HAVERHILL — One of the most powerful politicians in the state dropped by the Lanam Club in Andover on Thursday as keynote speaker for the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce's annual state representatives luncheon.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the gathering the state budget currently in conference committee will expand opportunities for workers in the Merrimack Valley and help businesses.
"One of the things that I hear consistently is how we're able to get things done," he said about the state Legislature. "We've done this and there are a lot of other states, and especially in terms of what's going on in Washington (D.C.), I don't think have been as successful as we have."
DeLeo addressed a sold-out crowd that included Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, Methuen Mayor James Jajuga, as well as local leaders in business, education and health.
State representatives who sat together at one table included Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen; Marcos Devers, D-Lawrence; Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover; Frank Moran, D-Lawrence; Tram Nguyen, D-Andover; Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill and the only Republican in the group, Lenny Mirra of West Newbury.
DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, touted the Massachusetts economy, noting unemployment stands at just 3%. New industries are sprouting, DeLeo said, including the gaming sector and life sciences. New sources of energy such as offshore wind are coming and will be a growing industry in the state, he said.
"Climate change is a focus of the House this session," he said. "Just last month we filed a $1 billion, 10-year initiative known as GreenWorks."
He explained this grant program is modeled after the state's MassWorks program and would fund public projects including improving climate preparedness and resiliency, promoting or producing clean energy, and helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change or reduce carbon emissions.
He said another $295 million investment is being made in energy infrastructure and that the legislation builds on the state's "nation-leading green policies" by putting money directly into the hands of communities to help them become greener and more resilient.
The speaker also addressed combined sewer overflows -- the flow of untreated sewage into rivers when stormwater overwhelms municipal collection and treatment systems. Hundreds of million of gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the Merrimack River last year. DeLeo said it is an issue that has been brought to his attention by local legislators, and that there is legislation pending.
DeLeo said the House budget includes investments in housing, combating the opioid epidemic, and funding for high-quality early education and care.
"This year we're going to get something done relative to affordable housing," he said.
DeLeo pointed out three major pieces of legislation related to the opioid epidemic, which he says is a topic of concern wherever he travels in the state.
"We as a commonwealth, have made a major investment in fighting opioid abuse," he said.
Referring to public spaces in the Merrimack Valley, he said the House invested more than $282 million for environmental protection and parks, and that for the first time in nearly 20 years, the budget will increase the state's contribution into the Community Preservation Act, which places $36 million for open space projects, affordable housing, and historic preservation.
He said the House budget also includes $2 million to establish a Restaurant Promotion Commission designed to bolster the growth and vitality of the state's restaurant industry as well as study the barriers to establishing new restaurants, such as licensing and permitting issues.
Health care is another area of focus for the state, DeLeo said, noting there are provisions to address the costs of prescription drugs for MassHealth.
"We want to make sure we do what we can to help our community hospitals, which are so important to this region," DeLeo said.
"Not only are they important in terms of the health care they provide, but also, in many cases, they are an economic engine for some of these communities as well," he said.
DeLeo received a round of applause when he announced $35 million in funding to support nursing homes.
Early education and care is another area of focus, DeLeo said, noting the additional importance of promoting children's health and wellness.
"A strong focus on prevention and early intervention is vital," he said. "We are also making some serious investments relative to increasing the quality of early education."
He said the Legislature recently passed a bill authorizing $200 million for Chapter 90 funding to help cities and towns complete road, bridge and infrastructure improvement projects.
After briefly mentioning the challenges facing the state's transportation system, and a proposal to create a "traffic czar" to find solutions to traffic woes such as daily backups on Interstate 93, Jajuga asked what can be done to alleviate growing traffic on Interstate 93 with area commuters heading south to Boston each weekday.
Jajuga said growth in Southern New Hampshire is putting additional pressure on I-93 traffic, which is resulting in daily backups on Route 213.
"I don't think it's enough to say we've depressed the Central Artery, were ready to go, we've got the Big Dig and let's get them in there," Jajuga said. "It's not working and it's affecting us dramatically."