Amid the pomp and circumstance surrounding the 190th two-year session of the Massachusetts Legislature Wednesday, the state's top Democratic policy leaders laid out, or at least hinted at, their intentions for the coming two years. Though the House and Senate have sometimes been at odds the past few years, the leaders of both Democrat-dominated chambers outlined an intention to explore additional revenue options to help shore up the state's books at the dawn of a conservative Trump era in D.C.
In an opening speech before three newly-elected members and 36 returning senators, Senate President Stan Rosenberg declared that the reputation of the state as "Taxachusetts" is now outdated.
"Virtually every credible national study says the level of taxation in Massachusetts now puts us in the middle of the pack nationally. Mission accomplished," Rosenberg said of decades-long efforts to ditch the state's high-tax label.
"But we should begin that work this year – by looking for new revenues where we can find them, whether by taxing new services, like Airbnb, which actually believes it should be taxed, or by closing loopholes that were created years ago and serve no purpose today," Rosenberg said. Translation: the Amherst Democrat thinks it's safe to raise taxes here and there instead of cutting state spending to fix budget shortfalls.
For his part, House Speaker Robert DeLeo began his ninth year at the top of the House with intentions to further regulate marijuana as it becomes legal to sell in the Commonwealth and to address the state's questionable budget footing.
In regard to President-elect Donald Trump, DeLeo said "when he or some of the members of his administration seems to go astray, shall we say, in terms of what's best for the people of Massachusetts, then he'd better be damn sure that he's going to hear from me."
DeLeo said he expects additional regulation of the new marijuana law to occupy much of the session's first months, and said he will wait and see if taxes need to be raised to balance the budget this Spring.
"We're gonna wait and see exactly some of the discussion, some of the hearings, after which I will have a discussion with the chair of Ways and Means and be in a better position to answer that at that time," DeLeo told reporters after being unanimously chosen as speaker by his colleagues.
The Legislature is expected to debate changes to the state's criminal justice system this session. Critics worry the eventual bill will only focus on parole, probation and what happens to prisoners once they're released, and do little to prevent people from ending up in jail in the first place. In his remarks, Rosenberg specifically mentioned the need to "end mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses," something advocates fear will be left out of the bill.
Rosenberg summed up the Senate's preference for more progressive policies, when compared to the more cautious House, by praising his chamber for acting "quickly and decisively, not incrementally," when regulating ride-hailing businesses like Uber and Lyft last year. Rosenberg foresees further disruption in the transportation sector as autonomous vehicles begin to hit the market and wants the Legislature to tackle the issue before driverless cars take to the street in Massachusetts.
Also on Rosenberg's to-do list: a family leave act to allow workers to care for ill family members without suffering job penalties and "to continue the movement forward to make the minimum wage a livable wage."
DeLeo is set to deliver a speech laying out his own policy goals in the coming weeks.