June 2014 Office Update

Rep. Benson enjoying Fifer's Day in Boxborough

Happy summer! I hope everyone is staying cool, and enjoying some time outside with family and friends. You can visit http://blog.mass.gov/blog/environment-2/10-tips-to-stay-cool-in-high-temps/ to learn 10 tips to staying cool in high temperatures.

Around The District

At the beginning of June, I joined Representative Atkins (D-Concord), and Senator Eldridge (D-Acton), in attending the Town of Acton’s Board of Selectmen meeting to discuss fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget priorities. It is important to meet with the Board of Selectmen to make sure we know what priorities to advocate for on the state level.

Later in the month, I attended a meeting at the Ayer Town Hall to discuss the ongoing easement and access issues at the Ayer Railroad station. This is an ongoing issue impacting not only Ayer residents, but many surrounding communities, as it is one of the busiest stops on the Fitchburg Commuter Rail line. At the meeting, we were able to receive an update from the MBTA, and discuss next steps. I am hopeful that we are on the track to finding a solution.

On June 4th, I joined the Lunenburg School District at the Massachusetts School Board Authority (MSBA) meeting to have their Project Scope and Budget Amendment for the Lunenburg Middle/High School Project voted upon. The project was approved and is moving forward.

In June, there were two celebratory events in the district. I gladly joined the Town of Boxborough in celebrating Fifer’s Day and awarding the 2014 Golden Fifer. Later in the week, I joined Senator Eldridge, DOER, EEA, and MassCEC, in celebrating the Harvard Solar Garden (HSG) opening ceremony. I was more than honored to speak at the opening of HSG, after watching this project start as an idea and develop into a reality. This community shared solar project sets a standard for the Commonwealth and Nation. I look forward to seeing HSG succeed beyond measures we can imagine, and be referenced as a model for years to come.

Harvard Solar Garden

Rep. Benson and Sen. Eldridge join local officials at the opening ceremony of the Harvard Solar Garden

Representative Benson and Senator Eldridge join local officials from the Town of Harvard, and Harvard Solar Garden members in cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Harvard Solar Garden

In preparation for hurricane and tropical storm season, my staff attended Unitil’s Annual Municipal Electric Storm Meeting to make sure both local and state officials were prepared, and aware of Unitil’s plan should a disaster strike this season.

At the State House

On the hill, my staff and I met with constituents for AdMeTech’s Annual Prostate Cancer Awareness Day to discuss prostate cancer education, and members of the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce, to discuss my work as a Legislator.

I also met with other groups to discuss An Act to increase opportunities for long-term substance abuse recovery (S2142), the importance of Hepatitis C screening, and An Act relative to net metering and solar power (H4185), among others.

Also in June, I attended the Prevention for Health Caucus’ 2014 Hepatitis C Briefing & Screening. I always enjoy this event, as it allows for staff to learn more about Hep C, and receive a free screening from professional medical providers.

Legislative Update

I am proud to announce that on June 12th, the Joint Committee on Revenue gave a favorable report to a home rule petition, An Act relative to community share solar energy systems (S2138), that Senator Eldridge and I filed. This bill allows residents participating in the HSG to receive the same solar tax benefits as residents who install solar panels on their homes.Signing of Biosimilars Bill

There have been some significant legislative accomplishments at the State House this month, including Governor Deval Patrick signing the biosimilars bill (An Act Relative to the Substitution of Interchangeable Biosimilars, H3734). I was a co-sponsor on the original bill (H3667), and proud to join my colleagues in pushing for policy that will allow for the substitution of interchangeable biological medicines in retail pharmacies.

Health Care Financing

As acting-Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing (HCF), I spoke at the Massachusetts Health Information Management Association’s (MaHIMA) 10th annual Beacon Hill Day. I was honored to discuss the importance of effective management of personal health information. More importantly, it was helpful to hear suggestions from people who are out in the field, and dealing with patients’ information day-to-day.

Throughout the month I met with a variety of organizations to discuss bills that were in the HCF committee, such as An Act to improve quality of life by expanding access to palliative care (H3977), and An Act relative to the modernization of optometric patient care (H1981), among others.

