BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo outlined a legislative agenda Wednesday that included a minimum wage increase, stricter gun controls and a bill to address domestic violence.
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, also said in a speech to the chamber that the House would take action to strengthen the state Department of Children and Families after social workers lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who is missing and feared dead.
The Legislature is scheduled to hold formal sessions through July 31.
In his annual address to members, DeLeo promised that the House would approve a budget for the next fiscal year that would have no new taxes or fees.
The speaker drew a standing ovation from many Democrats when he pledged the House would move to hike the state's current $8 per hour minimum wage. He quickly added, however, that it must be coupled with business-friendly changes in the state's unemployment insurance system.
"Because economic growth requires both that jobs be created and that they pay a fair wage, any increase in the minimum wage must be paired with meaningful improvements in the UI system," said DeLeo.
Business executives had complained to him that the current system impedes growth, the speaker said. He did not offer specific proposals in the speech for the minimum wage or unemployment insurance, beyond a guarantee that insurance rates would remain frozen as they have in recent years.
The Senate approved a stand-alone bill last fall that would hike the minimum wage to $11 over three years and tie subsequent increases to inflation. Senate leaders have also expressed willingness to tackle unemployment insurance, and Gov. Deval Patrick, in his State of the State address on Tuesday, also said he backed changes in both the minimum wage and unemployment insurance.
Business groups have suggested lowering the duration of unemployment benefits from 30 weeks to 26 weeks, and requiring workers to be employed for at least 20 weeks before being eligible for benefits, up from the current 15 weeks.
Calling the Jeremiah Oliver case "totally unacceptable," DeLeo noted that he had asked two House panels to report back to him with recommendations on how the state's child welfare system can be strengthened.
"If funding is the problem, we will address funding," said DeLeo. Patrick has recommended an increase in the agency's budget to bolster staff and reduce caseload for social workers.
The speaker said another highly publicized case, the August stabbing death of Jennifer Martell of Waltham, prompted him to hold a series of meetings with law enforcement officials and domestic violence victims that will lead in the coming weeks to what he called comprehensive legislation to address domestic violence.
Jared Remy, the son of Boston Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy, has pleaded not guilty in Martell's killing.
A task force appointed by DeLeo to study Massachusetts' gun laws following the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was close to releasing its final report, the speaker said, adding that the group's recommendations — which he did not detail — would be incorporated into a gun control bill this year.
"I have learned that while Massachusetts has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, there is room for improvement," he said.
DeLeo is entering his sixth year in the powerful speaker's post.