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Top 10 Political Questions for MA in 2013

Thursday, January 03, 2013

 

The Commonwealth's new legislative session opened on Wednesday, and GoLocal broke down the biggest issues facing Bay State politicians in the new year.

State Budget: Sluggish state revenues already caused Bay Staters to miss out on an automatic reduction in the state income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5.20 percent set to kick in on New Year's Day, and Governor Deval Patrick revised revenue estimates downward by $540 million as he enacted $225 million in Executive Branch spending cuts for the current fiscal year. Additional cuts in other non-executive department budgets were also called for, and Patrick proposed tapping the Commonwealth's rainy day fund for $200 million. While the December cuts and revisions may be enough to keep the budget balanced for now, a long term solution is still needed. The Amazon sales tax deal, set to go into effect early in the next fiscal year in the fall of 2013, may go some distance in boosting revenue.

Transportation: Dovetailing with the state budget issues is the issue of the MBTA and the transportation budget. The transit authority is staring down a $132 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, and Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray said last year that the state was underfunding transportation needs by $1 billion a year. Murray was a major player in the $100 million rail deal that brought expanded commuter service and a new CSX rail yard to Worcester. In order to keep expanding service connecting the Commonwealth's two largest cities, as well as make much needed improvements to the state's roads and bridges, tax hikes might be the only route. The Massachusetts Municipal Association found in a recent survey that local road repairs were underfunded by $362 a year and called for an immediate increase of $100 million in state contributions.

Welfare Reform: More work on the state's assistance programs is expected this year. Sweeping reforms of the Commonwealth's EBT card program were a hard sell with Patrick in 2012, and while the governor's stance on cutting back or limited cash assistance is unlikely to change, that won't stop lawmakers from trying to push through tighter controls on welfare dollars.

Gun Reform: Massachusetts already boasts some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but after last month's tragic shooting of 20 school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, additional rules or regulations may be forthcoming in 2013. Mental illness appears to be at the forefront of the discussion, and any changes seem likely to be directed at the licensing and screening process rather than the type of weapons permitted.

Sex Offender Laws: House Speaker Robert DeLeo moved quickly last month to revive discussion about legislation that would make the names of Level 1 sex offenders public after news of alleged serial sexual assaults on young children by Wakefield resident John Burbine emerged. The bill lost momentum and stalled in the legislature last year, but recent events may be enough to jumpstart it and get it passed into law.

Pharmacy Regulations: In the wake of the meningitis outbreak linked to Framingham's New England Compounding Center that claimed 39 lives and sickened more than 600 people across the country, Attorney General Martha Coakley has urged lawmakers to increase the maximum penalty for corporate manslaughter, which currently sits at just $1,000. Either higher penalties, tighter regulations on compounding pharmacies or both could come out of the next session.

Healthcare Costs: Massachusetts took the lead on reining in rising costs with its first of its kind healthcare cost control bill passed in 2012 that ties cost increases to the growth of the Commonwealth's economy through 2017. Health insurance providers in Massachusetts saw their earnings plummet last year, and their margins will only shrink further under the new cost controls. Whether saving money for consumers will end up costing jobs in the state's massive healthcare industry is still unclear, but there is the potential for fallout if the economy remains sluggish and health insurers are squeezed even further.

Casino Gaming: Licenses for three full casinos and one slots parlor are currently up for grabs under the state's new gaming law. While construction on any of the three casinos is not expected to start until 2014, the lone slots parlor could be cashing in much sooner. Where exactly they'll be located, who will own them and whether lawmakers will be praised or blamed for their effect on the surrounding communities could decide the political fate of some officials.

Medical Marijuana: Voters passed this one themselves, by a 63 percent to 37 percent margin, but as the state's Department of Public Health takes the next 120 days to craft licensing rules and regulations for the possible 35 dispensaries in 2013, don't expect elected officials to avoid blame if anything goes wrong with the implementation. A number of municipalities are already making moves to block or restrict such facilities within their borders.

Senate Special Election: With John Kerry's confirmation as President Obama's new Secretary of State all but certain, another Senate special election is equally certain. Congressman Ed Markey has jumped out ahead of the Democratic pack in announcing his candidacy, but whether he ultimately succeeds the Bay State's senior Senator or the job falls to someone else, Governor Patrick will still have to appoint an interim and both moves are likely to have ramifications on the state level as well as legislators on Beacon Hill eye new vacancies for a chance to make a step up.

 

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