On June 16th, the HCF committee held another hearing to receive an update from the Massachusetts Health Connector. The purpose of the hearing was to take testimony and gather information on the current status of the expansion of access to health care in the Commonwealth through the Affordable Care Act. We received an update on the status of all applications, financial implications of the dual-track strategy, and the website.

Over the past 15 years, there has been a debate on Beacon Hill to establish a nurse-patient staffing ratio in Massachusetts hospitals. For years, and years, Legislators have worked together and with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), and the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA), to reach a compromise. Most recently, Representative Benson (D-Lunenburg) worked with both the MHA, and MNA attempting to reach a compromise on An Act relative to patient safety (S0557 and H1008). There was resistance from both sides, and the bills were set to go to the ballot in November. However, during the last few weeks of June, there was a long-awaited compromise reached (H4228).

This is an excellent accomplishment for the MNA, MHA, and my colleagues in the Legislatures, especially Representative Denise Garlick (D-Needham), and Senate Majority Leader Stand Rosenberg (D-Amherst). The bill, which passed unanimously in the House (145-0), and Senate (39-0), was tacked on to another bill (H4228) regarding a “folic acid awareness initiative,” and has been signed by Governor Patrick.

Other Committee Updates

The Joint Committee on Telecommunications Utilities and Energy held one hearing in June to discuss An Act relative to cast iron pipelines in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (H4148).

FY15 Budget

During the last day in June, I joined my colleagues in the Legislatures to pass a $36.5 billion state budget for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15). For more information on the FY15 state budget, please review my Legislature Passes Balance FY15 Budget press release sent on July 1, 2014.

As always, I encourage each of you to keep in touch by contacting my office at 617.722.2430 or sending me an email at Jennifer.Benson@mahouse.gov.

Legislature Passes Balanced FY15 Budget

Rep. Benson at Harvard Independence Day Parade

Focuses on Reforms and Enhancing Support for Commonwealth’s Most Vulnerable Citizens

BOSTON – Representative Jennifer Benson joined her colleagues in the Legislatures to pass a $36.5 billion state budget for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) focused on economic growth and increased government accountability and oversight.

The spending plan makes important investments in local aid, education, and human services including substance abuse treatment and prevention and mental health care. Building on a responsible yet proactive approach to combatting the recession, the Legislature’s budget contains multiple measures to achieve sustainable economic growth and provide essential services that support the Commonwealth’s citizens.

“I was proud to join my colleagues to pass a final budget for the 2015 fiscal year. This budget shows the Legislatures’ continued commitment to provide critical resources for residents, cities and towns, while maintaining fiscal responsibility,” said Representative Benson (D-Lunenburg). “The FY15 budget increases chapter 70 funding, and local aid, while also including funding for essential programs, such as substance abuse programs, regional school district transportation, and the Special Education Circuit Breaker.”

This budget enhances the Commonwealth’s partnerships with cities and towns through numerous funding streams including $945.8 million to Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA), a $25.5 million increase from FY14 and $4.4 billion for Chapter 70, a record funding level. The spending plan provides $257.5 million for the Special Education Circuit Break, ensuring full funding for the third consecutive year and $70.3 million for Regional School Transportation to reimburse municipalities at 90 percent, marking the highest rate in the program’s history.

In addition to educational investments through local aid, this year’s budget extends Massachusetts ongoing commitment to strengthening its educational systems to foster equality and provide residents with a competitive edge. The budget allocates $15 million to expand access to early education and funds a grant program at $9.1 million to support Early Head Start and Head Start programs. The budget also prioritizes higher education through investments in state universities, community colleges and the University of Massachusetts and includes $519 million for UMass which will enable a freeze in tuition and fees for the second year. In addition, the budget dedicates money to implement the STEM Starter Academy, an initiative created in the FY14 budget aimed at strengthening and expanding STEM programming in community colleges.

