(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
State Senator Anthony Petruccelli offered optimistic predictions for such controversial issues as funding the MBTA and mitigating the impacts of a Boston casino when he spoke with new constituents in Chinatown on Thursday.
Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, appeared at the monthly meeting of the Chinatown Coalition as part of a series of visits to introduce himself to the neighborhood. Under the state’s redistricting plan, Chinatown moves out of the Second Suffolk District, represented by Sonia Chang-Diaz, and into Petrucelli’s First Suffolk and Middlesex District.
“I know I have big shoes to fill in representing the community she served so well,” he said of Chang-Diaz. He pledged to support issues important to Chinatown and the wider Asian-American community, including home-rule petitions for bilingual ballots in Boston and access to affordable housing.
Petruccelli highlighted accomplishments from his five years in the State Senate and eight previous years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, including auto-insurance reform that prevented insurers from using drivers’ credit scores as a factor in determining rates. He also spoke of current efforts to rein in the cost of health care for employers.
He said recent improvements in the economy, with the stock market rising and unemployment dropping, could make residents believe the years of tight state budgets were at an end. With unemployment still high and revenues below benchmarks, he said, it will be a while before the state is in the black.
“Things are doing better, without a doubt, but numbers are not there yet,” Petruccelli said.
In addition to unemployment, there is the issue of 100,000 available jobs in the state that lack qualified applicants. Petruccelli said there needs be more workforce training to align potential workers with jobs requiring greater technological skills.
A local businessman raised the issue of the state’s new gambling law and plans to build a casino at Suffolk Downs, in Petruccelli’s native East Boston.
The man said Asian Americans seem to have a special fondness for gambling, and as a result are disproportionately represented among those with gambling addictions. That problem, he said, is compounded by the large number of Asian-American gamblers who don’t speak English and are especially unlikely to seek treatment.
He asked for the state legislature to conduct a study about the social impacts and family problems created by gambling, with a special focus on the Asian-American community.
Petruccelli, who supports adding a casino to Suffolk Downs, said he lives almost within sight of the racetrack and is very cognizant of the issues that would accompany a casino, not only addiction but also environmental and traffic impacts. But he believes the benefits of a casino could more than balance the negative aspects.
The senator said Massachusetts’ casino law is “one of the most progressive pieces of legislation on gambling addiction of any legislation in the country,” devoting millions of dollars to treatment.
He contrasted that with what he described as the current situation, in which many Bay State residents cross state lines to gamble elsewhere but the state gains no jobs or revenue from that gambling, and addiction treatment is underfunded.
He said the new law also includes a provision that allows family members to add gamblers’ names to casino exclusion lists, so that the parent or spouse of an addict could prevent him or her from entering a casino. He said the state’s chapter of Gamblers Anonymous had lauded the policy.
Petruccelli’s take on the current budget crisis at the MBTA was also upbeat.
Describing the two possible scenarios set forth by the MBTA in January, one with greater fare hikes and limited cuts to service and another with deep service cuts, the senator said, “I’m not trying to minimize the challenges, but I don’t think for one second that scenario two is going to happen.”
Petruccelli said the MBTA was “issue numero uno” for the state legislature, but the most likely scenario was that a short-term solution would be found to balance the budget for the next fiscal year without “draconian” service cuts.
With gas prices already rising to near $4 a gallon, Petruccelli said, an increase in the gas tax is unlikely.
And legislators from Western Massachusetts, who have their own underfunded transit systems and delayed infrastructure improvements to worry about, would never vote for legislation spending statewide revenues on the MBTA.
“They’d be crazy to, quite frankly,” he said.
In the coming years, he predicted, the state would need to enact a more comprehensive transportation reform, as it did in 2009 when the Turnpike Authority, Highway Department, and Registry of Motor Vehicles were folded into the state Department of Transportation.