BOSTON (SHNS) – Do lawmakers want to invest the roughly $400 million in state dollars needed to keep pandemic-era child care grants in place? What happens if the MBTA fails to hit its ambitious hiring target and the agency remains too short-staffed to reverse service cuts? How will legislative leaders get on the same page for health care reform after targeting different ideas in the past two years?
All of these and more are among the top questions that analysts at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation expect to guide the Legislature’s work in the 2023-2024 lawmaking session, the first with Gov. Maura Healey in the corner office.
The group plans to publish 11 different policy primers previewing pressure points for the coming months, when Healey will unveil her first state budget proposal and the Legislature will shift back into gear after months of relative inactivity.
In the reports acquired by the News Service, MTF’s experts flagged familiar topics, such as tax reform and the MBTA, and those that do not always dominate attention on Beacon Hill, like municipal finance, on a list of issues to watch.
At the T, whose woes were firmly in the spotlight during almost all of Healey’s gubernatorial campaign, the group warned bluntly that “the MBTA is in crisis.”
On top of the ongoing efforts required to fix glaring safety issues the Federal Transit Administration highlighted last year, MTF said policymakers cannot take their eye off a looming financial headache as the T careens toward projected shortfalls in both its operating and capital budgets.
“While operating and capital budget cliffs have been pushed back a bit, the resource gaps to operate and maintain the current system will accelerate quickly; requiring legislative action within the next 12-18 months,” MTF said. “It’s been 10 years since the last transportation revenue package was passed in 2013, while the prolonged efforts in 2019 fell short.”
Lawmakers and Healey will have a new source of revenue to tap as dollars flow in from a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million, which voters approved in November. They have not yet made clear, though, how they’ll divide that money between transportation and education, the two areas the surtax is supposed to fund.
MTF said another point of tension is whether the T can succeed at staffing up after the FTA cautioned the agency is well short of the number of workers it needs. Healey has said she plans to include the addition of 1,000 more MBTA employees in the next year via her first annual budget, but funding and hiring are two different steps, and the T remains well below its budgeted headcount in certain key areas.
Labor issues cut across several different policy areas analysts highlighted, including the MBTA, early education and child care, and health care.
MTF warned in its workforce-specific report that employment challenges pose an “existential threat,” with demographic trends likely to increase the gap between job openings and workers available to fill them. And addressing that, the group said, could require a change in approach.
“The practical challenge is that the state’s workforce programs remain relatively small scale, siloed, and poorly evaluated. The FY 2023 budget divides $230.6 million in workforce spending among 26 separate workforce training programs, administered by 12 separate agencies,” MTF wrote. “There is no consistent approach to measuring efficacy, and even when published, information on results is poor.”
In the early education and care sector, MTF forecast that lawmakers are “likely to build on the momentum from the last two years.”
The Senate approved a wide-ranging early education reform bill in July that would have boosted subsidies, offered higher pay and better worker benefits, and made permanent grants for providers, but the House did not bring it forward for a vote before the Aug. 1 end of formal business.
While House leaders have not explicitly endorsed the Senate plan, Speaker Ron Mariano highlighted child care as a priority in his inauguration speech last month, indicating some alignment between the two branches although details about the costs associated with the efforts have not yet emerged.
One key decision they will need to make is the fate of pandemic-era stabilization grants. MTF said the roughly $640 million Massachusetts received in federal relief funds for early education and child care has been appropriated.
“With no federal relief funds remaining, the C3 grant program will need to be supported beyond FY 2023 using only state resources,” MTF wrote. “Policymakers will need to decide if they want to continue and/or change that program in the next fiscal year and if so, what degree of funding they will dedicate towards it in the FY 2024 budget. MTF estimates the cost of this program to be between $400 and $450 million a year.”
An area where there’s less evidence of agreement between the House and Senate is health care.
Industry leaders have been warning for months of potent staff shortages that make services more difficult or expensive to access for patients, and regulators have also projected that they expect continued growth in health care costs.
Although the Legislature approved some major reforms including a landmark mental health access bill last session, each member of the so-called Big Three prioritized a different facet of the health care world, MTF said. Gov. Charlie Baker pushed to increase primary care and behavioral health spending, Spilka and the Senate sought to rein in prescription drug prices, and Mariano and the House tried to strengthen the review of health care system expansion.
“Entering the new session, there is no real starting point for the next round of reform, but growing realization that action is necessary to prevent system closures and spiraling costs,” MTF wrote.