Representative Benson Reflects on Session Accomplishments

BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts Legislature in completing a productive 2015-2016 session which included the passage of multiple landmark bills. Over the past two years, the Legislature passed major bills related to substance addiction, energy, economic development, civil rights, and regulatory reform, including rules governing the “ride-for-hire” industry.

As required by their rules, formal sessions for the Legislature’s two-year session ended at midnight on July 31st. While legislators will continue working for their constituents and in their districts, all major legislation that requires a roll call vote had to pass by this deadline.

“I am proud of all that we were able to accomplish this session,” said Representative Benson. “We worked hard to pass fair legislation that will help the Commonwealth remain the leader in many evolving industries, including ride-for-hire transportation systems and the clean energy sector.”

This session the Legislature took up various pieces of legislation in response to rapid shifts in economic, environmental, and regulatory landscapes, including a major energy bill. The recently-signed law will diversify Massachusetts’ energy portfolio and ensure reliable electricity supply by replacing older power plants that are due for retirement. These measures will protect the Commonwealth’s ratepayers while enhancing clean energy and securing a more sustainable future. The law supports 2,800 megawatts (MWs) of clean energy – the largest amount the Legislature has included in any single bill – and requires distribution companies to conduct solicitations for 1,600 MWs of offshore wind.

Recognizing ongoing innovations in transportation, the Legislature created statewide regulations for ride-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft that will improve public safety and consumer protection standards. At the same time, these regulations will allow companies to continue to provide pioneering transportation services. The law creates a new division overseen by the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) responsible for regulating ride-for-hire companies. Companies applying for licensure must meet insurance, background check, pricing, and nondiscrimination standards.

Throughout the legislative session, Representative Benson remained committed to filing and advocating for strong legislation that in the areas of health care policy, improving education, assisting individuals with disabilities and their families in the public school system, and various prevention efforts for chronic diseases such as diabetes and HIV. Demonstrating her commitment to these issues, Representative Benson filed An Act relative to diabetes prevention (H.3871), which was engrossed in the House this session due to her leadership on the issue, and An Act relative to a State Public Health HIV and Hepatitis Fund (H.3960). In addition, Representative Benson successfully filed and advocated for the inclusion of a commission to investigate and study services for students with low incidence disabilities and to identify opportunities for administrative efficiencies and cost savings by school districts in the House FY17 budget.

Major bills co-sponsored by Representative Benson that made it to Governor Baker’s desk this session include An Act to Establish Pay Equity (S.2119), which provides tools to help ensure that men and women receive equitable compensation for comparable work. This law represents a consensus-based effort to ensure that the legislation would be practical, effective, and sustainable. Additionally, Representative Benson co-sponsored An Act to improve public records (H.4333), which updated the Commonwealth’s public records law for the first time in more than 40 years. This House-led initiative enhances accountability measures and creates a standardized timeframe and process in which requested documents must be produced. It also ensures that judicial remedies can be sought by those seeking public records.

On behalf of the district, Representative Benson sponsored Home Rule Petitions this session that were signed into law, such as An Act exempting certain positions in the police department of the town of Acton from the civil service law (H.2202), and An Act authorizing the Commissioner of DCAMM to convey certain land to the town of Acton in exchange for other real property (H.3792).  Additionally, impacting the town of Shirley, the Legislature voted to override Governor Baker’s veto to cut funding to the cities and towns that host Department of Correction (DOC) facilities. The prison mitigation earmark will remain at the Legislature’s FY17 final level of $2.2 million.

“Over the course of the two-year session, we were able to pass comprehensive bills that make major investments in our economy and infrastructure,” said Representative Benson. “In addition, the legislature worked hard to tackle issues facing our constituencies including providing clarity to owners of foreclosed properties, public accommodations access, discrepancies in pay among men and women, and substance abuse.”

Among the healthcare policy issues Representative Benson fought hard for this session was An Act relative to patient medication adherence (H.791). H.791, also referred to as the “step-therapy bill”, garnered a lot of support among advocates across the state toward the end of session. The bill, which would give prescribers more control over the medications they prescribe to their patients, received a favorable report from two joint committees, and remains in the House Committee on Ways and Means.  If there is no action on the bill through informal sessions, the Representative will file it again next session.

As Chair of the Joint Committee of Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, Representative Benson led the Committee’s work in taking up issues of licensing and regulation. During this legislative session, she was able to report out of committee An Act Regulating Secondary Metals Dealings (H.3806), which establishes a list of metals that metals dealers are prohibited from collecting, and establishes fines for those that violate this law. An Act relative to streamlining home improvement contractor registration (H.4022) was also moved out of committee and enacted into law. This bill allows residential contractors and subcontractors to use a major credit card to pay fees, thereby streamlining the registration process. An Act relative to in-house cafes (H.4452) was engrossed by the House and would allow grocery stores to hold liquor licenses for both on-premises and off-premises consumption. This would allow grocery stores to serve alcoholic beverages at their cafes, thereby boosting local economies and promoting greater consumer choice.

Other bills passed in the House this session include preventing trafficking of fentanyl, energy legislation lifting the net-metering cap, a bill to protect minors from dangers of indoor tanning, a license suspension bill for non-violent drug offenses, legislation to provide legal protections against discrimination related to gender identity or expression in public accommodations, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) without implementing new taxes or fees, and increasing the Council on Aging grant formula.

The Legislature will continue to meet for informal sessions through December.   Formal session will resume next January when the newly elected members are sworn into the 190th General Court of Massachusetts.

