BOSTON (AP) — 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.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, who were easily re-elected to their leadership posts by the huge Democratic majorities in their chambers, outlined their priorities after House and Senate members were sworn in by Gov. Deval Patrick.
Both DeLeo and Murray referenced the fatal shootings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and they promised to explore ways to toughen gun laws and keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill.
While acknowledging that gun control is primarily a federal issue, DeLeo said Massachusetts can be part of the solution.
"Accordingly, I want to bring together members of our House and outside experts to study the dangerous intersection of guns and mental illness in schools and throughout society," DeLeo said. He named Jack McDevitt, associate dean of Northeastern University, to work with lawmakers on the gun issue.
Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, told senators that horrifying crimes like the massacre in Connecticut have become far too common and said she has held initial talks with Patrick and DeLeo about legislation "that will protect the residents of Massachusetts without demonizing the mentally ill."
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, told House members the state's transportation infrastructure faced a financing gap in the billions of dollars in the coming years. While not offering specific solutions, DeLeo declared that the burden of paying to upgrade the state's transportation system should not be borne by any one region of Massachusetts over another, and that the safety of roads, bridges and public transit be paramount.
"I do not accept that safety must be sacrificed for the sake of fiscal solvency, and I will not accept any proposal that does not provide our citizens with the assurance their transportation infrastructure will be safe and state-of-the-art," he said.
Murray, in her remarks, said Massachusetts was facing a "daunting, long-term need to update our infrastructure systems," including transportation.
Patrick and key legislators have suggested that new revenues will be needed to fund transportation, but they have yet to say whether they would support a tax increase, such as a hike in the state's 21 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. The administration is due to deliver a transportation finance report by Monday.
Asked about a possible gas tax hike, DeLeo told reporters following his address that "everything and anything is on the table," but he added he would first seek ways of improving efficiency in the transportation system.
Rep. Brad Jones, who was re-elected by members of his party as House Republican leader, urged Democrats to "think twice" about any statewide tax increase, saying it would hurt the state's chances of sustaining an economic recovery.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by a more than 4-1 margin in the House and hold 36 of the 40 seats in the Senate, where Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, will remain the minority leader.
Murray, who in March 2007 became the first woman to preside over the Massachusetts Senate, also listed several other priorities for the coming session, including an upgrade in how the state manages drinking water resources and deals with wastewater, which she called a "pressing environmental issue."
She said the Senate would consider ways to improve oversight and inspection of compounding pharmacies in the wake of a deadly nationwide meningitis outbreak tied to a Framingham company, and could consider a proposal by Attorney General Martha Coakley to raise the maximum fine for corporate manslaughter from $1,000 to $250,000.
Murray also said the Senate would consider ways of closing loopholes in the state's welfare system and further protecting homeowners from foreclosure.
DeLeo said he would propose that unemployment insurance rates paid by businesses be frozen at current levels for a fifth consecutive year, while seeking long-term reforms for the system.
The Democrat took over as speaker in January 2009 following the resignation of former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who was subsequently convicted and imprisoned on corruption charges.