Rep. Benson’s September & October 2019 Office Update

In the District

One of my favorite parts of being your State Representative is traveling around the district and going to events. This is especially enjoyable in the fall, with the beautiful foliage and apple orchards that span the district from Lunenburg to Acton.  I attended almost two dozen district events in September and October, including ribbon cuttings, forums, and tours of small businesses.

Grand Openings & Ribbon Cuttings

On September 7, I celebrated the grand opening of the Ayer Community Garden on Barnum Road. Sheila Carman led a group of Ayer citizens in creating a community space where families can grow fresh fruits and vegetables together.

The South Acton Commuter Rail Station is the busiest location on the Fitchburg Line, with more than 1,000 daily riders boarding there. As such, there is a massive demand for more parking at the Station. On October 7, I visited the Station to celebrate the Town’s purchase of 19-21 Maple Street, which will add dozens of new parking spaces for commuters.

Celebrating District Funding

On September 30, I celebrated the appropriation of funding for local projects in the FY19 and FY20 state budgets at four events around the district. In Acton, I visited the Discovery Museum with Senator Eldridge and Representative Gouveia to present the $150,000 they received in the budget. The Acton delegation continued on to the Acton Community Supper and Food Pantry to present the $30,000 the delegation secured to aid them in providing meals to the more than 200 families they serve each week.

From there, Senator Eldridge and I visited Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Devens. Senator Eldridge filed, and I supported, a budget amendment for $120,000 for the food pantry. Loaves & Fishes provides food to over 900 families each month from Ayer, Harvard, Shirley, and surrounding towns.

The final stop of the day was in Shirley to present the $50,000 included in the FY20 budget to fund accessibility upgrades to the War Memorial Building, which also serves as American Legion Post 183. Senator Eldridge and I also announced that Shirley has been awarded a $392,000 Complete Streets grant to make pedestrian improvements to Front Street in Shirley Village.

Nineteenth Amendment Centennial

I was honored to be asked to narrate an episode of the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area’s audio series commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The episode is about Hazel MacKaye, a suffragette who lived in Shirley and used her talents in theater production to bring attention to the movement.

NVMC Nurses Victory

After more than a year of contract disputes, in September, the more than 100 registered nurses of the Nashoba Valley Medical Center reached an agreement with the hospital’s owner, Steward Health Care. The nurses won better wages, a pension plan, and staffing improvements. I supported the nurses’ efforts throughout the dispute, and I stopped by their victory party in Ayer on October 4 to congratulate them.

Constituent Spotlight

Every year, members of the Legislature can nominate a business in their district for a Manufacturer of the Year award from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Caucus. This year, I nominated Little Leaf Farms of Devens. Founded in 2016, Little Leaf Farms grows produce year-round in their hydroponic, energy efficient greenhouses. In three years, they have doubled their growing capacity to 5 acres, and they plan to double it again next year. It has been incredible to watch their business grow into one of the largest food manufacturers in the district.


Legislative Update

After the August recess, the House of Representatives was very active in September and October, passing several important bills.

Union Bill Override

In September, the Legislature overrode a veto by Governor Baker on a bill supporting public sector unions. I was proud to cast my vote to allow public sector unions to recover from non-members the reasonable costs associated with representing them in the labor negotiation process. This common practice had been challenged since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against unions in a case last year.

Campaign Finance Reform

On September 25, the House passed reforms to the state’s campaign finance laws to require more frequent reporting of donations and expenditures. The bill also seeks to change the makeup of the commission that appoints the head of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to be nonpartisan.

College Closure Bill

The House passed legislation requiring further financial transparency from private colleges and universities. The bill would allow regulators to screen higher education institutions for financial trouble to avoid sudden closures and mergers of these schools, which the upend students’ lives. A similar bill passed the Senate in October, and a compromise needs to be worked out before it can become law.

Supplemental Budget

With revenue exceeding the benchmark set last year by hundreds of millions of dollars, the House passed a supplemental spending bill in October. The bill puts an additional $400 million into the Commonwealth’s Rainy Day Fund, bringing the total balance to $3.2 billion.

The bill includes $24 million for the testing of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination of water supplies and for grants to support treatment and remediation, as well as $35 million for the Clean Water Trust Fund. Several towns in the district are affected by PFAS contamination, and this funding will help them test and treat their public water supplies. Language from a bill filed by Representative Hogan and me establishing a PFAS task force was also included. This task force will bring public health agencies and policymakers together to study the issue of PFAS contamination and come up with solutions.

The House and Senate still need to iron out the differences between the supplemental budgets both houses passed before the spending bill can become law.

Student Opportunity Act

As someone who began my career in public service as a member of the Lunenburg School Committee, I was extraordinarily proud to vote for the Student Opportunity Act. This once-in-a-generation reform to the way public education is funded in Massachusetts invests an additional $1.5 billion in the Commonwealth’s children over seven years, and updates the Chapter 70 funding formula.