Representative Benson’s Monthly Update: July 2016

At the State House

In between formal sessions, I was delighted to host the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School’s (ASRHS) FIRST Robotics team for an event on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Students delivered an impressive presentation to legislators and their staffs about the FIRST Robotics program and its value, noting that more than 75% of FIRST participants go on to study a STEM field in college.

The group also unveiled their campaign, called MassFIRST, to get a FIRST Robotics program up and running in every school district in the Commonwealth. Since launching the campaign last year, the ASRHS team has travelled across Massachusetts promoting FIRST Robotics, and mentoring several schools that have gone on to start their own teams.

Driving the robot with Rep. Steve Hay.

Driving the robot with Rep. Steve Hay.

I first met with the ASRHS team last fall when they invited me to their school. I think what they are doing to spark an interest in kids to consider careers in STEM fields is incredible. Their MassFIRST campaign is so admirable because they are taking what they have learned and using it to help other school districts form their own FIRST teams. After their presentation, I enjoyed driving their robot around the State House with Representative Stephen Hay.

Legislative Update

With full formal sessions for the Legislature’s two-year (2015-2016) session coming to a close on July 31, the General Court worked hard to pass important legislation that requires roll call votes, and tie up loose ends before the end of the month.

Early in the month, the Legislature sent a compromised bill (S.2407) to the Governor guaranteeing transgender citizens the right to access public accommodations, such as hotels, retail stores, restrooms, and restaurants. I was proud to vote for this bill, which protects the thousands of transgender citizens in Massachusetts from discrimination.

The Legislature also sent a finalized version of An Act to Establish Pay Equity  (S.2119) to the Governor. I am overjoyed that the women of Massachusetts now have the law on their side when it comes to issues of wage discrimination. The new law prohibits discrimination in compensation between men and women for similar work, unless the discrepancy is due to education, seniority, experience, or another limited number of factors. Importantly, the law also makes Massachusetts the first state to forbid employers from asking job applicants about their salary history, so that the lower average entry-level salaries women are paid do not suppress their earning potential throughout their careers.

An energy bill (H.4568) that will require distribution companies to solicit 1,600 megawatts each of offshore wind and hydroelectric power was passed by the Legislature and is expected to be signed into law by the Governor. After a long Conference Committee process, I voted for the final bill because it pushes Massachusetts toward our clean energy goals. I hope the progress made with this bill can be built upon in the next Legislative Session.

Finally, the Legislature also passed bills regulating the ride-for-hire industry (H.4570) and reforming municipal finance practices (H.4565), as well as an economic development bill (H.4569). The final vote just before midnight during the weekend formal sessions was to override Governor Baker’s veto of a law requiring health insurance providers to cover the long-term treatment of Lyme disease. The veto passed overwhelmingly, with nearly unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

Unfortunately, a bill that I filed and fought hard for this session, An Act Relative to Patient Medication Adherence (H.791), is still in House Committee on Ways and Means. The bill, which received a considerable amount of support and news coverage this session, would give doctors more control over the medications they prescribe to their patients by providing a way around insurance providers’ “step therapy” protocol.  While I will continue to advocate for passage of this bill during informal sessions in the next few months, if it does not move, I plan to file the bill again in the next Legislative session.

Budget Update

After delivering a responsible but robust budget in June, Governor Baker chose to cut more than $250 million in spending from the Legislature’s budget. The House and Senate held two weekend sessions in July to override many of the Governor’s vetoes to crucial programs. In total, the Legislature restored $232 million in funding to vital accounts, including The Massachusetts Cultural Council, Special Education Circuit Breaker, community colleges, State University Incentive Grants, and early education.

I successfully fought to override vetoes to prison mitigation funding for the Town of Shirley, funding for an additional shuttle for Acton seniors, and economic development funds for North Central Massachusetts.

 Looking Ahead

As the summer winds down, I am looking forward to spending time in the District with my family. The next monthly update will be published in October.

If you wish to contact me, you can do so by calling my State House office at (617) 722-2014, or via email at Jennifer.Benson@MAHouse.gov. The District office in Lunenburg can be reached at (978) 582-4146.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Benson

Rep. Benson Joins Colleagues In Restoring Funding For Vital Items In FY17 State Budget

BOSTON – Representative Jennifer Benson joined her colleagues in the House of Representatives on Saturday July 30, and Sunday July 31, for two rare weekend sessions to take action on important budget items and bills. The rules of the Legislature require that formal sessions to ended for the year by Sunday at midnight.

“I was proud to vote with my colleagues in support of restoring funding to programs that are critical to the individuals and communities that we represent,” said Representative Benson. “Restoring appropriations for items such as senior vans, cultural councils, and special education demonstrates the House’s ability to remain fiscally prudent, while we continue to fund the services and resources for our constituents in need.”

Included in the session were votes to override vetoes on critical items in the FY17 budget, which Governor Baker sent back to the Legislature in early July. In addition to the overrides passed on July 23, the House voted to restore major items during the weekend, including funding for the Special Education Circuit Breaker, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Massachusetts Community Colleges, State University Incentive grants, many early education items, and long term treatment for Lyme disease, among others.

Directly impacting the district, Rep. Benson championed for overrides to restore earmarks for prison mitigation funding for the town of Shirley, economic development planning for North Central Massachusetts, and $50,000 for an Acton and Maynard shuttle for seniors.

The Representative also advocated for restoring other items that will benefit the entire Commonwealth, including a data pilot sharing program for after-school programs which would provide school districts with funds to partner with local community-based organizations.

As required by their rules, formal sessions for the Legislature’s two-year session ended on July 31st. While legislators will continue working for their constituents and in their districts, all major legislation that requires a roll call vote, including veto overrides, had to be passed by this deadline.