SHIRLEY -- Sketching changes since her last visit, state Rep. Jen Benson told the Board of Selectmen Monday night that she's now acting chair of the House Health Care and Finance Committee, of which she was vice chair for some time.
Among the topics that sub-group has on its table are "Connector issues" that need fixing and 260 outstanding bills (potential new laws) to be considered, she said.
The committee aims to have a clean slate by mid-April, Benson said, with Connector sign-up problems solved and bills dealt with. Meantime, they've been meeting with the House Ways and Means Committee to review budget items related to the bills, she said.
Benson said there was a "heated" oversight hearing on the Connector, but the hearing didn't produce enough information and another session was set for April.
"The State Connector Board gets a thousand applications a day, so having the web portal not working" is a significant problem, she said, creating a backlog of 50,000 applications.
The committee secured a deadline extension of three months from the federal government to fix the problem but it's still a "tall order," Benson said. She's hopeful their efforts will bring "good news, sooner rather than later."
Benson also serves on the Telecommunication, Energy and Utilities and Public Services committees, she told selectmen during her semi-annual visit. Municipal matters the latter group is focused on now include OPEB liability and pension solvency, she said. She hopes for "good news" in that realm, too.
Governor's budget, good news and bad
Benson said the recent release of the governor's budget was viewed by lawmakers as a "one day story" and would have very little bearing on the legislative process. Basically, the document is a wish list of Gov. Deval Patrick's priorities, she said. Meanwhile the House of Representatives and the Senate produce budgets of their own.
Patrick's version of the state budget ups Chapter 70 (education funding) for the Ayer Shirley Regional School District, which is good news, Benson said, but the bad news is he didn't increase local aid to cities and towns.
Another top issue for Shirley is prison mitigation (MCI) money, which is still a priority for her, too, Benson said, and she continues to confront the Ways and Means Committee chairman about it.
With about $90,000 at stake for Shirley, the governor's budget line item for prison mitigation funding (funneled through the Department of Corrections to cities and towns that host state prisons) is inadequate at $850,000 to ensure all the communities get paid as promised. "It needs to be $1 million," Benson said.
Selectman David Swain asked Benson several questions, probing first into the "anaerobic digester project" whose developers were eyeing MCI, Shirley as a possible site.
The facility would "digest" compostable waste from the prison kitchen and other producers -- including pig manure from farms -- in an enclosed building to produce fertilizer products. Presumably, the town would reap some revenue if the facility were sited on state land within its borders.
Selectmen were given a presentation from the developers some time ago, with requests for proposals due to go out, but they haven't had an update since, Swain said.
Benson had no light to shed. The project was news to her, she said, but she'd look into it.
She also promised to look into a couple of pending bills in both legislative houses that Swain raised concerns about, including a proposal to increase the number of days for early voting in local elections.
The problem is that in the Senate version, town halls would have to open on weekends, Swain said, and even though the bill includes a reimbursement provision for the added costs, that money is "subject to annual appropriation" and can't be counted on, he said. Another unfunded mandate," in his view.
Swain also asked if state Chapter 90 (highway) funds could be released by April, a timely scheduling re-do that Commonwealth communities have sought for years.
Benson basically said the cycle is what it is and the buck stops with the governor rather than legislators, calling it a "separation of powers" issue.
"We passed it early last year and this year" she said of the annual Chapter 90 funding. "We allocate but don't release and expend" those funds, Benson said, but Patrick has held them up.
"We've met with him" on this issue, Benson said. Now, it's time for community leaders to speak up. She recommended writing directly to the governor's office as soon as possible, before funds are distributed. "It's a bad year for potholes," she said.
It's been a bad year for winter storms, too. Raising a related issue, Swain asked if there's a chance the state might issue a supplemental appropriation for the snow and ice budget.
There's precedent, and she can advocate for it, Benson said. "This would be the year ... certainly," she said.
Selectman Robert Prescott, noting that local road repair and maintenance costs had doubled, asked if the state might up the Chapter 90 funding formula.
Benson didn't hold out much hope that state funding could do more than keep pace. "We've allocated the most yet," raising the amount from $150,000 last year to $300,000 this year, she said, but the governor's office held some of the money. "It's his call," she said.
Prescott also asked about the possibility of reworking state funding formulas so that the state, not local school districts, assumes the burden of some special-education costs.
Benson, who previously chaired the House Education Committee, said she favors inclusion, not "separation" to address most students' special-needs and districts get reimbursed for extraordinary costs via "circuit-breaker" funding.
That said, however, she agreed that in "severe cases," reimbursement isn't the only issue. Some severely handicapped students can never attend district schools, but the public school district in which that student's family lives is responsible for out-of-district placement. That adds sensitive social issues as well as administrative, tuition and transportation costs, she said.
Using early intervention programs to identify those cases, the state could handle them directly, she said, and in 2009 she filed a bill to make it so. The bill got a "favorable report" and is in the works, Benson said.
Chairman Kendra Dumont asked if there's a way to separate prison mitigation funding so it comes directly to towns rather than as a pass-through from DOC.
Benson said no. "It's a direct appropriation from DOC," and would otherwise be an added state budget line item, which, given the legislature's lack of appetite for new expense lines, is highly unlikely. Or, the funds could be earmarked, which is even less palatable and would face just as much or more resistance, she said.
"I continue to look for ways of protecting that funding" Benson told the board, mostly by "making noise" where it counts. Prison funding is a promise that is the state's obligation to keep, she said. "We've overridden governors' vetoes in the past."
Besides, "new language" in the budget improves the chances that the prison mitigation money ultimately gets where it was meant to go, she concluded.