BOSTON — Gun control and transportation funding will be among the key issues facing the Massachusetts Legislature in the coming months, legislative leaders said Wednesday as a new two-year session formally got under way.
Families and friends of veteran and newly elected lawmakers packed the House and Senate chambers for the pomp and circumstance of a new session. House Speaker Robert DeLeo balanced optimism with caution about what he calls the serious responsibilities that lie ahead.
“They involve dealing with fiscal problems throughout state government and our transportation system,” said DeLeo, as well as “protecting existing jobs and creating new ones, and healing in the wake of tragic events in neighboring states.”
The speaker’s reference to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., drew a standing ovation as he announced the creation of an expert panel that would look specifically at the “dangerous intersection of guns and mental illness in schools and throughout society.”
Senate President Therese Murray said that she, the speaker and Gov. Deval Patrick have already met to discuss legislation in response to Newtown, but Murray warned against any association between gun violence and mental illness.
“I’m not ready to demonize the mentally ill,” Murray said emphatically. “There are people who are not mentally ill who shoot people, as we know.”
Murray said the focus of gun control legislation should be on limiting access to assault weapons that the average citizen doesn’t need, and on gun trafficking.
“We know where the illegal guns come from,” she said. “We need to stop them from coming in so that the urban centers don’t continue to have the violence with the young street gangs. But more importantly we have to look at what kind of weapons are acceptable in a society that cares about each other.”
Murray’s other priorities include closing loopholes in the state’s welfare program. Both Murray and DeLeo say they will freeze the unemployment insurance rate so that any scheduled increases do not take place. Reviving a sluggish state economy while coming up with more state revenue may be one of the most difficult acts for the new Legislature.
DeLeo ruled out any tax increase last year, but that’s not the case now, as DeLeo looks at the MBTA’s budget and a backlog of road, bridge and tunnel repairs.
“We’ve got some issues surrounding transportation and until we’re able to find a fiscal solution to that, I’d have to say that everything and anything is on the table,” DeLeo said.
Murray said it’s too early to say what, if any, tax increases Senate Democrats would support, especially given lingering questions about what Congress may do to reduce the federal deficit.
“They kind of kicked the can down the road a little bit,” Murray said with a grimace. “I’m glad they took a vote finally, but it was a disgraceful, disgraceful display.”
Murray and DeLeo are also waiting to see what Patrick proposes in his State of the State Address on Jan. 16. But many State House observers expect debate on a gas or income tax increase.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said Republicans are ready with a package that will promote economic growth, not more taxes.
“An economic recovery isn’t facilitated by increasing taxes on anyone,” Tarr said.
Still, many social service groups, unions and municipal leaders say they can’t sustain another year of state budget cuts. This may be a year when figuring out how to balance the budget is the state’s most pressing issue.
This post was updated with All Things Considered feature content, with additional reporting by The Associated Press.