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11 issues to watch out for in the Massachusetts Legislature in 2017

From pot politics to health-care reform, lawmakers will be busy this year.

Massachusetts State House.

Wikimedia Commons

The Massachusetts Legislature opens its new session Wednesday and lawmakers are expected to delve into such weighty issues as criminalreforms, ethics laws and education.

Here are 11 things to look out for in 2017:

1. Pot politics:After voters legalized recreational marijuana in November, the legislature's new Committee on Marijuana will hash out the specifics on laws related toretail marijuana implementation, tax rates, startup regulatory costs, edible marijuana products, marketing and advertising tactics.

2. Criminal justice reform: Smaller prison populations and lower costs, better re-entry programs and services, and reduced recidivism rates are among the goals of criminal justice reform advocates who have seen their policy proposals wither in past sessions.

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3. Health care: As health-care costshave outpaced the state's economic growth rate for two straight years, a significant portion of the state's population remains uninsured despite a mandatory health insurance law, and rising premiums and access to care, including oral care, are issues for many residents.

4. Energy: Diversification, costs and reliability remain the major pillars of the state's energy policy. Heading into 2017, Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration are implementing a major renewable energy law to procure large-scale hydropower and develop offshore wind farms that will eventually help power homes and businesses around the state. However, until profits are seen, the state expects pushback.

5. Institutional rivalries: Traditional rivalries between the Democratic-lead House and Senate will shift as Massachusetts prepares for the 2018 election year and the Republican governor seeks re-election.

6. Ethics reform:A 13-member task force led by the leaders of the House and Senate ethics committees and the co-chairs of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight has a deadline ofMarch 15to produce a report reviewing conflict of interest, financial disclosure laws and the regulations of the State Ethics Commission, which enforces state ethics laws.

7. Full-time budgeting: Gov. Baker will propose a fiscal 2018 budgetJan. 25, but budgeting has become a year-round necessity for him and the legislature. The story on fiscal 2017is far from written.

8. Income inequality: A minimum wage of $11 an hour went into effect Jan. 1. Despite that, workers are threatening to place on the 2018 ballot a proposal to boost the wage floor to $15 an hour, which could be coupled with a constitutional amendment adding nearly $2 billion in higher taxes, from households with incomes above $1 million.

9. Taxes: Tax revenue is not climbing in line with surging job growth, so lawmakers are looking for new revenue streams in 2017. Short-term room rentals, marijuana sales and seven-figure incomes have all emerged as likely candidates for new or increased taxes.

10. Education funding reform: Lawmakers have identified education funding reform as a priority for the upcoming session, but a combination of overspending and slow revenue growth leaves the question hanging of where any new funding would come from.

11. Online gaming, lottery woes:Five years after lawmakers paved the way for casino gambling, the state is already seeing losses in its traditional lottery, even as MGM Springfield and Wynn Resorts have a year or two to go before they start dealing cards. The state lottery — the state's main source of funding for local aid to cities and towns — has seen profitsfall by $3 million to $965 million. Scratch ticket sales through November were down 3 percent and the Keno market is "virtually saturated," the treasurer said.A grab for more gaming revenues could prove enticing because it would not require raising taxes and could be a tactic legislative leaders can convince the governor to go for.

State House News Service contributed to this article.

 
 
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