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As the House and Senate prepare for budget negotiations to get underway in a few weeks, a coalition advocating for debt-free public higher education is making a final push for historic investments into the sector with the advent of newly available surtax funds.
With an estimated $1 billion available for the first time from a voter-approved surtax on the state's highest earners, the governor, House and Senate have all used their fiscal 2024 budgets to propose significant new investments in higher education, though they differ substantially from one another.
Gov. Maura Healey recommended the highest amount toward public higher education at $360 million in her budget released in March. The Senate Ways and Means Committee has proposed $310 million, while the House voted on a $174 million investment.
"We feel excited about the fact that we won the Fair Share Amendment, and now we're starting to see the imagination open up about what's possible for public higher education," said Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page, a member of the Higher Ed for All Coalition, at an event on Monday.
The investments included in the governor's and Senate Ways and Means Committee's budgets mirror the Cherish Act (S 816 / H 1260), Page said, which has long been a priority for the MTA and other education groups.
The Cherish Act would create a "debt free college scholarship program," which supporters say would target aiding students with economic need, as well as expand student resources and mental health counseling, and invest in the building and maintenance of campus infrastructure.
Page said Monday that the only parts of the bill that the governor and Senate leaders' budgets don't address is wage increases for campus employees.
Senate Democrat want to direct $125 million toward capital funding for campus infrastructure, focused on reducing a maintenance backlog. Healey put $140 million toward the effort, but the House's budget does not include surtax revenue investments into campus infrastructure.
The Senate committee's budget, which goes to the floor for debate next Tuesday, also includes $100 million for financial aid expansion through the MASSGrant Plus scholarship program, for low-income, in-state undergraduates.
Healey recommended $93 million for the program's expansion, and the House put forward $84 million.
One of the only surtax spending items that all three budgets agreed on was a $20 million investment into one of Healey's priorities -- the last-dollar free community college program for Bay Staters over 25 without a college degree, MassReconnect. Given the House and Senate leaders' agreement on this amount in their budget proposals, it appears likely that this item will make its way back to her desk for approval.
Another of her higher education proposals, however, is unlikely to be included in the budget she gets back from the Legislature. Neither the House nor Senate leaders included $59 million Healey sought for a "tuition lock" at state universities.
Senators also dedicated $30 million for wraparound student services, such as for mental health counseling or career guidance -- matching with Healey -- as well as unique initiatives investing $20 million for a free community college program for nursing students and $15 million to study the state's capacity to offer free community college for all by fall of 2024.
Though the House proposed less in surtax revenue for higher education than the governor or Senate Ways and Means, representatives recommended more than double the amount of surtax funds toward K-12 education than the two other budgets. Senate leaders recommended $110 million in surtax money go toward elementary and secondary schools, and the governor recommended $10 million.
With the House's investments in public higher education limited to MassReconnect, the $84 million MassGrant Plus expansion and a $20 million endowment match, public higher education is shaping up as a major negotiation point between representatives and senators during budget discussions.
"I don't believe that the House is opposed to investing in public higher ed. In different years the House has done even better than the Senate. This is quite a journey, this issue of the budget, and each budget does not necessarily reflect where we're going to land," Page said.
But before the inter-chamber negotiations can begin, senators need to amend and vote on their final version of the budget next week.
Sen. Jake Oliveira of Ludlow encouraged coalition members to call their senators and ask that the proposed investments be carried over into the body's final fiscal year 2024 budget.
"I myself as a legislator receive very few calls for public higher education. And there's some reasons for that, one of which is our students are working another job or two or three jobs. They can't advocate for themselves. They can't advocate for public higher education. That's why we need you," Oliveira said. "Make sure that you advocate for the highest number in each one of those budgets as we enter June and into July."
Fiscal 2024 begins on July 1 but the Legislature has a track record of not finalizing its annual budgets on time.
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