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State Senate leader outlines agenda as lawmakers sworn in

January 2, 2019
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Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, stands in the Senate Chamber at the Massachusetts Statehouse, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Boston, prior to the swearing-in of 40 senators in the ornate chamber that reopened Wednesday for the first time in more than 18 months after undergoing a $20 million renovation. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

BOSTON (AP) — The Democratic leader of the Massachusetts Senate promised Wednesday to work for lower prescription drug costs, expanded mental health services and a reform to the state’s education funding formula as she laid out an ambitious agenda at the start of the Legislature’s new two-year session.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker administered oaths to the 40-member Senate and 160-member House in ceremonies signaling the start of the 191st term for one of America’s oldest legislative bodies. Formally known as the General Court, the Legislature traces its roots to the Colonial era.

The first order of business in each chamber — both firmly controlled by Democrats — was the re-election of presiding officers.

Rep. Robert DeLeo, of Winthrop, already the longest-serving House speaker in the state’s history having first taken the gavel in 2009, returned for another two-year term. Ashland Democrat Karen Spilka will serve her first full term as Senate president after first assuming the post in July.

Speaking in the ornate Senate chamber, which reopened Wednesday for the first time in more than 18 months following a $20 million renovation, Spilka called for several “bold” initiatives in response to what she said were demands from Massachusetts residents to move beyond “small ideas and incremental change.”

Spilka said her priorities would include legislation to better control health care spending by reining in the high cost of prescription drugs and redistribute state education funding to better serve children who live in poorer school districts.

Recalling the untreated psychological trauma her father suffered as a result of his military service, the Senate leader also appealed for a broad expansion of mental health services throughout the state.

“We simply cannot end the epidemic of addiction or solve the problems of chronic homelessness and unemployment, child abuse and neglect, veteran and first responder PTSD, childhood bullying, or repeated incarceration, without first addressing the underlying issue of mental health,” said Spilka.

While not specifically calling for tax increases, Spilka said the state would need to “capture new revenues” to support new and existing programs.

Spilka, a liberal Democrat, was widely expected to stake out a progressive agenda that could meet resistance in the House, which is also controlled by Democrats but is seen as more conservative than the Senate. Baker, a moderate Republican who remains opposed to any broad-based tax hikes, could also prove a stumbling block.

In brief comments following his re-election on Wednesday, DeLeo declared that “no one’s rights will be infringed upon in Massachusetts,” an apparent swipe at the policies of President Donald Trump and other Republicans in Washington. DeLeo generally waits until a few weeks into a new session before outlining his legislative priorities.

Sen. Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, and Rep. Brad Jones, of North Reading, will again serve as the minority leaders in their respective chambers.

There are 32 Republicans in the House and only six in the Senate, with the GOP having lost a handful of legislative seats in the November election.

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