Rep. Benson’s March/April 2019 Office Update

District

Budget Meetings

In March and April, I continued meeting with town and school officials in the district to discuss their legislative and budget priorities for the year. I met with the Harvard and Acton-Boxborough School Committees and officials from the towns to discuss education funding ahead of the FY20 budget debate. We discussed proposed legislation that would reform Chapter 70 public school funding, regional transportation, special education, and other education budget items. As a former member and chair of a local school committee, I understand the financial difficulties facing these districts, and I advocated for increasing education funding during the House budget process.

Ranked Choice Voting Town Hall

At an informational session about ranked choice voting (RCV), I spoke about my legislation, H.635, which would give cities and towns the option to implement RCV in their local elections. In RCV, instead of voting for one candidate, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If their first choice cannot win, their vote counts toward their next choice, and so on, until a candidate clears 50%. RCV has been used in statewide federal elections in Maine and in dozens municipal elections across the country. I was happy to talk about the bill and answer questions from constituents.

Acton and Boxborough Events

At the Acton-Boxborough Cultural Council Grantee Reception, I celebrated the dozens of local- organizations receiving grants totaling more than $12,000 to support their programs and events. As a supporter of the arts and culture, it was great to be able to congratulate the grantees and enjoy previews of some of their upcoming plays, concerts, and art shows.

In the midst of the strike by Stop & Shop workers across New England, I visited the picket line at the store in Acton on Powder Mill Road to bring the workers donuts and offer support. After ten days, a tentative agreement was reached between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and The Stop & Shop Company. I was happy to lend my support to the workers as they fought for fair wages and benefits.

Supporting striking Stop & Shop workers in Acton.

State House

Community Leadership Institute

With the members of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leadership Institute in the House Chamber.

Every year, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce bring the members of their Community Leadership Institute to the State House. I spoke with the group of local business leaders in the House Chamber about my path to serving in the Legislature and the qualities I believe make an effective leader. I also talked about my new role as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing and answered questions about policy.

Advocacy Days

March and April are always busy months for advocacy groups in the State House. I met with students from Ayer-Shirley Regional High School about the importance of ensuring that a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) classes is available in all high schools. AP classes are funded primarily by local school districts, but there is some funding in the Massachusetts state budget specifically for AP classes. The FY20 House budget includes $2.9 million for AP math and science courses.

Talking with Ayer-Shirley AP High School students.

I also met with a group of constituents from Harvard and Acton Unitarian Universalist congregations about their legislative priorities, which include addressing climate change, making it easier to vote, and reforming our criminal justice system.

On March 28, I spoke at the American Cancer Society lobby day about my “fail first” legislation, which would allow patients to get the medication prescribed to them more quickly when insurance companies try to intercede and make patients try a less expensive medication first.

Speaking at the Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs’ breakfast.

I was honored to be asked to speak at the Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs advocacy day event in April. I told a story about my grandfather, who grew up in Boston’s West End just a few blocks from the State House. As a Lithuanian immigrant, he found a home and a second family at the West End Boys Club, where he played basketball and learned English. The Club was a huge part of his childhood and identity as a new American. A photo of my grandfather and his West End Club basketball team hangs in my State House office as a reminder of the importance of after school and summer programs, and the great work of the Boys & Girls Clubs.


Legislative Update

Bills Protecting Children, Women’s Health Care Signed into Law

The Legislature recently passed, and the Governor signed into law, several important pieces of legislation to protect children, and ensure the availability of reproductive health care to women in Massachusetts.

On March 13, the House passed An Act Relative to Abusive Practices to Change Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Minors. When it was signed into law by the Governor a few weeks later, Massachusetts became the 15th state to ban the practice of conversion therapy on children. Conversion therapy seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a child through abusive and often violent methods, and has been shown to cause severe mental health issues. An Act to Lift the Cap on Kids also became law after the Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of the bill, which makes more than 8,000 children in low-income families eligible for state benefits.

The House passed supplemental funding for women’s health clinics in the state to ensure that women will continue to have access to reproductive health care and preventative cancer screening. Since 1970, these clinics have received funding from the federal Title X program but the Trump Administration has threatened to cut this funding. This would force many of the 93 clinics across Massachusetts to close. I was proud to join the Legislature in appropriating this funding, because without it, 70,000 people would be in danger of losing access to their main providers of reproductive care, contraception, STD testing, and cancer screening. The Governor signed the funding bill into law on March 30.


