State lawmakers will soon be back on Beacon Hill after their holiday recess, with just seven months of formal legislative sessions remaining in this two-year term to tackle many of the pressing issues facing the state.
Senate President Karen Spilka says she wants to “hit the ground running in 2024,” with a focus on bills that will make the state a more affordable place to live, work and raise a family. Here’s a look at some of the top items on her agenda.
One of the first bills on Spilka's radar for 2024 is a package of gun law reforms. A top Spilka deputy, Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, has been talking to senators and other stakeholders for months about a gun bill.
Spilka said those conversations have been "very productive,” and she expects a bill to emerge “soon after the new year.”
A wide-ranging bill the House passed in October, over the objections of many gun owners, proposes a crackdown on homemade weapons known as ghost guns and new limits on where firearms can be carried.
Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who plans to run for reelection in 2024 and then seek another term as Senate president, said the issue that's generated the most discussion among state senators is Massachusetts' high housing prices.
She said the Senate expects to take up a $4 billion housing bond bill filed by Gov. Maura Healey and is also "working on some other aspects of housing relief."
"This issue, really, in many ways, will define whether we succeed or not as a state when it comes to affordability, equity and competitiveness," Spilka told GBH News.
Healey's sweeping bill would spend $1.6 billion to improve public housing, let communities tax some high-dollar real estate sales to fund affordable housing, and make it easier for property owners to build accessory dwelling units like in-law apartments.
Spilka didn't weigh in on the specifics of Healey's proposal, noting the House will rework and vote on the bill before sending it to the Senate.
Prescription drug prices
Spilka became Senate president in July 2018. During her tenure, the Senate has passed legislation aimed at reining in rising prescription drug costs three times. In each of the past two sessions, the bill died without a vote in the House. Senators unanimously approved the latest version of the bill in November, and Spilka said she wants to work with the House to get it to Healey's desk this year.
Missed deadlines and procedural spats have raised questions this year about how well the House and Senate can work together, but Spilka downplayed the idea of trouble between the two chambers. She said the Legislature's "results speak for themselves."
Free community college
This year’s $56 billion state budget made community college free for nursing students and for students age 25 and older who don’t already have degrees. Spilka has said she wants to make community college universally free in Massachusetts by the fall of 2024, and said this week that work remains a priority.
Free community college would “help the state harness the talents of so many more people in Massachusetts,” she said.
Child care costs
At the other end of the education spectrum, Spilka said the Senate also plans to “introduce a comprehensive early education and care bill that is going to lower costs” and make other reforms.
Spilka said the forthcoming bill would build on legislation senators approved in 2022 that sought to make more families eligible for subsidies, financially stabilize child care providers and boost pay for early educators.
“We know the cost of child care is too high for working families in Massachusetts and our workers are not being supported adequately,” she said. “It's frankly keeping parents out of the workforce, and we have a workforce shortage.”