Massachusetts would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students who graduate from high schools here, under a nearly $56 billion state budget plan Senate leaders presented Tuesday.
The $55.8 billion budget, teed up for debate in two weeks, has a slightly smaller bottom line than the $56.2 billion version the House passed in April. It diverges from the House plan in several other key ways, including the in-state tuition proposal. Lawmakers will need to iron out those differences before they can send a final bill to Gov. Maura Healey this summer.
Currently, undocumented immigrants who live in Massachusetts are not eligible for the lower, in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. The Senate’s budget would make all students eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of immigration status, as long as they attend a Massachusetts high school for at least three years and graduate or earn a GED here.
“We are falling behind other states, including the red states, in offering what is not only the right thing for these immigrant students but good for our atmosphere of inclusion, equity and overall success,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.
Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. have expanded in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, Spilka said. While the idea has floated around Beacon Hill for years, it’s been more than a decade since it last generated enough momentum to reach the floor of either legislative chamber for a vote.
In 2004, Gov. Mitt Romney vetoed budget language extending in-state rates to undocumented students, and the House in 2006 rejected an in-state tuition bill on a 57-97 vote. Spilka was an early supporter of the idea, telling the Milford Daily News in 2004, “These kids are our future.”
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said there is no cost attached to the in-state tuition proposal, and he did not have an estimate for how many students would be affected by the change.
“The reports I've seen, it’s actually income-generating,” he said, expecting that more students would enroll. “We know that enrollment at our community colleges have declined precipitously, especially since the pandemic. Enrollment in all higher education has declined, so this will provide increased enrollment at our higher educational institutions.”
Like both the House’s budget and the initial budget blueprint Healey filed in March, the Senate bill steers $20 million toward making community college free for adults age 25 and older who don’t already have a degree.
The Senate is seeking to broaden that plan, dedicating an additional $20 million to eliminate community college costs for nursing students starting this fall.
Spilka wants to make community college free for all students, and the Senate’s budget features another $15 million toward making that goal a reality by fall of 2024.
Spending millionaire’s tax revenue
The total that Senate leaders are eyeing for free community college programs — $55 million — comes from the $1 billion pool of revenue expected to be generated by the state’s new tax on incomes over $1 million.
That surtax is intended to fund education and transportation. Like the House, the Senate proposes an even split — $500 million for transportation, and $500 million for education — but the two bodies have different plans for allocating that money.
The House budget puts $161 million of the surtax money toward universal free school meals, which are not included in the Senate plan. Rodrigues said the Senate prefers Healey’s approach of paying for free school meals in separate funding bills rather than the annual budget.
According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Senate's roadmap for spending the millionaire's tax money "has a greater focus on municipal transit and public higher education" than the House’s.
No online lottery
The House budget would allow the state Lottery to offer games and tickets online, putting the money from those sales into grants that help keep child care providers afloat.
While the Senate budget also includes child care grants, it leaves out the online lottery authorization. Instead, Senate leaders want to help finance them with $245 million from an existing early education and care trust fund.
“We wanted to put real money at it, and we did with the $245 million from the trust fund,” Rodrigues said.
After the Senate passes its bill, the House and Senate will appoint six lawmakers to a conference committee to work out the differences. That will likely be where the future of online lottery is decided.
Money, but no specifics, for tax relief
Healey proposed a roughly $1 billion tax relief package with her budget recommendations, and the House passed a similar set of tax breaks before tackling its budget.
Senators are waiting until after this month’s budget debate to produce their own tax break bill. Their budget does set aside $575 million to cover the costs of whatever tax reforms they end up pursuing.
Rodrigues called that a “good, responsible estimate” that can be adjusted if needed, but offered no details on what tax policies the Senate might be considering.
Spilka has said the Senate wants to develop a “progressive, permanent, smart, and sustainable” tax relief package.
“Nothing’s been ruled out,” she said Monday. “Nothing’s necessarily been ruled in.”