By Jen Benson
Mass. State Rep. (Lunenburg-D)
Within the past two months the House has been very busy passing legislation aimed at reducing health care costs, financing our transportation system and promoting clean energy.
I also attended a number of events across the district and am preparing for the August break from formal sessions. This newsletter is to give insight to the work I've done over the months of May and June.
$34 billion budget approved
As we enter a new fiscal year, the House voted to approve a new state budget that was unveiled at the end of June by a House-Senate Conference Committee. The House and Senate worked over the last weekend in June on the fiscal 2014 budget, as well as a mid-year budget supplement that will appropriate $55.7 million for snow and ice removal last winter, $10 million for youth summer jobs, $8 million for charter school reimbursement to cities and towns and create a $200,000 fund to award home modification or moving cost grants to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing who have lost limbs.
The fiscal 2014 budget includes increases in unrestricted and school aid for cities and towns by $21.25 million to $920 million (the first increase since fiscal year 2010), as well as $478.9 million for the University of Massachusetts that should be enough, based on statements from university officials, to avert tuition and fee hikes for at least the next two years. The budget makes significant investments in elder home care and early education, including $15 million to reduce the preschool waiting list by 2,000 children and a $6.2 million increase for elder care service to eliminate the 1,500-person wait list.
The budget provides numerous health and human services provisions including increases in the Children's Autism Medicaid Waiver, which will enable the program to serve 50 additional young children with autism. There are increases in grant funding to Councils on Aging by $1 million (increasing the grant formula to $8 per elder) and increases in Adult Family Support programs at DDS by $3 million, which will allow more families to keep children in their homes.
The budget reflects the priorities of the Commonwealth and the needs of cities, towns and residents, while also maintaining the highest level of fiscal responsibility and accountability, leaving the state's rainy day fund at $1.46 billion.
FY13 supplemental budget
My colleagues and I enacted a $133.4 million supplemental state budget, providing funding for vital state programs and implementing reforms to the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA).
The FY13 supplemental budget provides much needed funds to critical services and programs across Massachusetts; $55.7 million of funds distributed will go toward essential payments for snow and ice removal following the difficult winter, as well as $2 million to reinstate prison mitigation funds for cities and towns that host prison facilities cut through the 9c process, including Shirley.
The supplemental budget updates EBT oversight measures included in the House's FY14 budget to advance continuous efforts by the House to address and prevent EBT abuse. This legislation contains the following provisions:
* Requires a photo on EBT cards for each eligible household member over the age of 18 to deter fraud. Elderly and disabled residents are exempt from this requirement;
* Authorizes $55.7 million to fund payments for the Snow and Ice program;
* Provides $10 million to support the Youth Summer Jobs program, providing employment opportunities for the Commonwealth's at-risk youth;
* Authorizes funding for operations costs for the Commonwealth's sheriffs, including $2 million to reinstate prison mitigation funds for cities and towns which host prison facilities;
* Allocates $8 million in funding for charter school reimbursements;
* Provides $50,000 to study the feasibility of a regional lock-up facility in Worcester County.
Further, the FY14 budget makes additional reforms including implementing new oversight within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which administers the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) program, to bolster the waste and abuse prevention reforms enacted in the FY13 budget. It also creates the Bureau of Program Integrity to provide continuous oversight of public assistance programs while maintaining eligibility verification and ensuring we focus our state resources on those residents who are most in need of state assistance.
Housing bond legislation
Recently, I joined my colleagues in passing legislation to preserve and produce affordable housing throughout the Commonwealth. The bill authorizes $1.4 billion in investments over the next five years to finance the production and preservation of low and moderate income housing.
The $1.4 billion includes $500 million for the rehabilitation and modernization of state-assisted public housing. These funds cannot be used to create new state-owned public housing but to expedite the turnover of dilapidated units once vacant. The bill also includes $55 million to facilitate modifications for the elderly and disabled to allow them to remain in their homes.
This is the first long-term housing finance bill to come before the Legislature since 2008 and marks the introduction of a capital investment in early education centers through the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Fund. The $45 million allocation funds the development of facilities for early education and out-of-school programs.
Transportation finance legislation
This June I joined my colleagues in the Legislature to enact a bill that solves long-standing financial problems within the state's transportation system while also shielding the public from carrying too great a share of the financial burden. The bill follows the path of the 2009 transportation reform law by making the system more efficient and accountable, providing revenue to initiate economic growth and supporting necessary infrastructure projects in the Commonwealth.
The final transportation finance plan guarantees $805 million in new resources for the transportation system by fiscal 2018 and includes all tax provisions assumed in both the House and Senate fiscal 2014 budgets, generating $500 million in new tax revenue. The budget now goes to the Governor for his approval.
Additional provisions in the final bill include:
* Redirects revenues from the Underground Storage Tank surcharge to transportation;
* Protects existing tolled roads from bearing an inordinate share of future transportation revenues;
* Protects MBTA fares from exorbitant annual increases;
* Ensures adequate funding support for transportation in fiscal 2019 and 2020;
* Requires the DOT to inventory its agreements with occupants of the Commonwealth's rights-of-way and also make recommendations for the reimbursement of relocated utilities;
* Requires the DOT to come up with plans to toll additional roads, including border tolls; and,
* Appropriates $100,000 for an advisory council to assist the DOT with the development of a statewide asset management system.