This historic education equity bill will ensure that every student in Massachusetts has access to a high-quality public education. The Senate passed a slightly different version of the bill, and a conference committee was appointed to reach a compromise.


Looking Ahead

In November, the House will be taking up a veterans’ mental health bill, and I will be participating in the Women in Government health care conference in Washington, D.C. I will also be attending several events in the district.

Please reach out to my district office at 978-582-4146 ext. 4, or my State House office at 617-722-2430, if you wish to discuss legislation or you need assistance with a constituent matter.

My next update will be out in early December, so have a happy Thanksgiving and enjoy spending time with your families.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Benson

Ahead of Veterans Day, Rep. Benson Votes for Legislation to Support and Honor Veterans

Two bills increase access to mental health services at public universities and recognize the historic contributions of a female Revolutionary War veteran

(BOSTON) – Yesterday, Representative Jennifer Benson and her colleagues in the House of Representatives passed two pieces of legislation to improve access to mental health services for student veterans and to honor the military service contributions of a female American Revolutionary War soldier – days before the nation celebrates Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

One bill establishes a continuing education program – administered by the University of Massachusetts Medical School – to train public higher education counselors on the symptoms of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and available treatment resources for veterans attending state colleges and universities. The legislation aims to provide the necessary training for both clinical and non-clinical counselors working to support the unique needs of the more than 2,500 veteran students attending the state’s 29 public higher education institutions.

The second bill establishes a 15-member commission to design a memorial in honor of Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The commission will consist of legislators, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services, and representatives of veteran organizations.

In 1782, Sampson used the name Robert Shurtleff to join the Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment led by Captain George Webb. Disguised as a man, she participated in dangerous scouting missions, led a raiding party that captured 15 British soldiers, and stormed a British fort during the Siege of Yorktown. Over the course of her service, Sampson sustained injuries, including a forehead gash from a sword and a gunshot wound to the thigh. She tended to her own wounds to avoid detection as a woman. When she later fell ill and was hospitalized, her identity was discovered.

After fighting in the War for over a year, she received an honorable discharge, and was the only woman to receive a full military pension for her service in the Continental Army. John Hancock and Paul Revere assisted her in obtaining her pension, and General John Patterson selected her as his aide de camp due to her bravery. Sampson is the official state heroine of Massachusetts.

These two bills build on the Legislature’s long-standing support for veterans, with Massachusetts’ benefits and services often ranked first in the nation. Most recently, the legislature passed the   BRAVE Act and legislation to assist veterans with property taxes. 

The bills will now go to the Senate.

Rep. Benson Votes for Historic Education Funding Bill

Prioritizes investments to close opportunity gaps, support special education and low-income students

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) and her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed significant legislation to invest an additional $1.5 billion in the Commonwealth’s public education system. Known as The Student Opportunity Act, the legislation invests funding to support the needs of school districts that serve high concentrations of low-income and special education students in order to help address persistent disparities in student achievement.

In addition, school districts across the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the existing funding formula, along with increased state aid in other vital education aid programs such as transportation, guidance and psychological services, and school building renovation and construction.

“This legislation makes a profound and lasting investment in Massachusetts schools, and I’m proud of the House’s leadership and collaborative efforts to move this bill forward,” said House Speaker Robert. A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “We’re building on our ongoing efforts to support our most vulnerable students, including our English learners and low-income students. Thank you to Chair Peisch for her steady and thoughtful work on behalf of students across the Commonwealth.”

“This historic legislation will ensure that every student in Massachusetts has access to a high-quality public education,” said Representative Benson. “I began my career in public service over 15 years ago as a member of the Lunenburg School Committee, and I was proud to cast my vote for this once-in-a-generation education equity bill.”

The legislation couples new investments with policy updates designed to monitor and measure progress and support effective approaches to closing opportunity gaps. The bill modernizes the K-12 education funding and policy landscape in four areas.

