The Massachusetts Legislature opened a new two-year session Wednesday by returning veteran Democrats Robert DeLeo and Stan Rosenberg to their leadership positions in the House and Senate, respectively. Both pointed to significant debates ahead with Rosenberg in particular outlining an ambitious liberal agenda in defiance of an expected tilt to the right in Washington.
DeLeo faced no challengers within his party on his way to being re-elected House Speaker, a post he's held since 2009. If he serves out his full term, the Winthrop Democrat would become the longest-serving speaker in state history, eclipsing the late Thomas McGee who presided from 1975 to 1984.
Rosenberg was similarly unopposed in winning his second term as Senate leader.
The 160-member House and 40-member Senate were sworn in to new terms by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who has enjoyed a mostly amicable relationship with Democratic leaders who hold veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers. Yet there are signals that tensions between lawmakers and the governor could grow as Baker girds for a likely re-election bid in 2018 and conflicts loom over spending and taxes.
In remarks to the Senate, Rosenberg called for a new fiscal approach, including tax increases.
"We are nearly 20 years into the 21st century and we have a budget that is built on a foundation laid decades ago, when Massachusetts began its campaign to shed the `Taxachusetts' label," the Amherst Democrat said. "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 suggested closing tax loopholes and taxing services such as Airbnb. He also urged voters to approve a constitutional amendment calling for a surtax on people with incomes above $1 million, and chided Baker _ though not by name _ for cutting state programs to address a budget shortfall.
Senators in the coming session would debate plans to modernize the state's deteriorating transportation system, revamp the state's education funding system, abolish minimum sentences for most crimes and address "the gnawing disparity in incomes in our state and nation," Rosenberg said.
On the latter point, he called for passage of a family leave bill and a further hike in the state's minimum wage, which rose by $1 to $11 per hour on Jan. 1.
DeLeo planned to detail his legislative agenda later this month, but told reporters after a Democratic caucus that he expected debate over the state budget to be "somewhat complicated." He said a decision whether to support new taxes would come after discussions with other lawmakers.
The speaker also made clear that blue state Massachusetts won't hesitate to challenge the incoming Donald Trump administration at any turn.
"When he or some of the members of his administration seem to go astray ... in terms of what is best for the people of Massachusetts, than he better be damn sure that he is going to hear from me and a lot of other elected (officials) from Massachusetts," DeLeo said in response to a question about the potential dismantling of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Shortly after being elected House leader for the first time, DeLeo backed a rule that imposed a limit of four terms for speakers. But he would later change his view and engineered another rules change to allow him to serve beyond eight years.
Brushing off the prospect of becoming the state's longest-serving speaker, DeLeo said Wednesday he was more interested in solving problems than breaking records.