Rep. Benson Joined Colleagues to Pass a Balanced FY16 Budget Focused on Restoring Local Aid and Reforming Mass Transit

BOSTON – Representative Jennifer Benson joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday to unanimously pass a $38.05 billion House fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget focused on restoring local aid to cities and towns, investing in education and reforming the strained MBTA system.

The House FY16 budget increases spending by a modest 2.8% over last year, and contains targeted investments in local aid, education, and transportation infrastructure. Heeding calls from constituents to rein in spending and improve government services, the budget includes no new taxes or fees, and takes immediate steps to address systemic problems at the MBTA. The budget establishes a 5-year moratorium on the Pacheco Law procurement requirements, and calls for an independent audit of the T’s maintenance protocols and fiscal liabilities.

Investments in local aid include a $35 million increase to Unrestricted General Government Aid and an all-time high in Chapter 70 funding of $4.5 billion, providing an increase of $25 per pupil. In addition to the education local aid reimbursements, this budget also includes key investments in education, such as restoring  full-day kindergarten grants for this year, and fully funding the Circuit Breaker at the 75% reimbursement.

“This is a budget we can be proud of,” said Representative Benson. “The budget we passed proves that it’s possible to provide critical financial support to our cities and towns, while still maintaining fiscal discipline. We’ve increased funding for education, regional school transportation, mass transit, and general government local aid, all without raising taxes or dipping into the rainy day fund.”

In the budget, the towns of the 37th Middlesex District, Acton, Ayer, Boxborough, Harvard, Lunenburg, and Shirley, will all see increases to their UGGA funding from 2015, while the Harvard, Lunenburg, Acton-Boxborough Regional, Ayer-Shirley Regional, and Nashoba Valley Technical school districts will all see increases to their Chapter 70 educational funding.

Representative Benson filed and co-sponsored amendments to the budget that directly benefit the 37th Middlesex District, including a request to include regional bonus aid, increase regional school transportation, and guarantee funding for towns that host Department of Corrections facilities.  Regional Bonus aid was not included in the Governor’s or House Ways and Means’ budget recommendations, but Representative Benson successfully amended the budget to include a $100,000 appropriation for regional school districts formed after 2013.  While the regional transportation amendment was not included in the final House budget, the final appropriation is a $5.0 million increase over current levels, providing a 67%  reimbursement rate to regional school districts. The prison mitigation funding amendment was included in the House budget, which will benefit the Town of Shirley.

As a co-chair of the After School and Out-of-School Time Coordinating Council, Representative Benson also successfully filed an amendment to increase the appropriation that invests in quality programs for youth across the Commonwealth.

The budget now goes to the Senate for amendments and debate.

House Votes to Include Rep. Benson’s Solar Task Force Amendment in Budget

(BOSTON) – On Tuesday, April 28, 2015, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted in favor of a consolidated Environmental and Energy Affairs amendment, which includes Representative Jennifer Benson’s budget amendment that establishes a task force charged with reviewing interconnection standards and circuit capacity for installation of solar panels in the Commonwealth.

As part of consolidated amendment H. 3400, passed on the second day of this year’s House budget deliberation, the task force’s specific areas of review will include: 1) The proper protocols for the interconnection process to ensure reliability and safety of the electric grid; 2) Guidelines for the Department of Public Utilities’ interconnection tariffs; 3) Recommendations for who shall contribute to the fiscal impact of infrastructure investment updates; and 4) The ways in which the circuit capacity cap may be increased in order to accommodate additional interconnected distributed generation.

“This task force is a great step toward solving the problem of solar panel connectivity that constituents have been encountering in Lunenburg and across the state,” said Representative Benson. “There shouldn’t be any barriers in the way of homeowners and businesses who want to install solar panels on their properties. I’m confident that the task force will find solutions that will make it easier and more affordable for people to install solar panels.”

The amendment was proposed by Representative Benson in response to an issue in the Town of Lunenburg where homeowners who have installed solar panels are finding that they are unable to connect the solar panels to the electrical grid due to circuit capacity regulations set by the Department of Public Utilities and regional power companies.

If the amendment language is included in the final Fiscal Year 2016 budget, the task force will be comprised of legislators, solar industry experts, and representatives from relevant state agencies. The taskforce will report their findings by October 1, 2015.

Benson Focuses on Targeted Investments in Local Aid and Education for Fiscal Year 2016 Budget

(BOSTON) – The Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee (HWM) unveiled their $38 billion fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget on Wednesday with targeted investments focused on local aid for schools, transportation infrastructure, and regional school transportation.

The House FY16 budget represents a 2.8 percent increase compared to the current fiscal year, with ample increases to Chapter 70 and Chapter 90 funds, as well as increases to unrestricted local aid. Compared to Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed budget, the House FY16 budget includes an additional $3 million for educational aid, an additional $13.3 million for regional school transportation, and an additional $34 million in unrestricted local aid. In total, the House FY16 budget provides for $25 of state funds per pupil, compared to $20 per pupil in Governor Baker’s proposed budget.

