On Wednesday night, Gov. Maura Healey delivered her first State of the Commonwealth speech from the State House. In just under an hour, she touted her administration’s progress and laid out ambitious plans to, among other things, invest in transportation, overhaul how schools teach literacy, and boost the state’s climate technology industry.
In a follow-up speech on behalf of the state’s Republican Party, the picture of Massachusetts that state Sen. Peter Durant painted was not nearly as rosy.
“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 Healey’s first year of leadership, Massachusetts had become less affordable for average people while the state’s finances worsened, Durant said. He returned multiple times to concerns over residents leaving the Bay State for better opportunities elsewhere.
“It’s not because of the weather. They’re leaving for better opportunities, better cost of living, and quite simply, a better life,” he said.
More than 50,000 people moved out of Massachusetts over the past year, he said, and lawmakers must engage in bipartisan efforts to incentivize people to stay in the Bay State.
“When we replace 50,000 net tax-payers with tax-takers the result is predictable,” Durant said. “And while some may demonize a statement like that, it doesn’t make it false. The old adage is that we are near the point where there are more people in the cart than pulling it. We are seeing the disastrous consequences happening in slow motion.”
Decreasing the cost of living is essential, and this begins with creating more housing, Durant said. The housing crisis boils down to a “simple supply and demand issue.” He called for more public/private partnerships aimed at rehabilitating underutilized buildings like old mills to relieve the supply burden. Actions like investing in passive energy efficiency programs to curb rising utility costs are also important, he said.
Focusing on clean energy is important, Durant said, but this must be done carefully.
“Banning the use of fossil fuels in new construction and other decarbonization efforts, while perhaps well-intentioned, takes us down a destructive path of both higher building and electricity costs,” he said.
The Healey administration should take an “all of the above” approach to energy supply and electricity production, Durant said. This should include increasing in-state pipeline capacity so that gas does not have to be shipped in from overseas. He praised efforts to get hydropower from Quebec and said the state should “add capacity through nuclear energy.”
Durant spoke about the state of education in Massachusetts, saying that a lack of leadership and accountability has led to a host of problems. Teachers are becoming disillusioned and leaving the profession, students are becoming “uninspired and unengaged,” and parents are moving them out of public schools, he said. This downward spiral self-perpetuates, he warned.
One answer, according to Durant, is investing in vocational education. Officials should work to shorten waitlists for vocational schools so that students can get connected to high-paying jobs without student loans, he said.
The surge of migrants into Massachusetts and the burden it has placed on the emergency shelter system is having wide-ranging ramifications. Durant said lawmakers need to amend the so-called “right-to-shelter” law, which was passed in 1984 and guarantees shelter to eligible families.
“The right-to-shelter law is being exploited, and you are bearing the economic burden,” Durant said. If this is not changed the state will continue to be a “magnet” for migrants with “far-reaching consequences.” The law should be amended to carry out its initial mission: “to serve residents with emergency housing when they find themselves in distress,” he added.
Earlier this month, the Healey administration announced spending cuts due to underwhelming tax revenue. Durant said that revenue is “falling off a cliff,” and that almost $4 million has been slashed from local earmarks. When lawmakers like Durant have to inform local leaders about these cuts, it damages relationships between the two that were forged under the Baker administration, he said.
Durant ended his speech with a pitch to voters.
“Across the commonwealth, the Republican Party is ready to offer a path forward and a playbook for prosperity,” he said. “Solving the challenges of today won’t be easy, but with an embracement of pragmatism and common sense, we can overcome the crisis we face.”
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