FY2020 House Budget

After a four-day process, the House passed a $42.7 billion state budget that makes substantial investments in K-12 education and health care. With a nearly 5 percent increase in Chapter 70 funding over last year, and the full funding of the Special Education Circuit Breaker, the budget ensures that our schools will have the resources they need to provide high quality education.

I filed several amendments for district-specific projects and programs that were included in the FY20 House budget including:

  • $100,000 for the Lunenburg Fire Department to purchase new safety equipment;
  • $165,000 for the removal and replacement of fuel storage tanks in Lunenburg;
  • $100,000 for the renovation of a building in Acton to serve as a community center; and
  • $150,000 for the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program at the Devens campus at Mount Wachusett Community College.

I also co-sponsored amendments to fund district-specific items, and a few of those made it into the FY20 House budget as well, including:

  • Prison Mitigation Funding to benefit cities and towns hosting state Department of Corrections facilities (Shirley);
  • $100,000 for elderly and commuter shuttles linking to the MBTA in Acton and Maynard; and
  • $27,000 for water quality monitoring for the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers (Acton).
Speaking during the FY20 House budget debate in favor of the amendment to lower MassHealth pharmaceutical spending.

The FY20 House budget includes new policy language that would give the Executive Office of Health & Human Services (EOHHS) and the Health Policy Commission (HPC) more tools to lower drug costs in the MassHealth program. The amendment authorizes EOHHS to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers for supplemental rebates to lower overall prescription drug spending within MassHealth. EOHHS may also hold public hearings on the supplemental rebates and request documentation from manufacturers explaining their reasoning behind the pricing of drugs. This process would allow members of the public to weigh in by providing testimony. If the HPC determines a manufacturer has priced a drug unreasonably or excessively, and the manufacturer declines to agree to terms for a supplemental rebate, EOHHS may subject the drug to actions such as requiring prior authorization and prescription quantity limits. If at any point a drug manufacturer fails to provide the HPC with requested information, they can be fined up to $500,000.


Health Care Financing Committee

Hearing testimony at the first hearing of the session of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.

The Joint Committee on Health Care Financing has begun holding legislative hearings on bills that were referred to the Committee. Our first hearing was on pharmaceutical pricing and transparency, and lasted several hours. My Co-Chair and I, Senator Cindy Friedman, as well as the other members of the Committee, heard testimony from dozens of advocates, medical professionals, and industry leaders. The Committee is currently working on reviewing all the collected testimony and preparing for future hearings.


Looking Ahead

In May, the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing will be holding more legislative hearings, including on single-payer health care legislation. For details about hearings and the bills before the Committee, visit MALegislature.gov. I will also be hosting a briefing at the State House on my Election Day Voter Registration bill, and attending events in the district.

If you wish to discuss legislation, or you require assistance with a state government issue, you can reach my office at Jennifer.Benson@MAHouse.gov or at 617-722-2430.

Sincerely,

Rep. Benson Votes to Pass Balanced House Budget with Investments in Education and Housing, and Funding for District Priorities

BOSTON – On Thursday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in passing its Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) state budget. Funded at $42.7 billion, the House budget makes major investments in K-12 education and health care, while allocating funding for district-specific priorities in the several areas, including economic development, transportation, and education.

“I was proud to support the House FY20 budget, which reflects our values as a Commonwealth,” said Representative Benson. “With the nearly 5 percent increase in Chapter 70 funding over last year, and the full funding of the Special Education Circuit Breaker, the House has continued its commitment to supporting our public education system.”

“This fiscally responsible budget balances the needs of communities, families, and individuals across the Commonwealth with smart investments that boost local aid, support our health care system, strengthen education, and protect the environment,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “I am proud of the work we have done to further our ongoing efforts to combat the opioid crisis and invest in high-quality early education and care. I believe these investments will have a lasting positive effect on the lives of Massachusetts residents for years to come. I want to thank Chair Michlewitz for his diligence and hard work, and my colleagues in the House who were instrumental to this process.”

“This budget meets the Commonwealth’s needs and builds off of past commitments to ensure that our economy remains strong for all of our residents,” said Representative Aaron Michlewitz, Chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means (D-Boston). “We make targeted investments into key elements including education, housing, the environment and women’s health.”

