By Matt Murphy
BOSTON – Senate President Stanley Rosenberg on Wednesday embarked on his second term as the top Democrat in the upper chamber, outlining an ambitious, if challenging, agenda for the coming two years that could bump up against the priorities of a more moderate and business-friendly House and a governor focused on controlling growth in government.
Rosenberg, a liberal Amherst Democrat and the chamber’s first openly gay leader, won re-election as Senate president and together with House Speaker Robert DeLeo will lead the Legislature into a two-year cycle that will culminate in the midst of gubernatorial election.
In remarks to members as the new legislative session got underway, the 67-year-old laid out a series of goals, many of which would require significant new spending at a time when officials on Beacon Hill have been trying to match soft revenue growth with persistent spending demands. Gov. Charlie Baker recently slashed $98 million from the budget that Democrats have threatened to restore, and Rosenberg said “cutting is not our best strategy.”
“If we do need to trim expenses, we need to do so not by slicing programs but by fnding real reforms that yield real savings,” he said
Rosenberg called for a redoubling of efforts to lower public college tuition and fees by increasing state funding to reduce student debt, expanding access to early education and developing a vision for a transportation system that can meet the needs of a modern workforce.
“I believe we need to invest our way to success,” Rosenberg said.
Foreshadowing a vote required in the next two years to put a question on the ballot to raise taxes on household incomes over $1 million per year, Rosenberg urged voters to pass what he called a “fair share tax” in 2018 to generate revenue for education and transportation.
Until then, Rosenberg said the Senate will look for new revenues “where we can find them,” including taxing new services like AirBnb and closing unspecified “loopholes.” He did not mention any broad-based tax increases, which Gov. Baker opposes and which must originate in the House.
The new session begins with many wondering whether the cozy relationship between Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Baker will continue. Before long, Baker will begin gearing up for a likely re-election campaign, and some Democrats would like to see their party’s elected officials more forcefully challenge the executive.
Rosenberg preached the continuation of collegiality on Beacon Hill as a remedy to the partisanship in national politics.
“We cannot afford for the country to slip into even deeper gridlock or for us in Massachusetts to be tempted to do so ourselves. The eyes of the voters are upon us,” Rosenberg said.
DeLeo, following his reelection to a fifth term as speaker, renewed his commitment to protecting all Massachusetts citizens. Without delving into much detail, he said the state would leverage its strengths in the new session and said House speakers from other states “invariably” look to him for information about “how we’re able to do things in Massachusetts that people, or other states can’t get done.”
DeLeo touted the state’s work on health care, preventing gun violence, marriage equality, education and veterans services. He called the Massachusetts House “the greatest political body in this country.”
Though the House, Senate and governor largely worked well together over the past two years, there were also points of friction. The debate over charter schools and public investment in K-12 education that led to a stalement highlighted those differences.
Rosenberg said that Sen. Sal DiDomenico will “soon” release a plan born out of the Senate’s “Kids First” initiative that will include a “bold blueprint” to make sure children from infancy through pre-school get the access to the educational opportunities they need to set them up for success in school later in life. DeLeo has also spoken about the importance of early education, a goal that has long presented fiscal challenges for families and state government.
Many of the other issues touched on by Rosenberg in his speech will not come as a surprise to watchers of Beacon Hill, who have seen the subjects that will likely dominate debate from now until the summer of 2018 bubbling up for years.
Rosenberg said the Senate will work with the Barr Foundation to develop a “multi-year 21st Century transportation vision,” and said policymakers must continue to address climate change and its impact on Massachusetts communities.
“Progress in all other areas of public interest is rendered moot if we do not successfully tame the carbon beast that threatens humankind,” he said, calling carbon pricing a “potentially effective” policy solution.
With final recommendations due out in January from the Council of State Government Justice Center on how Massachusetts could remake its criminal justice system, Rosenberg said the Legislature must address both recidivism and sentencing.
“We’ve been tough on crime. Now we need to get smart on crime,” Rosenberg said. “We need to scale up successful diversion and restorative justice programs, end mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, address the needs of those who otherwise languish in our jails suffering from mental illness and substance abuse.”
He also foreshadowed a potential debate over the minimum wage after the last of three increases took effect on Jan. 1 raising the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour. While technology has created opportunities, Rosenberg said it has also pushed down wages and eliminated jobs that have been replaced by mobile apps.
“We need again to take up a family leave act to allow people to care for their families without losing the wages they need to put food on the table,” Rosenberg said. “And we need to continue the movement forward to make the minimum wage a liveable wage.”
Advocates have been pushing the Legislature to adopt a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and have threatened to go to the ballot if they are unsuccessful in moving lawmakers. Business groups, however, have warned that a rush to increase wages could stymie hiring and job creation and discourage new businesses from locating in Massachusetts.
The Legislature had to study the burgeoning new ride-booking industry dominated by players like Uber and Lyft so that it could be regulated, and Rosenberg said lawmakers will “need to move quickly and deftly” again to address self-driving cars, the newest “disruptive” technology in the transportation industry.
Rosenberg also said the Senate will continue with a program launched in 2015 called “Commonwealth Conversations” to bring senators to communities outside of Boston and their home districts to discuss issues directly with voters over the course of a nine-day tour starting at the end of the month.
Rosenberg did not touch on marijuana policy, which is expected to demand the attention of lawmakers over the first half 2017. Lawmakers plan to rewrite and amend the voter-approved law legalizing marijuana for general adult use.