Legislative session formally opens

BOSTON – Massachusetts lawmakers are back at the State House today where members of the House and Senate are scheduled to take their oath of office as the state legislature formally opens its 188th session.
The state is facing numerous challenges as the new session begins, including lackluster revenues, a drug testing scandal in a state lab that has since closed and a deadly fungal meningitis outbreak across the U.S. that’s been linked to a state-regulated pharmacy.
Lawmakers will also consider Gov. Deval Patrick’s call for a transportation finance overhaul, tougher gun control measures and ongoing efforts to contain spiraling health care costs.
Westfield’s state Rep. Donald Humason (R-Westfield) and Sen. Michael R. Knapik (R-Westfield) both said jobs and the budget top their 2013 priorities.
“Jobs, transportation, and budget sustainability,” Knapik listed as his main concerns. “I’m looking forward to a new session, which is always an exciting time, but there’s never a shortage of challenges.”
Knapik said in general, he hopes the legislature will work this session on ways “to make a much better environment” for job creation.
“The budget is extremely stressed and sustainability of government is another challenge,” he said. “And transportation financing has to be a major focus.”
Humason also listed “creating a better environment for job creation” as a top priority this year.
“Our unemployment rates were down, but they’re stating to go up,” he said. “I think the economic challenges will continue and it will be a difficult year.”
Humason said there needs to be a more efficient government and speculated that the remaining two years of Patrick’s term would not be easy.
“I think the remainder of his term is going to be very rocky,” Humason said. “There are problems in administration…  it’s a tough legacy to deal with for our next governor.”
Another issue set to be brought up this session is phasing out a program that places homeless families in hotels and motels at taxpayer expense when there is no room in emergency shelters.
Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Community Development, says the state aims to phase out the program by June 2014.
It cost the state $45 million during the 2012 fiscal year as some families stayed in hotels for months.
Homeless families are placed in hotels when the 2,000 rooms in the state’s family emergency shelter system reach capacity. There were 1,700 families in hotels last month.
Humason said while he fully supports this, he has his doubts it will actually happen.
“That’s been talked about for years,” he said. “While I think it’s a good idea, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Humason said the state “always has more people than space” in its shelters.
“You don’t want people warehoused in hotels,” he said, “but there’s not enough housing.”
Humason said government should be looking for ways to help the private sector create more affordable housing, but regulations on landlords make renting to a previously homeless, low-income family difficult.
“It’s tough to be a landlord in this state,” he said.
Humason said another problem associated with the homeless hotel issue is that in Massachusetts “we try to house first and ask questions later.” He said there are many people who come here from other places and say they are homeless.
“It takes 30 days to do all the paperwork and that’s when we find out they’re not necessarily homeless but have left their homes elsewhere,” he said.
Knapik is more optimistic about the situation and said there were plans put in place last year that should produce results this year.
“I’m hopeful by June we’ll meet the goal of closing at least one of those hotels in our region,” Knapik said. “That’s well over 150 families in that form of housing.”
Knapik said in order to phase-out the homeless hotels, there has to be programs in place first. He did say an estimated 15 percent of the state’s homeless are people who come from out of Massachusetts.
Knapik said one way the state is better serving these families in hotels is by having an on-site case manager.
“It’s kind of like a (Resident Assistant in a college) who lives there and oversees and manages cases and aggressively works with families,” he said.

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