Several of Representative Benson’s amendments for district-specific projects and programs are included in the FY20 House budget, including:

  • $100,000 for the Lunenburg Fire Department to purchase new safety equipment;
  • $165,000 for the removal and replacement of fuel storage tanks in Lunenburg;
  • $100,000 for the renovation of a building in Acton to serve as a community center; and
  • $150,000 for the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program at the Devens campus at Mount Wachusett Community College.

Additionally, amendments for district-specific items co-sponsored by the Representative are included:

  • Prison Mitigation Funding to benefit cities and towns hosting state Department of Corrections facilities (Shirley);
  • $100,000 for elderly and commuter shuttles linking to the MBTA in Acton and Maynard; and
  • $27,000 for water quality monitoring for the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers (Acton).

The House continues its commitment to cities and towns increasing Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) by nearly $30 million and providing $5.1 billion in Chapter 70 education funding as part of a $236 million increase for investments in schools over FY19. It also addresses the need for integrated student health and wellness supports, providing $2 million to establish the Supporting Health Alliances Reinforcing Education (SHARE) grant program to connect students to community mental health resources. Additional education allocations include:

  • $329 million for Circuit Breaker Special Education reimbursement;
  • $113 million for Charter School Reimbursement;
  • $73.8 million for Regional School Transportation reimbursement; and
  • $4.7 million for After-School and Out-of-School Time grants.

MassHealth is the single largest investment that the Commonwealth makes in its most economically vulnerable residents. This program provides health insurance for the homeless, the recovering, mothers with children, and the working poor. In addition to funding this vital program, the budget also increases funding for crucial health and human services agencies and providers including:

  • $109.8 million to continue reforms at the Department of Children and Families;
  • $35 million for supplemental rates for nursing homes across the Commonwealth; and
  • $17.9 million for local Councils on Aging to help senior citizens.

The FY20 House budget includes an amendment with new policy language that would give the Executive Office of Health & Human Services (EOHHS) and the Health Policy Commission (HPC) more tools to lower drug costs in the MassHealth program. The amendment authorizes EOHHS to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers for supplemental rebates to lower overall prescription drug spending within the MassHealth program. EOHHS may also hold a public hearing on the supplemental rebate in the event that the manufacturer and EOHHS cannot come to terms on a supplemental rebate for any drug projected to exceed the per-year cost thresholds.

This process would allow members of the public to weigh in by providing testimony. If EOHHS and the manufacturer still cannot reach an agreement, EOHHS has the option to refer the matter to the HPC for a thorough investigation into the pricing of the drug. The HPC would then be able to make a determination regarding whether the price of the drug is unreasonable or excessive.

If the HPC determines a manufacturer has priced a drug unreasonably or excessively, and the manufacturer again declines to agree to terms for a supplemental rebate amount, EOHHS may subject the drug to actions such as requiring prior authorization, promotion of generic alternatives, and prescription quantity limits. If at any point a drug manufacturer fails to provide the HPC with requested information, they can be fined up to $500,000.

The budget continues the Legislature’s commitment to address the opioid epidemic – a public health crisis that has touched every corner of the Commonwealth. The House budget gives all EMS and ambulance companies access to discounted naloxone, making it more available for use in the field. In addition, the budget includes:

  • $143.9 million for the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, which will help create five new recovery centers across Massachusetts; and
  • $49.4 million for the Substance Use Disorder Trust Fund.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the budget will increase the Commonwealth’s contribution to the Community Preservation Act, which will ensure that over $36 million more will be distributed for projects across the Commonwealth, and help raise the state’s match up to 30 percent for investments in open space, affordable housing and historic preservation.

The budget will now go to the Senate, with a final FY20 budget expected to be passed before July 31.

Rep. Benson Votes to Fund Health Clinics Endangered by Federal Policy Changes to Title X Program

BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) voted Wednesday to make up to $8 million in funding available to reproductive health and family planning clinics in Massachusetts. The move to support the dozens of clinics across the state comes after the Trump Administration issued a new regulation that would effectively cut all federal funding for any reproductive health clinic that also provides abortion services.

The House of Representatives passed the supplemental funding bill, H.3638, by a 140-14 margin. In addition to appropriating up to $8 million to support Title X health clinics through June of 2020, the bill also requires the Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance to issue quarterly reports on expenditures to health centers receiving the funding.

