Our Opinion: New Senate leader may shake up Beacon Hill

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The state Senate, a generally progressive body that has found itself stymied in recent years by the combination of the moderate House and conservative governor, has had enough. That, at least, is the message from Senate President Karen Spilka, who, upon being elected to her first full term as leader, set out an ambitious agenda last week that amounted to a challenge to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and his frequent ally, Gov. Charlie Baker.

A Democrat from Ashland, Ms. Spilka became Senate president last summer, not long after the departure of longtime president Stanley Rosenberg triggered by a political scandal involving Mr. Rosenberg's husband.

She didn't have an opportunity to establish her own agenda last year but is poised to hit the ground running as the Legislature begins its two-year term. With the Senate's progressive caucus adding to its membership in last year's election, she will backed by senators who are impatient with what they see as an overly cautious approach to serious problems by the Democratic speaker and the Republican governor.

Ms. Spilka said that the "voices of the future" in Massachusetts "are telling us that the time for small ideas and incremental change are over." The Senate has chafed as its big ideas were reduced to small ones in conference committee, or trimmed to avoid a veto from the governor. The ambitious president is determined to break this pattern, but the same obstacles are in place.

Ms. Spilka's primary fight may come on education funding. The state underfunds education by roughly $1 billion a year, according to a study released last summer by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, which asserted that the root of the problem is the state's failure to update its 25-year-old foundation budget. For the most, part Beacon Hill accepts these findings, but only the Senate appears to have the will to raise taxes to address a problem that undermines Massachusetts' claims to be at the forefront of education among the nation's states.

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Along those lines, the Senate president called for the development of a "tax framework for the 21st century." This effort is overdue, and the absence of a framework that meets 21st-century needs leads to gimmicks like the "millionaire's tax." But what if the millionaires tax led to a serious discussion of instituting a graduated income tax? Beacon Hill must confront some unpleasant financial realities and potential solutions this term. President Spilka may be just the leader to force that to happen.

Last week, the House, which, in 2015, eliminated the eight-year term limit for speakers at the behest of Speaker DeLeo, elected the Winthrop Democrat to his sixth two-year term as head of that body. This was accompanied by a minor revolt by eight Democrats, four of whom were elected to their first terms in November, who voted present instead of supporting their party's leader.

Five of those eight were members of a small group that earlier that day had urged Democrats to elect speakers by secret ballot instead of openly-recorded votes, as has been the case for years. Newcomer Maria Robinson of Framingham, who introduced the proposal, said it would assure that lawmakers would be "independent," which is a careful way of saying that lawmakers wouldn't have to fear retribution from the speaker for not supporting him.

Rep. Tackey Chan of Quincy, a DeLeo ally, declared that "To go to a secret ballot defies a republic" — a strange statement coming from a lawmaker who was elected by a secret ballot, as were all of his colleagues.

The proposal was defeated by a voice vote, meaning that none of those in favor of a secret ballot had their names recorded for the record.

If dissidents want to end the perceived tyranny of the Speaker-For-Life, they are going to have put their names forward and live with the result. That said, we urge Speaker DeLeo to give his restive progressives an opportunity join their Senate counterparts in at least making a case for some of the reform efforts — from education funding, to tax reform, to lowering prescription drug costs, to addressing rises in health care costs, to confronting the need for a better east-west passenger rail network — that Beacon Hill continues to put off to the state's detriment.


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