  1. Fully implements the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) to ensure that the school funding formula provides adequate and equitable funding to all districts. Provides an estimated $1.4 billion in new Chapter 70 aid over inflation when fully implemented over the next seven years:
    • Estimates school districts’ employee health care costs using up-to-date health insurance trend data collected by the state’s Group Insurance Commission and includes estimates for retiree health insurance costs.
    • Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions to more accurately reflect district enrollment and costs.
    • Increases funding for English learners (EL) differentiated by grade level to reflect the greater resources required to educate our older EL students.
    • Addresses the needs of districts educating higher concentrations of low-income students by:
      • Providing additional funding based on the share of low-income students in each district.
      • Returning the definition of low-income to 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, as opposed to the 133% level used in recent years.
    • Improves data collection and reporting by:
      • Establishing a Data Advisory Commission to help improve the use of data at the state, district, and school levels to inform strategies that strengthen teaching, learning and resource allocation to ensure greater financial transparency.
  2. Provides additional state financial support to help public schools and communities deliver a high-quality education to students:
    • Increases foundation rates for guidance and psychological services to support expanded social–emotional supports and mental health services.
    • Fully funds charter tuition reimbursements, which provide transitional aid to help districts when students leave to attend charter schools.
    • Expands the special education circuit breaker, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation costs in addition to instructional costs, phased in over four years.
    • Raises the annual cap on Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) spending for school building construction/renovation by to $800 million, enabling the MSBA to accept more projects into its funding pipeline. 
    • Requires the Department Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to calculate the transitional hold harmless aid amount using base and incremental rates and minimum aid increment in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.
  3. Implements policy updates designed to maximize the impact of new funding in improving student outcomes and closing opportunity gaps.
    • Establishes the 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide flexible funding to districts pursuing creative approaches to student learning and district improvement.
    • Requires school districts to develop, and make public, plans for closing gaps in student performance. These plans will include specific goals and metrics to track success.
    • Requires the Secretary of Education to collect and publish data on student preparedness in each district and high school for post-graduate success in college and the workforce. 
  4. Identifies education policy areas requiring further analysis.
    • Directs the Department of Revenue (DOR) and DESE to analyze the method of determining required local contributions in the Chapter 70 formula to improve equity, predictability and accuracy.
    • Establishes a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the unique challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment. The Commission will make recommendations for further updates to help impacted districts.

The bill will now go to the Senate.

Rep. Benson Votes for FY 2019 Supplemental Budget with Additional Funding for Infrastructure, Health Care and Education

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) voted with the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pass a supplemental budget allowing the Commonwealth to increase the balance of its “Rainy Day Fund” to $3.2 billion, invest in local infrastructure projects, further address the opioid crisis, and provide additional funding for public education.

The bill dedicates $400 million to the Commonwealth’s stabilization fund, bringing the Rainy Day Fund’s total balance to $3.2 billion, the first time the fund has reached that amount in its history.

As part of the House’s priority to protect the environment, the supplemental budget makes a $24 million investment for the testing of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination of water supplies and for grants to support treatment and remediation of affected public drinking water systems, and $35 million for the Clean Water Trust Fund.

“The inclusion of funding for PFAS testing and remediation will make it easier for towns affected by PFAS contamination, including several in my district, to filter their water supplies,” said Representative Benson. “I’m also glad that language from a bill filed by Representative Kate Hogan and me establishing a PFAS task force was included in the budget. This task force will bring public health agencies and policymakers together to study the issue of PFAS contamination and come up with solutions.”

In addition, the supplemental budget reaffirms the House’s strong partnership with cities and towns by providing $60 million to invest in local roads and bridges projects. Furthering the House’s commitment to clean energy, the budget also features a $32 million investment in the state’s electric vehicle rebate program.

In addition, the supplemental budget:

  • Recognizes the need for increased investment in the MBTA by providing $50 million for additional staffing and contract costs to support capital project delivery, inspection and maintenance activities, and service diversions necessary to accelerate capital projects;
  • Works to support the Commonwealth’s public higher education institutions by investing $20 million in a program that encourages private fundraising with matching state dollars;  
  • Continues the House’s leadership on the Commonwealth’s early education efforts by including $3 million for grants for early educator scholarships for school paraprofessionals;
  • Designates the presidential primary date for 2020 and invests funding to establish early voting for the 2020 presidential election;
  • Supports the House’s priority of supporting Massachusetts’ most vulnerable youth by investing $5 million in a program to expand access for students to community-based mental and behavioral health services in schools; and
  • Includes $10 million reserve for salary increases for home health aides and personnel providing homemaker and personal care homemaker services.

The supplemental budget will now go to the Senate.

Delegation Issues Statement Supporting Nurses at Nashoba Valley Medical Center

AYER, Mass—Legislators representing patients and families served by the Nashoba Valley Medical Center (NVMC), as well as the nurses who work there, are issuing this joint statement expressing our opposition Steward Healthcare’s recent threat to close our community hospital unless the nurses agree to accept their “final” offer in negotiations for a new union contract. 

We stand with the nurses and agree that this threat, which was made without providing the required information to justify such a closure, is a violation of federal labor law and an unseemly attempt to force the nurses into accepting an agreement that the nurses believe will negatively impact the quality and safety of care at this facility. 


The nurses have provided data that shows that inadequate pay and staffing conditions at the facility have affected NVMC’s ability to recruit and retain the staff needed to deliver the care our community expects and deserves. They have also shown that, due to staffing shortages, the hospital is routinely transferring patients out and turning patients away.

We call upon Steward to revoke their threat close to our community hospital, and return to the negotiating table to bargain in good faith for an agreement that respects our nurses and guarantees the high quality care our communities deserve.

Signed,

Jennifer E. Benson
State Representative
37th Middlesex District
James B. Eldridge
State Senator
Middlesex & Worcester District
Sheila C. Harrington
State Representative
1st Middlesex District
Edward J. Kennedy (D-Lowell)
State Senator
First Middlesex District