“75,000 people in Massachusetts depend on health centers that receive Title X funds for reproductive care, preventive screening, and treatment. These are mostly women, mostly low-income, and many of them live in rural areas with limited access to health care,” said Representative Benson, who serves as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “I’m proud that the House has stepped in to make up the funding deficit that will be caused by this irresponsible and unnecessary policy decision at the federal level. I’m grateful to Speaker DeLeo and Ways and Means Chairman Michlewitz for their leadership and commitment to preserving Title X health centers.”

The federal Title X Family Planning Program was established in 1970, and provides grants to health clinics to fund contraception, cancer screening, sexually transmitted disease testing, and other services for mostly low-income people. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, at the direction of the Trump Administration, issued new regulations that would prohibit Title X from giving funding to providers who offer or refer patients to abortion services. The regulation put thousands of health care centers across the United States in danger of closing, including 93 in Massachusetts.

Rep. Benson Votes to Ban Conversion Therapy, End Welfare Cap on Kids

BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) voted Wednesday to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors and remove the welfare cap imposed on benefits for children, in two separate bills passed by the House of Representatives.

The House passed H.140, An Act Relative to Abusive Practices to Change Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Minors by a 147-8 margin. The bill prohibits licensed therapists from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The abusive practice has been shown to be harmful to LGBTQ children, causing higher rates of depression and suicide. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have already banned conversion therapy.

”I was proud to vote in favor of this legislation to protect children in Massachusetts,” said Representative Benson. “This bill will ensure that children in the Commonwealth do not suffer through the abusive, unscientific methods commonly used in conversion therapy.”

H.140 was referred to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, which is Chaired in the House by Representative Benson. The Committee recommended the bill ought to pass before referring it to House Ways and Means.


The House subsequently passed H.3594, An Act to Lift the Cap on Kids, by 155-1. This legislation would eliminate a cap placed on welfare benefits adopted in 1995 that prevents families from receiving additional assistance for children born while the family is already receiving assistance.

“Getting rid of the benefit cap is the right thing to do,” said Representative Benson. “There are more than 8,000 children in low-income families currently being denied benefits that they are otherwise eligible for.”

Of the 24 states that imposed family benefit caps in the 1990s, eight have reversed course and eliminated them. The Legislature passed a bill twice last session to eliminate the cap, but Governor Baker vetoed the legislation.

Rep. Benson’s January & February 2019 Update

Around The District

MLK Day Breakfast in Acton

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I attended the annual MLK Breakfast at Congregation Beth Elohim. Every year, this is a great event that brings the community together to celebrate the legacy of the Civil Rights leader. This year’s speaker was Roland Gibson, an educator and former METCO director who helped desegregate schools in Weston, Massachusetts in the 1980s. He spoke movingly on race in the United States and his life as an educator and activist.

Acton Piper Lane Site Visit

Also in Acton, I visited the site of a proposed 40B housing development on Piper Line, at the request of the South Acton Neighborhood Association (SANA). SANA opposes the project for many reasons; among them are concerns about traffic safety, density, and proximity to the Great Hill Recreation Area. After visiting the site and hearing SANA’s concerns, I sent a letter to MassHousing asking them to deny the developer’s application to proceed with the project.

Boxborough Solar Array
At the ribbon-cutting for the new solar array in Boxborough.

On February 15, I was in Boxborough with Senator Jamie Eldridge and Boxborough town officials for a ribbon-cutting at the new 5MW solar array constructed through a partnership with a municipal electric department. The array will provide clean, renewable energy to more than 2,000 customers in Boxborough and Littleton. As a longtime proponent of renewable energy, I continue to be impressed by the innovative ways the towns in my district have embraced solar energy and community solar projects.

Ayer Women’s March

I was honored to be asked to speak, along with my daughter, Maya, at the second Ayer Women’s March on January 19. It was encouraging to be among so many people celebrating equality, diversity, and progress. The organizers of the event did a great job of getting the word out, and the Ayer Police made sure we were kept safe and redirected traffic during the rally at the Town Hall.

Lunenburg Happenings

In January, I attended the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce’s annual briefing, where the Chamber discussed their policy and budget priorities with the legislative delegation. We share a commitment to workforce development, including supporting programs that promote careers in advanced manufacturing.

I also spoke at the Leominster-area Fund Our Future forum, and expressed my support for the PROMISE Act, filed in the Legislature this session, to reform the Chapter 70 public education funding formula. A few weeks later, I wrote a letter that was published in the Lunenburg Ledger reaffirming my support for the PROMISE Act.

Constituent Spotlight
Presenting Cathy Fochtman with a citation at her retirement party.

