusetts more competitive and attractive means doing just that," Healey said.
She did not specify tax changes she wants to pursue. Asked after the event when she would file legislation on that topic, Healey replied, "We've got a budget coming in just a matter of weeks, so we're working on that."
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The state's highest-earning residents now also face a greater tax rate on household income above $1 million following voter approval of the long-debated surtax in November.
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As policymakers begin to grapple with the best way to make use of that revenue, Healey — who will file her own state budget proposal by March 1 and get a chance to amend or veto any final version — signaled she wants to ensure the money goes solely toward education and transportation uses.
The constitutional amendment voters enacted calls for the newly generated funds to go toward those two specific areas of investment, but final appropriation authority rests with the Legislature, where top Democrats have offered varying levels of commitment to using the new money entirely to supplement, rather than replace or rearrange, existing spending.
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"Now that the voters have decided, the key is making sure that that money, that return on investment, is actually happening, that the money that comes in is going toward education and transportation," Healey said. "This will make Massachusetts a more attractive place for businesses to stay and families to benefit from."
One idea Healey first flagged in her inaugural address and mentioned again Thursday is a new "MassReconnect" program, which the governor has said would be funded in her first annual budget and will help better align job training services with what companies need.
Existing workforce development programs seen by some as not meeting needs
State-supported workforce development programs are already on the radar for many employers. In November, the current head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation cautioned that the existing distribution — which he described as "like 26 different workforce programs governed by 12 different agencies" — made it difficult to meet the needs of business leaders.
Healey also made brief mention Thursday of a FutureSkills state program that will connect job-seekers, employers and training providers. The program's website describes it as "a once-in-a-lifetime, $200 million investment in worker skills training to expand opportunity for employers and jobseekers."
"This is a new moment, and we know we need to do more, especially when it comes to supporting our workforce," Healey said. "There isn't a space and industry that isn't suffering when it comes to workforce. Our growing industries need more trained workers."
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Another priority Healey described Thursday is ramping up the executive branch's work to secure available federal grant dollars, which she described as "really, really important funding that can really help us take off here in Massachusetts."
"I want us competing at new, historic levels for this kind of funding," Healey said, pointing to the CHIPS and Science Act that President Joe Biden signed last year.
A few high-profile bids for federal infrastructure grant money have already stumbled in Massachusetts. Federal regulators rejected two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers applications for funding to support replacing the Bourne and Sagamore bridges to Cape Cod. The U.S. Department of Transportation declined a joint state-city of Boston request for $1.2 billion in grants toward a massive multimodal project in Allston.
The governor flagged health care investment as another area where she wants to see action. Asked by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs Michael Caljouw about making health care more affordable, Healey replied that despite the Bay State's well-documented health care successes, her focus will be on "looking to find ways to drive down costs."
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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Healey speech to business group keyed on worker training, tax reform