BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson joined her colleagues in the Legislature to mark the end of formal sessions for the year and highlight the accomplishments of a productive 2017-2018 session.
Over the past two years, the Legislature passed major bills to reform the criminal justice system, strengthen gun safety, address the opioid crisis, protect women’s rights, aid economic development, increase veterans benefits, establish new consumer data protections, and improve energy and environmental policy.
“I’m proud of what the Legislature was able to accomplish in the 190th Legislative Session,” said Representative Benson. “We tackled some major issues, and ensured that Massachusetts remains a leader in civil rights, consumer protection, health care access, and energy policy.”
Continuing a practice of strong fiscal management, the House of Representatives passed two balanced state budgets with substantial investments in early education, aid for low-income families, housing, and programs to prevent and treat opioid addiction. The FY2018 and FY2019 budgets included no new major taxes, and increased the state’s Stabilization Fund to $2 billion.
This year, Representative Benson led the successful effort in the House to secure more funding for the Special Education Circuit Breaker program, which has been increased 8.7 percent over FY18 to an all-time high of $319.3 million. The program reimburses school districts for the costs of educating students with severe special needs.
Representative Benson also successfully secured funding for several district priorities in the FY19 budget, including:
- $150 thousand for advanced manufacturing and technology training programs at Mount Wachusett Community College;
- $25 thousand for the Lunenburg Eagle House Senior Community Center; and
- $75 thousand for the Acton-Maynard Senior Van Service and the South Acton Commuter Rail Shuttle.
With a series of tragic mass shootings across the country, the Legislature took action twice this session to pass policies to promote gun safety. A new law will prevent individuals who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others from possessing a firearm, as well as provide crisis intervention, mental health, and substance abuse and counseling services. In addition, the Legislature banned the sale, purchase, or ownership of “bump stock” devices, which increase a weapon’s rate of fire.
The Legislature addressed the opioid crisis with sweeping initiatives to prevent and treat substance use disorders. The legislation expands access to non-opioid treatment options for pain management and establishes grants to benefit substance exposed newborn children. It also improves the quality of patient care at treatment facilities, expands access to Narcan, and provides more training for law enforcement to respond to behavioral health crises.
Criminal Justice Reform
This year, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the most comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation in a generation to establish a more equitable system by supporting our youngest and most vulnerable residents, reducing recidivism, and enhancing public safety. As part of the reforms, the legislation also raises the minimum age of criminal responsibility from age seven to twelve and decriminalizes first offense misdemeanors.
With an uncertain future for federal action on reproductive rights, Representative Benson took action to protect the rights of women across the Commonwealth by voting for legislation to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to repeal outdated laws directed at limiting a woman’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive health.
Minimum Wage & Family Leave
In support of workers, the Legislature passed a bill that will raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over five years and create a framework for paid family and medical leave. The bill, which was the result of a compromise between labor and business groups, also phases out time-and-a-half pay on Sundays, and establishes a permanent sales tax holiday. The Legislature supported economic development across the Commonwealth with a bond bill that invests in public infrastructure, boosts manufacturing jobs, supports technological innovation, and expands career technical training programs.
In the wake of the Equifax data breach in 2017, Representative Benson worked closely with Attorney General Maura Healey and advocates on legislation to protect consumers in Massachusetts. The House and Senate passed Representative Benson’s bill, which provides added protections and resources for consumers in the event of a data breach. Under the bill, credit freezes must be provided to consumers free of charge, and in the event of a data breach, consumers will be provided with up to 42 months of free credit monitoring. Governor Baker returned the bill with several amendments, which the Legislature is in the process of reviewing. The Legislature must take action on these amendments before the bill can be signed into law.
Automatic Voter Registration
To support civic engagement, Representative Benson voted for, and the Governor signed into law, a bill establishing automatic voter registration in Massachusetts. The Secretary of State will adopt regulations governing the automatic voter registration system, including data security protocols and integration with online portals, by January 1, 2020. Under the new law, the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth will transmit residence and citizenship information to the municipality where the person lives. The municipality will then send a notice to the individual informing them that they have been registered to vote and offering the opportunity to choose a party affiliation or decline to register. If the individual does not respond within 21 days, their name will automatically be added to the voter rolls. Additionally, the House and Senate passed a bill requiring schools to incorporate civics education into their curriculum. The Governor returned the bill to the Legislature with some minor changes.
Massachusetts is a national leader in environmental and energy policy, and the actions taken by the Legislature this year bolster that position. Representative Benson’s energy efficiency legislation (H.1724) was included in an energy bill signed into law by the Governor in August. Representative Benson’s language updates the Green Communities Act to make more efficiency options available to homeowners. Additionally, the bill sets a new, ambitious energy storage target for electricity distributors, and authorizes the procurement of an additional 1,600Mwh of wind energy. Importantly, it also eliminates the “demand charge” forced on solar customers by some utility companies. An environmental bond bill signed into law will dedicate $2.4 billion to climate change resiliency and adaptation projects, and enhance environmental and natural resource protections.
Protecting Our Youth
As part of an ongoing effort to protect the health of our youth, only those aged 21 or older may purchase tobacco products in Massachusetts as a result of the Legislature’s action on this issue.
The Legislature also honored Massachusetts veterans by passing the BRAVE Act to increase assistance for indigent veterans’ funeral and burial expenses, increase paid leave for service members to 40 days, and designate April 5 as Gold Star Wives Day.
Representative Benson’s carbon pricing bill, An Act to Promote Green Infrastructure, Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Create Jobs received substantial support from her colleagues, but was ultimately sent to study by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. She has pledged to renew her efforts next year and refile the bill.
The House and Senate will continue to meet in informal sessions through December. Formal sessions will resume in January 2019 when the members are sworn in for the 191st General Court of Massachusetts.