In January, Cathy Fochtman of Acton retired after more than 18 years at the Acton Recreation Department, including 12 years as the Department’s Director. At her retirement party, Senator Eldridge, Representative Tami L. Gouveia, and I presented Cathy with a citation from the House of Representatives honoring her years of public service. Congratulations Cathy, and enjoy retirement!

At the State House

The 191st Legislative Session began on January 2. Throughout the past two months, I’ve been busy drafting and filing legislation, meeting with colleagues to discuss policy, and settling into my new role as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.

I filed 17 pieces of legislation this session, including six health care and five energy bills.

One of my bills would direct state agencies to collaborate on the creation of a Diabetes Action Plan to better understand the impact of diabetes in the Commonwealth. This information would then be used to develop public health strategies to address the epidemic. Another of my health care bills would create guidelines to allow patients faster and easier access to prescribed medications their insurers deem too expensive.

My carbon pricing bill garnered more than 100 cosponsors, including more than half the House of Representatives, to become the most supported climate change bill in the House this session. I continue to travel around the Commonwealth to talk about my bill, and I recently participated in panel discussions on carbon pricing in Lexington and Boston.

Another bill I filed would give cities and towns the option to use ranked choice voting (RCV) in local elections. In RCV, voters rank as many choices as there are candidates. If their first choice can’t win, their vote counts toward their next choice, and so on, until a candidate clears 50%. RCV has been implemented state-wide in Maine, and used in dozens of jurisdictions across the country.

To protect students defrauded by for-profit schools, I refiled my bill establishing a Student Tuition Recovery Fund. The Fund would let students recover tuition and other costs if a for-profit school they’re attending closes, fails to provide the services promised, or violates state law.

You can view summaries of all the bills I filed this session on my website, JenBenson.org. After receiving hundreds of emails, phone calls, and letters from constituents about their legislative priorities for the session, I signed on to cosponsor more than 300 bills.

Health Care Financing Committee Update

Speaker DeLeo announced his leadership team and committee assignments for the session on February 14, and I was honored to be named the Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. Health care has always been one of the policy areas I am most interested in and passionate about. As health care costs rise, and takes up a larger portion of the state budget every year, I’m looking forward to meeting the challenge of identifying policies to address costs and improve outcomes.

The Committee on Health Care Financing considers all matters concerning the direct funding of health care policy and programs, including Medicaid, MassHealth, and other public health assistance matters. So far, more than 150 bills have been referred to the Committee, and that number will continue to grow. My staff and I have started reading through the bills, and we will begin the process of planning and scheduling hearings for them in the coming weeks.

Circuit Breaker Briefing
The Special Education Circuit Breaker briefing at the State House

As I have done for the past few years, I co-hosted the annual budget briefing on the Special Education Circuit Breaker line item. The Circuit Breaker program reimburses school districts for a part of the cost of educating students with severe special needs. I was glad that so many legislators and staffers came to hear from education policy experts, as well as students and parents, about the importance of fully funding the Circuit Breaker program.

Signing of the Security Breach Bill

On February 26, Governor Baker held a ceremonial signing for the security breach bill I filed last session that gives consumers more control over their credit information and the ability to freeze their credit free of charge. The signing ceremony was the culmination of over two years of work with Attorney General Maura Healey, Representative Tackey Chan, and former Senator Barbara L’Italien. It was great to have advocates from AARP and MassPIRG in the room to celebrate the new new protections for consumers.

Watching the Governor sign my consumer protection bill
Meeting About Parking at the Ayer Commuter Rail Station

I attended a meeting with officials from the Town of Ayer, MassDOT, and the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority, as well as Senator Eldridge and Rep. Sheila Harrington, to discuss the ongoing issue of how to move forward on the planned parking garage and restroom facility at the Ayer Commuter Rail Station.

The project has been in the works for over 20 years, and has had to overcome many hurdles, including funding, design, and the acquisition of the property. Progress is continuing, albeit slowly, and the legislative delegation for Ayer is continuing to offer help in whatever ways we can.

Looking Ahead

In March, I’ll be meeting with school committees and select boards in the district to discuss education funding in the FY2020 budget and the PROMISE Act. I’ll also be attending events to discuss my energy legislation, including a conference at Tufts University on carbon pricing.

If you wish to discuss legislation, or need help with a state government issue, you can reach my office at Jennifer.Benson@MAHouse.gov or at our new office’s phone number, 617-722-2430.

Sincerely,