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Therese Murray planning an ambitious agenda

Transit, early voting, welfare are top issues

Senate President Therese Murray is expected to return to the welfare issue in a speech to the Senate Wednesday. It is an issue that made her a force in the chamber in the 1990’s.

Senate President Therese Murray is expected to return to the welfare issue in a speech to the Senate Wednesday. It is an issue that made her a force in the chamber in the 1990’s.

Therese Murray plans to unveil a lengthy agenda Wednesday for her final full session as state Senate president, including expansion of early voting, a fix to the state’s transportation system, and changes to the state’s welfare system, the issue that brought her to prominence two decades ago when she began her Senate career.

Murray will outline her plans in a speech to senators after they are sworn in and convene for a new two-year session.

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The remarks, which contain broad policy goals but few details, were provided by her office to the Globe. Murray declined an interview request, so her exact position on several issues, particularly the level of support she would lend to a tax increase for the struggling MBTA is not clear in her remarks.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is also expected to outline his priorities in a speech to his members Wednesday, after their inaugurations, but the Globe did not receive an advance copy. Governor Deval Patrick will outline his priorities on Jan. 16, when he delivers the annual State of the Commonwealth address.

Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 1992 and has served as president since 2007. Under Senate term limits, she is required to give up her post by March 2015, meaning this is her last full two-year term as Senate leader, barring a rule change.

Murray is not known for public displays of sentimentality, but the speech she plans to deliver Wednesday reaches back to the early years of her legislative career as it sets what will probably be her final agenda as leader.

Murray, the first woman to lead the Senate, made her name in the chamber by championing a 1995 overhaul of the state’s welfare system, which preceded the federal welfare overhaul, with limits on cash assistance and emphasis on finding work.

In Wednesday’s speech, Murray is expected to credit the 1995 legislation with reducing the welfare rolls by half, but she also plans to say it needs unspecified tweaks.

“Those reforms were enacted with the goal of creating a system that gave people the help they need to exit a system that kept them in poverty and their children at risk,” Murray plans to say. “It’s time to revisit and identify loopholes that need to be closed to ensure that our system presents a clear path for our residents to reach economic independence and lead self-sufficient and successful lives.”

Murray does not plan to outline the changes she would seek in Wednesday’s speech. Broad changes could face resistance from Patrick, who depended on welfare while growing up on the South Side of Chicago and has been been wary of benefit changes that he has labeled as unnecessarily punitive.

Last year, Patrick accused the Legislature of “political grandstanding” on the issue as he sent back a measure banning welfare recipients from using benefit cards for alcohol, lottery tickets, tobacco, and certain other purchases. The Legislature rejected those changes.

Murray also plans to call for new discussion of early voting and liberalized absentee ballot policies that have been adopted in other states “to allow greater voter participation and convenience, and to ease polling place congestion.”

Secretary of State William F. Galvin recently said that he supports changes to loosen restrictions on who can vote absentee and has filed a constitutional amendment that would allow them. He said some other forms of early balloting could create logistical challenges that would cost more money, but he would welcome the Legislature taking up the issue.

Many of Murray’s other proposals dovetail with priorities previously discussed by DeLeo and Patrick.

She will propose measures to respond to the deadly massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School “that will protect the residents of Massachusetts without demonizing the mentally ill.” Patrick has introduced a gun bill that would, among other provisions, increase the reporting of disqualifying mental health issues into the federal gun registry.

Murray will also propose reexamining the criteria for sex offender registration in response to the case of John Burbine, a Level 1 sex offender from Wakefield accused last month of raping and abusing at least a dozen infants and children at his wife’s childcare service.

Patrick supports posting the identities of Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders online, while making information about Level 1 offenders available in person upon request. Others have called for greater public access.

Murray also plans to urge the Senate to consider a proposal by Attorney General Martha Coakley to raise the maximum fine in corporate manslaughter cases from $1,000 to $250,000. That proposal is part of what is expected to be a package of measures to deal with the fallout from the deadly meningitis outbreak that has been linked to the New England Compounding Center in Framingham.

Patrick has appointed a special commission to look at the industry and its work is nearly complete, said Alec Loftus, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Patrick has made transportation a top priority this year, and the Legislature has developed a consensus that something needs to be done to address an estimated shortfall of about $1 billion a year to maintain the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, regional bus systems, and state highways. Murray, in her speech, plans to cite significant needs, including a $2.2 trillion backlog of infrastructure projects at the MBTA.

But she does not specifically endorse a tax increase. Instead, she notes that the Legislature had previously demanded “reform before revenue,” which sparked a 2009 overhaul that eliminated the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. She said that change, plus an increase in the sales tax that staved off toll hikes and MBTA fare increases, helped the state “overcome some of its most immediate problems” with its transportation system.

“It is now possible to envision a better future for the Department of Transportation, where it was not before,” she plans to say.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.
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