Acting Senate president says housing problem leaves state at risk
Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler laid out a series of priorities for herself and the Senate on Wednesday, warning that Massachusetts is at risk of losing its reputation as a national leader unless it addresses its longstanding housing affordability problem.
Speaking from prepared remarks after presiding over the first Senate session of 2018, Chandler urged senators to “maintain belief in the greatness of Massachusetts and each other” as they consider a far-reaching paid family and medical leave proposal, plans to raise the minimum wage, and the effects of federal policies on Massachusetts in the seven months of formal sessions that remain before election season ramps up again.
“We live in a state that has led the way on issues of health and wealth for all — yet as long as one family remains unable to afford adequate housing, or one innovative business leaves our state, we all suffer, together,” Chandler said.
Chandler, who has advocated for affordable housing policies in her nearly 25 years on Beacon Hill, elevated that issue toward the top of the Senate’s priorities. She said Massachusetts must address the affordability of housing, for everyone from families to recent college graduates, in order to facilitate the future growth of the state and its economy.
“We are in danger of losing the next generation of business innovators and leaders — and our reputation as a nationwide leader in the innovation economy — if those innovators cannot afford to live in our state,” she said.
“I’m excited that President Chandler’s there because she’s been a housing champion for so long,” Housing Committee Cochairman Joseph Boncore said. Calling more housing production an “answer to sustaining our economy,” along with transportation, Boncore, a Democrat from Winthrop, said, “Hopefully we can work towards getting a piece to the governor’s desk” this year that will spur more housing development.
Governor Charlie Baker recently put housing affordability legislation before the Legislature. With housing rules largely dictated by locally managed zoning bylaws in cities and towns, Beacon Hill over the years has struggled to pass affordable housing policies that also honor so-called home rule doctrines. A housing bond bill, authorizing borrowing to support housing efforts, is also expected to pass the Legislature this year.
Chandler, a Worcester Democrat tapped to lead the Senate while an Ethics Committee investigation unfolds into Senator Stanley Rosenberg and whether his husband accused of sexual misconduct had any influence on the Senate, made reference in her speech to “the coming months” and “the awesome challenges ahead of us,” though it is not clear for how long she will helm the Senate.
She did not make direct reference to the quandary surrounding Rosenberg, though she did make an allusion to “challenges both internal and external” at the outset of her speech. Rosenberg was not present for Wednesday’s formal session.
Wednesday’s session marked the first time the full Senate has met since it gathered Dec. 4 to officially remove Rosenberg from the Senate presidency and install Chandler as a temporary leader. The last Senate session to feature meaningful legislative work was Nov. 15.
Despite having seven weeks off and despite Chandler’s recitation of priorities, the Senate did not return Wednesday with a packed legislative agenda. The branch met to hold a ceremonial swearing-in for Senator Dean Tran, who was officially sworn into the Senate two weeks ago on Dec. 20. The only other business Wednesday was to pass routine local bills that are typically dispatched in lightly-attended informal sessions.
Once the Senate does get down to business, Chandler said, she will be aiming for progress on “priorities large and small,” specifically pointing to paid family and medical leave, raising the minimum wage, and finishing up criminal justice and health care reform packages.
Rosenberg last year at this time also flagged paid leave and the minimum wage as priorities. Lawmakers made little progress on those bills in 2017 although a majority of members of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, which is reviewing a $15 minimum wage bill, are co-sponsors of that legislation.
Chandler also called upon the Senate to pay attention to how things that transpire in Washington, D.C., affect Massachusetts, making reference to “economic and social uncertainty that is as influenced by the chaos in Washington, D.C., as by any legislative or executive action in Massachusetts.”
“We will continue to stand as a bastion of protection for Massachusetts residents against those overreaches of the federal government that would negatively impact us, including to investigate and mitigate the consequences of the net neutrality overreach of the FCC, and of the federal tax bill,” she said.
Ending her roughly eight-minute address to the Senate on Wednesday, Chandler evoked the words of women’s rights activist Maria Stewart to remind the body of the importance of action following words.
“As we remember our legacy with an eye firmly on the future of the Senate and Massachusetts, I remind us all that our words mean little without the firmness of action to back them up,” she said. “So, let’s get to work.”
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said he liked Chandler’s speech. “I thought it set a very appropriate tone, and it signaled continuation of the bipartisan manner in which the Senate has operated,” Tarr told the News Service.