This year’s budget emphasizes the importance of enhanced fiscal predictability and sustainable investments, a practice that has raised Massachusetts bond rating to AA+, the highest in the state’s history. In an extension of this fiscal prudence, the spending plan makes the lowest draw from the Stabilization Fund in four years and contributes about $1.79 billion to Massachusetts’ unfunded pension liability to accelerate the timetable for full funding. Additional economic development measures include:

  • Codifies the Massachusetts Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council;
  • Travel and tourism is one of the state’s largest industries, generating almost $17 billion in travel related expenditures and supporting 124,700 in-state jobs. The budget allocates $18 million for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and$7.5 million in regional tourism funding to promote statewide initiatives and increased international travel;
  • Supports the Massachusetts Cultural Council with $12 million in funding;
  • Provides $18.8 million for local libraries, representing an increase of $2.4 million from the previous fiscal year;
  • Establishes a process for all in-state and out-of-state direct shippers to receive a direct wine shipper’s license from the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) and allows for the collection of state taxes; and,
  • Provides $2 million for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership that will benefit programs designed to assist small and mid-sized manufacturers.

To heighten accountability and streamline operations, the budget establishes the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology (MOIT) to be administered by a Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Commonwealth. The CIO will be responsible for supervising all IT services of state agencies and will review any proposed IT expenditure costing more than $200,000. The Massachusetts Health Connector Authority will be considered a state agency for the purposes of MOIT oversight.

This budget reflects the Legislature’s pledge to combat the alarming rise in mental health problems and substance addiction. It allocates almost $18 million in new spending to help combat substance addiction including $10 million for the Substance Abuse Services Trust Fund to provide substance abuse services to an additional 10,000 individuals in need of treatment. The spending plan also includes the following investments in substance abuse services and treatment:

  • Creates a multi-year grant program at $5 million to fund mental health and substance abuse counselors within schools;
  • Increases funding for specialty courts, including drug courts, to $3 million;
  • Places addiction specialists in the Brockton, Plymouth and Quincy courts;
  • Funds training and purchase of Nasal Narcan™;
  • Creates a voluntary accreditation program for sober homes; and,
  • Provides additional funding for the Prescription Monitoring Program to prevent the over-prescription of medications.

To improve quality of care for people suffering from mental illness, the budget provides $10 million for the expansion of community-based placements for at least 100 discharge-ready patients in the Department of Mental Health system, while maintaining sheltered workshops for those individuals who wish to remain in a residential setting. It also creates a Behavioral and Mental Health Special task Force to identify impediments to the delivery of comprehensive treatment.

The budget includes numerous additional health and human services provisions including $60 million in MassHealth investments and:

  • $47.5 million for nursing homes to reduce the gap between Medicaid payments and uncompensated care;
  • $35 million for Disproportionate Share Hospitals;
  • $3 million in funds for employments programs for clients of the Department of Developmental Services;
  • Requires the implementation of a hearing process for long-term facilities before there is any intent to close;
  • Creates a legislative and executive working group to examine and make recommendations concerning Bridgewater State Hospital; and,
  • Maintains 45 beds at Taunton State Hospital and funds the opening of two additional wings at Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

Building on the continued leadership in reforming and strengthening the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the budget provides $185.6 million to reduce social worker caseloads. It also includes initiatives to improve communications, IT and record keeping practices, and ensure initial medical screenings of all children entering DCF care within 72 hours. Background checks will now be required for all current and future foster parents. Individuals will be precluded from becoming foster parents if convicted of serious crimes, including those involving violence or sexual in nature.
The budget also:

  • Provides $65 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program and permits for unexpended FY14 funds to carry forward, allowing hundreds of new families to access safe and permanent housing;
  • Expands the Veterans Motor Vehicle Excise Exemption to include leased cars;
  • Places a moratorium on the issuance of a Chapter 91 tidelands license permitting the development of rail lines or rail facilities for the transportation of ethanol to storage or blending facilities in the cities of Cambridge, Chelsea, Revere, Everett, Somerville and East Boston until January 1, 2017;
  • Establishes a permanent commission on the future of metropolitan area beaches;
  • Establishes a memorial to honor Massachusetts Iraq and Afghanistan Fallen Heroes; and,
  • Reestablishes the Water Supply Protection Program to promote the safety and purity of the Commonwealth’s water supplies and the protection of watershed lands.