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Michelle Wu rolls out legislative package, gearing up to lobby Beacon Hill

Boston Mayor Michelle WuErin Clark/Globe Staff

It’s the beginning of her second year in office, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is trying a second time to persuade the state to sign off on major new transportation and housing policies for the city.

As the Massachusetts Legislature’s new session gets underway this month, Boston is again pushing for approval to levy a new tax on high-value real estate transactions, as well as a seat on the board that oversees the MBTA, both proposals that failed on Beacon Hill last year. And in the months to come, Wu intends to ask Massachusetts lawmakers to allow rent control in Boston — likely the toughest battle, since the Legislature has repeatedly rejected the policy in the past.


But if the ideas themselves aren’t new, Wu is hoping the reception to them will be. Allies argue the mayor has better odds of success now because her administration is fully staffed, her timing this round lines up with the start of the legislative session, and her team is pursuing a narrower agenda than past Boston mayors. Perhaps most important, Wu may have a powerful new ally in the new incoming Democratic governor, Democrat Maura Healey.

Wu said in an interview Thursday that she is “very hopeful” the Legislature will prove more supportive this time of Boston’s priority issues.

“Last session, we were building our team along the way and managing many other foundational issues at the city level. I think we’ve learned a lot about the ways in which things move at the state level and have built and strengthened partnerships with our colleagues at the state,” she said. “I am so excited about Governor Healey and her new administration.”

Boston mayors have long seen their ambitions limited by Beacon Hill, which holds a striking amount of power over local affairs. Unlike in many other states, local officials in Massachusetts need state sign-off for policies as straightforward as adding new liquor licenses and as essential as raising new taxes. Leaders of the state’s most powerful city have grown accustomed over the years to watching their proposals die time and again at the State House.


Jeff Sánchez, a former state representative from Boston who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, remembers how frustrated former Boston mayor Tom Menino became when his bills languished in the Legislature. “‘You guys are useless,’” Menino would bark at the Boston delegation, Sánchez recalled, laughing.

Wu campaigned on an ambitious slate of policies that require the Legislature’s blessing, meaning the success of her agenda depends heavily on her influence on Beacon Hill. Sánchez said he expects Wu to utilize her prominent platform to advocate for Boston, but also to work internally, leveraging her relationships with powerful state leaders.

“Michelle Wu is relentless,” Sánchez said. “She is going to make those phone calls. She’s going to challenge her friends in the Legislature.”

Wu is pushing hard for an MBTA board seat, in a bid for some direct control over the troubled transit system, whose continued dysfunction threatens the economy of Boston, as well as the mobility and quality of life of its residents. Last year, the state House of Representatives, Senate, and governor all agreed to a version of a Boston board seat, but the proposal died in the chaotic scramble at the end of the legislative session.


And Wu is once again proposing a transfer tax that would charge sellers a 2 percent tax on real estate sales of $2 million or more, with the first $2 million exempted from the fee. City officials say the provision would have raised $100 million had it been in place in 2021, money that would be directed to affordable housing. A number of other cities, including Nantucket, Somerville, and Brookline, have also proposed transfer fees, but the Legislature has never approved them.

Wu told the Globe she has already spoken to Healey directly about both the MBTA seat and the transfer tax. She said the governor has not specifically committed to supporting either initiative, but noted the two leaders are “on the same page about how urgently we need to tackle the housing crisis and fix our transportation system.” Healey and Wu have both said they look forward to forging a strong partnership, though they differ on both politics and policy, with the mayor to the left of the governor on a number of issues.

The capital city is pushing three other bills this month at the State House. One would equalize the cost of all commuter rail trips in Boston; currently, rides that start at some stations on the outskirts of the city are nearly three times the price of rides from more central city stops. Another measure would immediately provide child care vouchers to families who become unhoused, who currently have to wait weeks before receiving that assistance, city officials said. And the third seeks to ban third-party energy suppliers, which the city warns take advantage of vulnerable consumers.


In a statement, House Speaker Ron Mariano noted that Wu’s top issues coincide with those of the chamber and that he looks “forward to hearing more from members and the Mayor,” as legislation is reviewed. Through a spokeswoman, Senate President Karen Spilka expressed similar sentiments.

Two of the city’s most anticipated proposals, home rule petitions on rent control and urban renewal, were not filed this week and will likely not arrive on Beacon Hill for months. Both require approval first from the Boston City Council.

On rent control, Wu faces political opposition from many sides and a number of hurdles. One of the steepest will be the state Legislature, which has rejected the policy more than once. Just this week, Mariano said he has “questions” about Wu’s proposal.

Still, State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, an influential Boston Democrat who has led House budget efforts, pointed out that the Legislature has in the past rebuffed blanket rent control policies for the state, not targeted local measures like what Boston is proposing.

The conversation on rent control, Michlewitz said, is “maturing.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean its time has come.

“We’ll certainly look” at the city’s proposals, he added.

The city also laid out plans Friday to “amend” its urban renewal powers, a powerful development tool that allows Boston to seize so-called blighted property by eminent domain. Boston used such powers in the mid-20th century to raze the West End, Scollay Square, and parts of the South End and Roxbury.


Wu said last February that she would end the program by the end of 2022, but several urban renewal areas remain active into 2023. City Hall officials did not offer details of the forthcoming plan this week other than to say in a press release they would seek to “remove and modernize antiquated structures” covered by the program. Administration officials told the Globe they remain committed to sunsetting urban renewal.

That makes a total of seven legislative priorities for the Wu administration during her first full legislative session, a modest agenda compared to the dozens of bills past Boston mayors have pushed. That’s by design, aides said: Instead of making a long list of asks, Wu will push harder for fewer proposals, making clear that all are priorities.

State lawmakers and others who have worked closely with the Legislature praised that strategy.

Keith Mahoney, who worked as Menino’s director of state relations, said the city’s Beacon Hill “batting average wasn’t high, but there were a lot of at-bats.”

“There was a lengthy legislative package, and I think perhaps sometimes it was too much, so that people didn’t know where the priorities were,” said Mahoney, now a vice president at The Boston Foundation. Focusing more clearly on fewer legislative priorities sounds “like a great strategy,” Mahoney added. “Your batting average goes up if you take fewer at-bats.”

Catherine Carlock of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.