State Senator Karen Spilka has spent the past week moving into a corner office in the East Wing in the State House while undertaking a crash course in state budgeting as the new chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“I’ve been living with charts, pie charts, and tables and learning a lot about state accounting,” she said during an interview.
Spilka’s appointment to lead the budget-writing committee came days after Republican Governor Charlie Baker revealed a $765 million shortfall in the state’s current fiscal year budget.
“Her challenge will certainly be, right off the bat, making the budget recommendations that are going to be needed to make up the gap,” said Steven Panagiotakos, a former Senate Ways and Means chairman and Lowell Democrat.
The choices will be difficult and limited in scope, Panagiotakos said. More than half of the state budget is nondiscretionary spending, which finances the state retirement system, debt service, and education, he said.
Current and former colleagues of Spilka praised Senate President Stanley Rosenberg’s decision to appoint Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, to the leadership role.
“I think she will be great,” said state Senator Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat. “She is someone who cares about people. She is a careful negotiator, she sticks to her guns, and she works well with people all across the Senate.
“She is a fundamentally decent human being and she genuinely fights for what she believes in,” he added.
Brownsberger said he got to know Spilka better when they faced off during the 2013 primary in the Fifth Congressional District. (The seat went to another then-state senator, Katherine Clark, who emerged the winner after a seven-way race.)
Spilka’s background as a social worker, labor lawyer, and arbitrator keeps her grounded in her current job, she said. A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Spilka graduated from Cornell University and moved to Boston in search of a job. She worked as a waitress until she found a job counseling children and their families.
“The kids had been basically kicked out of the Boston public school system for behavior problems,” she said.
Spilka grew up in a household with a mentally ill father who died of a heart attack at age 58 and a younger sister, Susie, born with Down syndrome. Spilka is her legal guardian. A portrait of the two sisters sits on a bookshelf behind Spilka’s desk.
“We need to be fiscally responsible, clearly,” Spilka said of the looming budget cuts. “But I think we need to be compassionate. Every line item, every dollar in the budget, impacts some person out there. And that’s heart-wrenching, knowing we may have to cut some programs. That’s why I am hoping we can do it in other ways and leave the programs and services intact.”
Spilka served three years in the House before winning her Senate seat in 2004 representing the Second Middlesex and Norfolk District. She and her husband, Joel, an environmental engineer, moved to Ashland in the 1980s because they could afford a house there. They both joined town boards. By 1999, Spilka won a seat on the local school board and was soon spearheading a regional effort to reform education funding. She won her House seat in 2001 during a special election.
During her career in the House and Senate, Spilka has championed revamping the Children In Need of Services system so that children could seek help at family resource centers instead of appearing before a judge. She cochairs the Legislature’s Tech Hub Caucus, aimed at encouraging tech startups to grow and stay in the Commonwealth.
She served as majority whip for the past two years.
Eric Hyers, who worked as her campaign manager during her 2013 congressional bid, described Spilka as someone with a big heart who demands excellence from her staff.
“She is a fighter. You don’t want to be on the other side of her. She is really a good listener, but she also gets results,” Hyers said. “She just cares about people. She really, really cares.”
Senate Ways and Means members will begin discussing their budget recommendations for the next fiscal year in March.
Panagiotakos, the former committee chairman, cautioned that the kinds of decisions Spilka will face in her new leadership position can keep a person up at night.
“You’re dealing with the financial analysis and the human analysis,” he said.
Panagiotakos said Spilka’s work ethic coupled with her ability to take in opinions of those around her are her strengths as a legislator.