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Advocating for a ‘bold’ Legislature, Karen Spilka readies term as Senate president

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said improving transportation and mental health care are among her priorities.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka said improving transportation and mental health care are among her priorities.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Legislature needs to act with more urgency to fix the state’s transportation infrastructure, battle climate change, and overhaul the school funding system, State Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a interview last week with the Globe.

“There’s congestion, there’s traffic, there’s crumbling infrastructure. We need to address this. We need to be bold. We need to be creative,” Spilka said.

But Spilka, who formally ascended to the president’s job at session’s end in July following months of internal jockeying, offered few specifics on why she is hopeful that the Legislature could move more quickly than it has to date on these and other pressing issues.

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That tension, between a raft of intensifying problems and growing criticism that state government is struggling to respond, is likely to define much of the next legislative session, the first full term Spilka will serve as Senate president.

The Ashland Democrat also faces the task of championing the left-leaning Senate’s priorities amid the desires of a Republican governor and the relatively more conservative House, a common challenge for her predecessors in recent years. And it’s a dynamic that could face new pressures in the face of an ever-growing progressive base on Beacon Hill.

Spilka, on one hand, seemed eager to take a more sweeping view of the possible. The page of printed notes in front of her during the Globe interview included the word “bold” hand-written in all caps and blue ink.

She said she’s convened an outside working group of experts to advise the Senate on “bold, creative” ideas for addressing the state’s transportation woes. Drawing on her experience with her father’s mental health struggles, she wants to make Massachusetts a leader on improving mental health care in the country. She signaled a willingness to tackle the state’s tax code, including keeping open the possibility of raising or creating new taxes to pay for priorities, such as transportation.

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“I think everything needs to be on the table,” Spilka said. “I just think we need to look at everything and have an open and honest discussion about it.”

On the other hand, she repeatedly stressed how it can take years of work to get major legislative changes through Beacon Hill’s sticky gears.

“This process is slow,” Spilka said. “Bills usually, more often than not, don’t happen the first time they’re filed. And it takes a while to build [consensus].”

She’ll also have to navigate the internal politics of the State House’s “Big Three,” between Governor Charlie Baker, who’s coming off a resounding reelection victory, and Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, already the House’s longest-serving leader and primed to begin his sixth term in January.

Their more moderate footholds in the political spectrum have, at times, stalled the Senate’s more progressive ideas, from energy policy to school funding to immigration.

This year, the upper chamber passed legislation, known as The Safe Communities Act, designed to limit state and local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. But it died in the House, and a different version was ultimately cut from the final version of the state budget.

Even a Spilka-backed bill that would allow applicants to select the nonbinary option “X” on their driver’s licenses never emerged in the other chamber — including after Spilka touted it during her first address as Senate president.

“Inertia dominates the body,” said Jonathan Cohn, chair of the issues committee for Progressive Massachusetts, an advocacy group. The group was disappointed that a major climate bill passed by the Senate was “watered down” so much in a compromise with the House that the final measure “does quite little in comparison.” (Senators have defended it as a “strong bill.”)

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“We don’t have that much time to get our act together as a planet, let alone as a state. Massachusetts needs to be doing a lot more,” Cohn said.

Spilka defended the Senate’s ability to make headway with its more progressive agenda, pointing to, among other bills, a newly passed law establishing a $15 minimum wage and a paid family and medical leave program. Spilka said she first pushed the latter in 2006.

Their passage, however, came only after activists — frustrated with inaction on Beacon Hill — drafted and collected signatures to put them on the November ballot at the same time retailers were pushing their own initiative to slash the sales tax. The Legislature ultimately stepped in to negotiate and created a so-called grand bargain bill, prompting both sides to pull their respective ballot questions.

It’s evidence of what some view as an increasingly organized and vocal crop of advocates prodding the Legislature. Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and chair of the Senate’s Progressive Caucus, said the election of a new slate of progressive lawmakers, in both chambers, could help bolster their priorities.

Three of the Senate’s five newly elected members are joining the Progressive Caucus, pushing its membership to 18. That’s the majority of the body’s 34 incoming Democrats.

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“There’s going to be a big push on the Legislature as a whole to pass comprehensive legislation,” Eldridge said.

Moving forward, Spilka, who worked as a social worker, labor lawyer, and professional mediator before running for office, said her leadership style “has been and will continue to be first and foremost collaborative.” That will entail empowering individual members to push the bills that matter to them and allowing chairmen to run their committees, she said.

She also promises a “new day” in terms of the internal culture of the Senate. Her ascension to the presidency followed a tumultuous eight-month span that began when then-president, Stanley C. Rosenberg, stepped down from his post after four men accused his husband, Bryon Hefner, of sexually assaulting and harassing them.

Hefner has pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of indecent assault and battery, and Rosenberg later resigned his seat after a scathing ethics report found that his lapses in his judgment “undermined the integrity of the Senate.

“We went through a tough year,” Spilka said. “This needs to be a respectful environment where we not only look for diverse views, but we celebrate them.”

As part of that effort, she said the Senate is developing an anonymous sexual harassment climate survey, as recommended by a committee that reviewed the chamber’s sexual misconduct policies in the wake of the Rosenberg scandal. The Senate is contracting with an outside consultant to craft and conduct the survey, a Spilka aide said.

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Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.