Budget issues top agenda for new legislative session

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A new two-year legislative session convened on Jan. 4, with Gov. Charlie Baker swearing in 200 new and returning legislators ready to take on the challenges of balancing budgets and moving forward on legislative priorities.
 
The Senate welcomed four new members and the House welcomed 12, including a number with roots in local government.
 
In one of the first orders of business, both the House and Senate re-elected their veteran leaders to new terms.
 
House Speaker Bob DeLeo was elected to a fifth two-year term, and Minority Leader Brad Jones was re-elected to serve an eighth term.
 
In the Senate, Senate President Stan Rosenberg was re-elected to a second two-year term, and Sen. Bruce Tarr was re-elected to a fourth term as leader of the Senate Republicans.
 
The appointment of chairs and members to legislative committees is generally completed by the end of February. This will allow committees to commence public hearings in the spring on the thousands of bills filed for the new session.
 
The deadline for new legislation was Jan. 20.
 
Budget issues will be front and center early in the new session. Gov. Charlie Baker filed his fiscal 2018 revenue and spending plan on Jan. 25. The House and Senate usually approve legislative budget bills in April and May.
 
Despite an expanding state economy, balancing the budget will be difficult this year, with modest expectations for revenue growth compared to faster growth in some spending areas, particularly related to health care. There are also concerns about how decisions at the federal level might affect state and local budgets in Massachusetts.
 
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center forecasts that the Commonwealth faces a budget gap next year of more than $600 million just to maintain current services.
 
Lawmakers are also expected to take up early this year legislation to update state laws governing the travel industry, as internet-based companies such as Airbnb become more popular and operate outside of increasingly obsolete room occupancy laws.
 
The Legislature is also preparing to consider changes to the recreational marijuana law approved by the voters in November. A legislative committee is expected to be established early this year to make recommendations, including a number that affect cities and towns.