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Chesto Means Business

Karen Spilka seeks business help on ambitious agenda

Senate President Karen E. Spilka
Senate President Karen E. Spilka(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2018)

The door is wide open.

That’s the message that Senate President Karen Spilka conveyed to Associated Industries of Massachusetts on Friday as she outlined her priorities for the new legislative session.

Spilka told the state’s largest employer group that she wants input as her team tackles the big ones: spurring housing production, reforming health care, pumping more money into schools, fixing public transit and road congestion, and addressing climate change.

There were similarities to House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce earlier in the week, when he called for the business community’s help to deal with the state’s transportation woes. Several chambers of commerce and other business groups, including AIM, have been meeting to brainstorm solutions: Increases to the gas tax rate and surcharges on Uber and Lyft rides are on the table.

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Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland, pointed to the “grand bargain” talks last year as a model for the future. Those negotiations brought together business and labor leaders to hammer out a wide-ranging deal that included a new minimum wage and a paid family and medical leave program.

But Spilka didn’t offer many specifics during her Friday speech at the Westin hotel in Waltham. It’s early in the two-year session, her first full term as president. (She became the Senate’s leader last summer.) She said she wants to give her committee chairs time to vet the issues.

There’s certainly some overlap between AIM’s priorities and Spilka’s. For AIM members, the No. 1 issue is the high cost of health care. The House and Senate failed to reach an agreement on a health care bill before time ran out last year.

AIM spokesman Chris Geehern said his group appreciated Spilka’s call for collaboration. But board members, convening after the speech, also expressed concern about the potential costs related to some of her priorities, Geehern said. Employers, he said, don’t want to shovel money onto a problem without seeing a clear path to a solution.

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They’ve been burned before. Case in point: the time in 2017 when lawmakers raised payroll surcharges on companies to help cover the state’s rising MassHealth insurance subsidies. Employers expected some MassHealth reforms to follow, to help curb expenses. But that never happened. AIM is now pushing to have those surcharges eliminated.

Another potential conflict could arise over energy and environmental legislation. Spilka expressed clear disappointment Friday that many aspects of the Senate’s main climate change bill didn’t advance last year. She said “the controversy is subsiding” with regard to aspects of that bill. Wishful thinking? We will soon find out.

Senator Michael Barrett, Spilka’s point person on energy issues, is determined to get legislation passed that puts a price on carbon emissions. From Barrett’s perspective, that was the one that got away last year. The version that received the most support in the Senate would establish deadlines for the Baker administration to put a program in place, while providing flexibility in how to do it.

Barrett said he is encouraged by Governor Charlier Baker’s participation in a regional effort to craft a “cap and trade” system for carbon emissions tied to transportation fuels, like what exists today for power plants. But Barrett isn’t convinced that the approach can be effective. And he prefers to get specific deadlines enshrined in state law. Something needs to be done, he said, to make it more expensive to burn fossil fuels.

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Spilka wrapped up her speech by saying that she wants the Legislature to take bold steps, not incremental ones. She also wants to reach a consensus on these important issues, a la last year’s grand bargain. But she’s been in office long enough to know it’s not easy to do both.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.