“This budget proves we can continue our commitment to providing local aid to our cities and towns, while still maintaining fiscal responsibility,” said State Representative Jennifer Benson. “While the HWM’s recommendations are thoughtful, and make strategic investments in key areas like education, I have also filed amendments to the budget that request a 75% reimbursement rate for regional school districts’ transportation costs, regional bonus aid, and additional investments in after school programs, among others. I am looking forward to the House budget debate.”

Other highlights from the House budget include an additional $17.3 million for the trial court system, an additional $10 million for the treatment and prevention of substance abuse, and an additional $15 million for mental health services. The budget also increases the Department of Transportation’s budget by $70 million, and puts in place reforms to improve the quality, and lower the cost of MBTA services.

Members of the House had to submit their amendment proposals to the HWM’s FY16 budget recommendations by April 17, and will begin the House budget debate on April 27.

Representative Benson’s Monthly Office Update: February & March 2015

I wanted to take a moment to provide you with an update. This time of the year is always busy on Beacon Hill, as we start to advocate for our legislative priorities, and prepare for the House budget debate in April.

Around the District

There was a lot going on in the 37th Middlesex District the past two months, and I was thrilled to be able to attend a lot of events, including a ribbon cutting at Visiting Angels, LWV-AA’s Annual Civics Bee, and a Recognition Dinner.

I also had the opportunity to meet with the Lunenburg Council on Aging, the North Central MA Chamber of Commerce, and the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee. At the School Committee meeting, I gave a presentation that included an overview of Chapter 70 formula, and how it specifically impacts special education funding.

Throughout March and February, I also attend the MAGIC Legislative Breakfast, the Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School Luncheon, Central MA Grown’s First Annual meeting, and Shriver Job Corps’ Quarterly CRC luncheon.

The commuter rail passenger platform access and safety issues continue to be an unresolved concern at the Depot Square train station in Ayer. Unfortunately, although there have been a few proposed plans between the Town, the property owner, the MBTA, and MART, there has yet to be a plan agreed upon in writing. My colleagues and I continue to be in touch with Ayer’s Town Administrator, Robert Pontbriand, and follow the issue closely.

 At the State House

On Beacon Hill this month, I had the opportunity to meet with Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito, in my capacity as Co-Vice Chair of the MA Caucus of Women Legislators, to discuss our priority issues that affect women across the Commonwealth.

Among having many meetings to discuss bills and the budget, I also was able to meet with the MA Life Sciences Center, attend a briefing on Healthy Food, Local Jobs, Strong Communities, and had discussions concerning the possibility of Boston hosting the 2024 Olympics.

After School and Out-of-School Time Coordinating Council (ASOST)

In the beginning of March I had the honor to be included in the speaking program at the MA Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs’ Annual Luncheon at the State House to discuss my work on the ASOST Council to date. It was an excellent opportunity to bring awareness to the ASOST Coordinating Council and emphasize the importance of investing in quality after school programs.

Mid-March Senator McGee and I facilitated our first site visit of 2015 for the ASOST Coordinating Council in the Culinary Arts Room at Everett High School. During the visit, we were able to hear recommendations on how the legislature can better support afterschool and out of school time programs from program leaders, such as Debbie Kneeland Keegan from For Kids Only (FKO) Afterschool. Additionally, we were able to discuss the Council’s first recommendation to our colleagues in the legislature, which is to use state funds to host a first of its kind student data sharing pilot in the state.

Legislative Update

The House met for three full formal sessions, during the months of February and March, to consider, the House Rules and the Joint Rules of the Two Branches, An Act Addressing the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Shortfall (HB49), An Act providing for an employee retirement incentive program (HB3189), and An Act further providing for the financing of certain improvement to municipal roads and bridges (HB3187), among others. If you are interested in a real-time updates of the House schedule, you can do so by accessing the link https://malegislature.gov/Events/HouseSessions.

I was delighted to meet with and gain support of my healthy eating bill (H3221) from Mass Farm to School in March. House Bill 3221 is a new file and one of my top priorities this session, and I am looking forward to advocating for changing guidelines and expanding programs to increase healthy eating in public schools.

To review all twenty-five bills that I have filed this session, please visit my website (https://jenbenson.org/legislation/). If you click on the bill number/titles then you will be redirected to the MA Legislature website, where you can access the most up-to-date status of the bill and track it through the legislative process.

Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure

You may notice that my committee update each month is different. That is because with the new legislative session that started in January, we received new committee assignments. In early March, I was named as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

Although consumer protection is a new issue area for me, I am looking forward to working on legislation that works to strengthen the rights of consumers and licensing policies. In my new capacity as Chair of the committee, I spent the month of March hosting a variety of organizations and lobbyists for introductory meetings and to review important bills that are currently in the committee, such as An Act to enhance consumer protection and transparency under the social work licensing law (HB157), An Act relative to telecommunications systems contractors and technicians (HB242), and An Act relative to special alcohol licenses for nonprofit organizations (HB248), among others.

As of March, the committee has been assigned over one hundred House bills to review. To find the full list of bills currently in the Consumer Protection Committee, you can access the link: https://malegislature.gov/Committees/Joint/J17.

Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) State Budget

It is that time of year again—budget season. Governor Baker released his fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget recommendations (House Bill 1) to the committee on House Ways and Means on March 5, 2015. You can review the Governor’s recommendations by accessing https://malegislature.gov/Bills/189/House/H1 or http://www.mass.gov/bb/h1/fy16h1/.

In February, I met with Hose Ways and Means Chairman to discuss my top three priorities for the FY16 budget: Chapter 70 funding, local aid, and prison mitigation funding.

The House will release its’ version of the budget in the next couple of weeks, and we will have our FY16 budget debate at the end of April.

At the State House, I have also met with various groups to hear their FY16 budget requests, including YWCA Jane Doe Advocates, Health Care For All, MetroWest Legal Services and the Mass Life Sciences Center, among others.

In March, I hosted a Superintendents’ Luncheon with Representative Harrington (R-Groton) to have a discussion about their district budgets, fiscal requests and legislative priorities for the new session. In addition to the luncheon, I attended Fitchburg State University’s Annual Superintendents’ Breakfast as well. At the end of March, Senator Eldridge and I attended the Town of Shirley’s Board of Selectmen meeting to also discuss the municipal budget, and their priorities.

My staff and I attended the Mass Municipal Association (MMA) and MARS Legislative Breakfast to discuss FY16 budget concerns.

In the next couple of weeks, I am preparing to review HWM’s budget, to file amendments, and then debate the budget in the House. It has been great to meet with so many people, and receive literature on budget priorities. If you wish to bring a FY16 budget request to my attention, please contact Meagan Greene in my Boston office.

I want to thank all of you for communicating your concerns and priorities over the course of February and March. As always, I encourage each of you to keep in touch by contacting my office at 617.722.2014 or sending me an email at Jennifer.Benson@mahouse.gov.

Representative Benson, Senator Eldridge Recognized as Legislative Champions by MassPACE

BOSTON- On Thursday, April 2, 2015, Representative Benson (D-Lunenburg) and Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) were recognized as legislative champions at Massachusetts State Association of PACE Programs’ State House Day.

Representative Jennifer Benson and Senator Jamie Eldridge received Inaugural MassPace Programs’ Legislative Champion Awards, and were recognized for their continued advocacy of the MassPace Programs, and the bill they refiled this session, An Act to preserve eligibility for PACE program and certain waivered participants (HB966/SD1023).

“I was honored to receive one of MassPACE’s Legislative Champion awards.  Senator Eldridge and I always happily file our MassPACE eligibility bills, as we have both seen the cost savings, and quality of life enhancements that result from the program,” said Representative Benson. “I personally know that by improving access to community-based care, we are relieving many nursing home eligible individuals and their families, who are faced with the difficult decisions of trying to spend down their monthly income, or consider nursing home care. I saw this stressful situation firsthand with my own grandparents, so this continues to be a priority issue for me, and I intend to continue advocating for the income eligibility change.”

“It was a wonderful honor to receive a legislative champion award from MassPACE,” said Senator Eldridge. “Recognizing the wide impact programs like PACE have on improving access to all-inclusive community care as an alternative to nursing homes for our seniors, Representative Benson and I are proud to refile this legislation. I look forward to working together with MassPACE this session to advance the PACE bill.”

The Preserving Access to PACE Act (SD1023/H.966) offers a commonsense remedy to the current dilemma. PACE and Home and Community Based Waiver participants whose income is over the current program limit but below the monthly cost of nursing home care would be charged a premium equal to any income above the program limit.

The bill would improve access to community-based care for nursing home eligible individuals and produce significant benefits for older adults and the Commonwealth. Most notably:

  • PACE has been well-documented to improve both the quality and length of life for participants.
  • PACE reduces hospitalizations.
  • PACE costs significantly less per participant than MassHealth expends on nursing home care.

The Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) is an innovative care model focused on the keeping those 55 and older in their homes and communities for as long as possible by offering a comprehensive set of medical, behavioral health, social, and wellness services. In Massachusetts, PACE programs are sponsored by local organizations across the state. PACE participants are nursing home eligible individuals, the majority of whom are dually-eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. PACE is a capitated program in which providers are fully at risk for all costs of caring for their patients.