This legislation relies upon the following revenue items to finance the transportation funding gap:
* A 3 cent increase to the gas tax (indexed with delay) to help pay for roads and bridges -- $110 million;
* $1-per-pack increase on the tobacco excise tax -- $165 million;
* Modernizes the tax code on canned software to include modifications to software and computer system planning and design -- $161 million; and,
* Changes to the tax status of utility companies -- $83 million.
As vice-chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care Finance, I have been working with my colleagues on passing legislation that would bring Massachusetts into compliance with the federal Affordable Care Act. The House and Senate came to an agreement on updates to state health-care laws to bring Massachusetts into compliance with the federal health-care law before January of 2014.
Over the months of May and June, I have had the opportunity to meet with various members of the health-care community including the American Heart Association, Lahey Health and Dana Farber Cancer Institute. In May I was one of the speakers at the Massachusetts Health Information Management Association's annual Beacon Hill day to speak about recent health-care related legislation and the work being done by the Healthcare Finance Committee.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, I attended a series of hearings regarding legislation concerning utility poles and metering issues, along with natural gas infrastructure and safety issues. The Joint Committee on Public Service, which I am also a member of, held a hearing on legislation concerning public and state employees. These public hearings offered all interested parties an opportunity to voice their support or opposition towards the bills being heard, which the committee will take into consideration as we move forward.
I have been attending many hearings throughout the past two months in order to testify in favor of legislation that I support as well. Throughout the months of May and June, I have testified in person on legislation relating to educational services, promoting women's health, personal needs allowances, safer neighborhoods, election laws and spouses as caregivers. I have also sent many letters of support for bills that I have sponsored or co-sponsored to the assigned committee if I was unable to attend the hearing in person. This past June I also filed a number of home rule petitions for the town of Harvard at the request of the Board of Selectmen, which myself and Senator Jamie Eldridge have worked together to advocate for.
I have had the opportunity over the past two months to attend many different meetings and events to discuss legislation with both constituents and organizations. I recently attended a meeting with Hickory Hills Landowners Inc. in Lunenburg to discuss legislation on dam safety and how it would affect dams locally. I was also able to attend the Youth Transitions Task Force meeting held by Boston's Workforce Investment Board to discuss dropout prevention legislation, as I took over former Rep. Marty Walz's bill entitled "An Act Raising the School Drop Out Age." This bill would raise the mandatory school attendance age to 18, in phases over the next 4 years, and also create a 3-year competitive grant pilot program in districts with annual dropout rates higher than the state average.
Around the district
The months of May and June have been as busy as ever across the district. I've attended a number of meetings and local events with constituents, local government, schools and small businesses. I have been able to attend meetings with the Board of Selectmen in Boxborough, Ayer, Harvard and Acton. The Harvard Energy Advisory Committee recently held a meeting to discuss legislation dealing with energy and environmental issues and their effects in a local context, which I was able to participate in. I attended the public hearing in Maynard to discuss the Acton/Maynard proposed Assabet River Trail project that was held by MassDOT.
I was very pleased that during a recent trip to the State House for a rally and speaking event members of The Bromfield School's SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) chapter sat down with me to discuss why they joined SADD, issues that were important to them and the work that they're doing within their community. I was very impressed by each student's dedication to helping their fellow students and the work they do for their community.
This June I was invited to visit the site of New England Studios current being built in Fort Devens. The construction of the 15-acre movie-studio complex is heading toward completion and I was given a very informative tour of the facility. New businesses choosing to locate in Fort Devens could have a positive effect on our local community by increasing the number of job opportunities and by leading to overall economic growth locally. I also had the opportunity to visit the Devens Campus of Mount Wachusett Community College where I was given a tour. It was great to see MWCC's Devens community and campus.
As we move through into summer, I have been able to enjoy many local events throughout the district. Boxborough held its annual Fifers Day festivities at Flerra Field, which was a wonderful time, and I was pleased to present the Golden Fife winner, Anne Canfield, with a citation to congratulate her. In June, I attended the Shirley Hoedown, which was a wonderful time on Shirley Common filled with great food and entertainment.
I had the opportunity to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new local business, Bodylines Pilates in Harvard, and to present them with a citation of congratulations. I attended the one-year anniversary celebration and ribbon-cutting of Acton's TD Bank held by the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce to congratulate them on a successful year as a thriving business. State Treasurer Steven Grossman toured Funstuf Rentals in Lunenburg, a recipient of a $100,000 loan made by Rollstone Bank & Trust, leveraged through the Treasury's Small Business Banking Partnership. I'm pleased that FunStuf Rentals was chosen to be a part of this program and was happy to be in attendance at this event.
I look forward every month to hearing from all of you. You can always contact my Boston office at 617-722-2430. Please also check my website for additional news and resources: jenbenson.org.