SENATE PRESIDENT STAN ROSENBERG offered a snapshot of his legislative priorities for the coming session, zeroing in on the need to invest in education and transportation, and enact criminal justice reform.
The liberal lawmaker staked out ground that contrasts sharply with the state’s tax-averse governor, who has been forced to make budget cuts several times in his first two years in office. “Some believe we can continue to cut our way to success. I do not believe that,” said Rosenberg,
The Amherst Democrat addressed his colleagues after the 40-member Senate was sworn in for a new term in by Gov. Charlie Baker and after Rosenberg was reelected as the chamber’s leader in a 34-6 vote that broke along party lines.
A 30-year veteran of the Legislature, Rosenberg was elected Senate president two years ago, becoming the first openly gay lawmaker to hold the position.
Rosenberg advocated for a further boost in the state’s minimum wage and paid family leave as part of the effort to combat what he called “the gnawing disparity in incomes in our state and nation.”
The long-term solution to income inequality, he said, is “to equip each of our residents with the skills needed to prosper in this globalized economy.”
Rosenberg said that means greater state investment in education as well in transportation to support the infrastructure of the state’s knowledge-based economy.
To fund those two priorities, Rosenberg touted a likely 2018 ballot question for a constitutional amendment that would raise taxes on high earners. It has been estimated that the so-called millionaires’ tax would generate more than $1.5 billion a year in state revenue, money that backers want to see directed to education and transportation needs.
Rosenberg said the state shouldn’t wait for any revenue the measure would generate, pointing to the opportunity this term to enact a tax on lodging booked through home-sharing services such as Airbnb.
The state needs a “21st century tax system and budget to meet 21st century challenges,” Rosenberg told lawmakers.
Rosenberg said the Senate will engage in a statewide transportation planning initiative in conjunction with the Barr Foundation.
Rosenberg also signaled an interest in pushing for comprehensive criminal justice reform.
“We’ve been tough on crime; now we need to be smart on crime,” he said.
Rosenberg called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and said the state needs to “scale up successful diversion and restorative justice programs.”
A state commission that has been reviewing criminal justice policies is due to issue a report this month that will form the basis for legislation. Advocates have criticized the fact that it is likely to focus more narrowly on parole, probation and services at the “back end” of the system when offenders are released from incarceration, but Rosenberg seems interested in pursuing a wider criminal justice agenda that includes sentencing reform.
He decried the fact that the state spends $1.3 billion on correctional facilities, more than is spent on all of higher education. What has that spending done “besides put an enormous strain on our budget? Very little,” said Rosenberg, pointing to the fact that about two-thirds of those released from Massachusetts prisons return to the criminal justice system within five years.
Rosenberg has sometimes been the odd man out in the three-way interplay with the governor and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, both of whom rejected consideration of broad-based tax increases in the last legislative session. While Baker’s stance remains unchanged, DeLeo has so far not closed the door to new taxes.
DeLeo, who has served as speaker since 2009, was reelected today to a new term by House Democrats. If he completes the two-year stint, he will become the longest serving House speaker since the American Revolution.
DeLeo told reporters outside the House chamber that such records are not on his mind. “To break records or terms of longest speaker is not foremost in my mind, quite frankly,” DeLeo said.
He said his focus is on issues facing the state, citing the 2018 budget and regulations on the marijuana industry as two immediate priorities.
Bruce Mohl contributed to this report.