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WORCESTER, MA – JUNE 4-SATURDAY: Gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey addresses attendees during the state Democratic Convention, June 4, 2022, in Worcester, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)
WORCESTER, MA – JUNE 4-SATURDAY: Gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey addresses attendees during the state Democratic Convention, June 4, 2022, in Worcester, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)

The high costs of living and doing business in Massachusetts were top of mind for Maura Healey as the attorney general and candidate for governor spoke to a business breakfast Tuesday, telling attendees that Massachusetts has “an affordability issue on our hands, that is for sure” and offering more concrete clues as to what she might do about it if she is elected governor.

As members of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce dined on scrambled eggs and bacon at the Seaport Hotel, Healey told them that she understands how the stress of housing, transportation, and child care costs affects their businesses and the quality of life for Bay Staters.

“The impacts of this, of course, are vast. Families struggling to get by, costs eating away at people’s safety nets. We see this even in the acutely rising rate of food insecurity across the state. The racial wealth gaps that have persisted for far too long and are only being reinforced, and in general, too few are (able) to buy a home, build wealth or invest in their children’s future,” Healey said. “I know you see the impacts on the business community every single day. You have employees who are moving away, who have moved away, who are thinking about leaving their jobs for higher wages, or needing to stay home to take care of their children because child care is too expensive. You’re also having to adapt to rising costs of goods and services and materials and gas, and other supply chain issues.”

She said it “starts with housing” and that taking “aggressive action” to increase the state’s housing stock is an economic, public health and racial justice imperative for Massachusetts. And on that front, Healey, who on Saturday secured the Democratic Party’s endorsement in the race to succeed Gov. Charlie Baker, sounded many of the same notes that Baker has over almost eight years of pushing lawmakers to take steps to increase housing production.

“We need a lot more housing stock of all kinds across the state,” Healey said. “We need to increase state resources for that, we need to relax and address some of the zoning barriers that get in the way, we need to increase first-time homeownership and help close the racial wealth gap through expansion of downpayment assistance programs and housing counseling, and we need to create units around public transit.”

Zoning rules in Massachusetts, often cited as an obstacle to new housing, are controlled by local city and town officials.

Healey also said the state’s public transportation system “desperately needs an overhaul” to meet the needs of the state’s changing workforce and to make it realistic for people to give up their gas-powered cars in favor of public transit. Everyone at the breakfast had to get there somehow Tuesday morning, Healey said, and “the train probably took too long” or it “maybe cost too much” and it “certainly created pollution along the way.”

“We need to invest in transportation to make sure that it’s reliable and safe and accessible. Now, as … somebody who wants to get more people out of their cars and onto public transportation as a way to address really critical climate issues, we’re not going to get there — people can’t be expected to do that — unless we’ve got buses and trains and commuter rails and the T running on time so that it makes sense and that actually are guaranteed to get people safely from point A to point B,” she said. “So we’ve got to be thinking about Massachusetts, our entire bus and rail system, not only as a means of rush hour travel, but as a system that serves the entire state, one that reflects the changed, and I mean changed, demographics and trends.”

Whether it is housing, child care and early education, transportation or the cost of living, Healey said Tuesday that her aim is to keep Massachusetts competitive with other states as a place where people want to live and companies want to grow their businesses.

“I think the question for Massachusetts right now is, how are we going to fight to be competitive? How are we going to make sure that our families and our residents and our businesses are in an economy that is thriving, and that we are able collectively to drive,” she said.

Though she did not address it at all during her remarks Tuesday morning, one of the ideas that Healey supports to invest in some of the problem areas she ticked through is to pass the income surtax on annual household income greater than $1 million that will be on this November’s statewide ballot. The estimated $1.3 billion it could raise annually would be designated for education and transportation investments.

The so-called millionaire’s tax is deeply unpopular within the business community that Healey spoke to Tuesday morning. Her host, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, not only opposes the surtax but this spring filed a brief in the lawsuit challenging the summary of the Constitutional amendment and description of a “yes” vote that Healey is poised to provide to voters on the ballot.

While Healey made the case that investments in housing and transportation (among other areas) are necessary for Massachusetts to maintain its competitive edge, many in the business community have spent years arguing that abandoning the state’s flat income tax structure would make Massachusetts less competitive and less attractive to growing businesses.

In a press release this week, Associated Industries of Massachusetts pointed to two recent reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that showed how the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated migration from major northern population centers like Boston to “suburban technology boom towns in the South and West.”

On a list of the 15 American cities with the largest population losses during the first year of the pandemic, AIM said, Revere ranked third with a 4% decline in population and Boston was 12th, having shed about 3% of its population.

“The numbers are a sobering reminder that high-costs states like Massachusetts and California cannot wantonly increase taxes and other costs on businesses and individuals and expect them to stay for the great clam chowder,” AIM President and CEO John Regan said. “Massachusetts voters who will consider a constitutional amendment this fall that would raise taxes on many home sales and retirement nest eggs should remember that the entrepreneurs driving economic prosperity in Massachusetts may just decide they have other options.”

When asked after her address to the chamber how she squares her support for the income surtax and her calls for the business community to get on board with investments in housing and transportation, Healey told reporters that she thinks “it’s a balancing act.”

“I support the fair share amendment,” she said, using a term often deployed by supporters. “I think we can do both. We need to have the revenue to be able to make the kinds of investments that we need to make to power our economy.”