A Letter to My Constituents

Dear Constituents of the 37th Middlesex District,

I wanted to let you know that after careful consideration and consultation with my family, I have accepted an offer to become the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership (ABL), a progressive coalition of business leaders from across Massachusetts. I have submitted a letter to the Clerk of the House of Representatives stating my intention to resign as your representative effective January 8, 2020. Though I am excited for this new opportunity, I am truly saddened I will no longer be your voice in Boston. 

When I first ran for this office in 2008, I promised to be your champion on Beacon Hill. Since then, I have helped pass protections for consumers, increased funding for special education, and secured millions of dollars for infrastructure and economic development projects in the District. We worked together to improve the design of the South Acton train station, helped Ayer and Shirley through the growing pains of a new regionalized school district, and passed reforms to hold utilities accountable so that a power outage like the one that paralyzed Lunenburg for weeks after the 2008 ice storm never happens again.

In my new position at ABL, I will continue to work to improve the lives of all residents of Massachusetts by bringing together business leaders and entrepreneurs from across the Commonwealth to advocate for issues related to clean energy, transportation, housing, and workplace opportunities.

It has been the honor of my life to serve as your voice in the Legislature. Representing you has been the most rewarding, challenging, and transformative experience, and I am grateful for the trust you have placed in me. Thank you for allowing me to serve you for the past 11 years.

With gratitude,

Jen Benson

Rep. Benson’s November 2019 Office Update

State House at Christmas

In the District

Nashua River Watershed Association

In November, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Nashua River Watershed Association at an event in Devens. For half a century, the Association has worked to clean up and protect the Nashua River and its tributaries, which flow through most of the towns in the 37th Middlesex District. It was wonderful to recognize the organization’s accomplishments, which include achieving Wild and Scenic federal protected status for the river earlier this year. The organization’s inspirational founder, Marion Stoddart, spoke about her lifetime of conservation efforts and activism. Stoddart initiated the cleanup of the Nashua River in the 1960s and sparked an environmental movement that led Massachusetts to pass the first water pollution legislation in the United States in 1965.


Acton Events

Later in the month, I attended the annual Diwali festival in Acton. Hundreds of Indian-American families have made their homes in Acton and Boxborough, and it was wonderful to experience this vibrant community through delicious food, dancing, and music.

On Veterans Day, I attended Acton’s ceremony at the Town Common. It is always important to honor those who have served in our armed forces, and Veterans Day is an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices veterans have made and thank the veterans in your life for their service.

With Rep. Gouveia and the Acton Selectboard at Acton’s Veterans Day ceremony.

At the State House

Open Enrollment

A few weeks ago, I hosted the annual Open Enrollment briefing for legislators and staff to learn how to help their constituents sign up for insurance. More than 250,000 Massachusetts residents get their health insurance through the Health Connector, our ACA insurance marketplace. Open Enrollment for 2020 ends on January 23, so if you or your family do not have health insurance, or you would like to explore more options for coverage, visit MAHealthConnector.org. For coverage that begins on January 1, enroll by December 23. If you run into any problems during the application process, you can reach out to my district office at 978-582-4146 for assistance.


World Diabetes Day

Speaking at the World Diabetes Day event at the State House.

As the lead sponsor of a bill that would create a comprehensive state action plan to address diabetes, I was invited to speak at the World Diabetes Day event at the State House. More than 600,000 people in Massachusetts are diabetic, and 27,000 more are diagnosed every year. As the House Chair of the Health Care Finance Committee, I have studied the impact this disease is having on people’s lives, as well as the costs to our health care system. On average, people with diabetes have annual medical expenses more than double those who do not, and total direct medical expenses for diabetes in Massachusetts is $5.5 billion per year. My legislation, H.1852, would create a multi-agency action plan to confront the diabetes public health epidemic.


Legislative Update

The Legislature finalized several major bills in November, sending education funding reform to the Governor for his signature, along with a ban on distracted driving, and children’s health and wellness legislation.


Student Opportunity Act

Last month, the Governor signed into law the Student Opportunity Act, which provides an unprecedented $1.5 billion in new investment in Massachusetts’ public education system. The law fully implements the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission over seven years, and takes into account employee health insurance costs and special education costs when determining funding levels for school districts. I began my career in public service on the Lunenburg School Committee over 15 years ago, and I was extraordinarily proud to cast my vote for this this once-in-a-generation education equity bill.


Distracted Driving Ban

We are now the 21st state to ban the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving. The Legislature passed and the Governor signed An Act Requiring the Hands-free Use of Mobile Telephones While Driving. Starting in June 2020, drivers will be fined $100 for the first offense and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Drivers will still be able to use navigation apps on their phone, as long as it is affixed to the dashboard and voice-operated, or requires only a tap or swipe.


Child Wellness Policies

Speaking on the House floor in favor of An Act Relative to Children’s Health and Wellness.

In November, I had the privilege to co-chair the conference committee that produced legislation that will provide health insurance to children in the foster care system, require insurance companies to keep accurate provider directories, and examine issues of pediatric health care access and quality. An Act Relative to Children’s Health and Wellness, signed into law by the Governor on November 26, bridges the gap between our children and the services available to them, and compels insurance companies to give parents the information they need to make informed health care decisions.


Tobacco Control Legislation

Massachusetts became the first state to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products after the Governor signed into law new regulations designed to protect children and teenagers from the harms of tobacco and vaping. This legislation was a response to a rise in vaping-related-illness in Massachusetts and public health studies that found that more than 20 percent of high school students have used vaping products.


Veterans Bills

In addition to the several major bills signed into law last month, the House of Representatives also passed legislation honoring and supporting veterans. The week before Veterans Day, the House passed legislation creating a continuing education program to train counselors at colleges and universities in the state to recognize symptoms of PTSD and steer veterans toward resources for treatment. The House also passed a separate bill honoring Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.


Higher Education Transparency

Additionally, in response to the closure of several colleges over the past few years, the House passed legislation requiring more transparency and financial reporting from schools in the state. An Act to Support Improved Financial Stability in Higher Education requires higher education institutions to make financial reports public and requires institutions facing risk of closure to develop contingency plans to assist and inform their students. The bill also mandates ethics and financial training for higher education board members and trustees.


Looking Ahead

I will be publishing my next office update in early February, so I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season and a happy New Year!

Please reach out to my District office at 978-582-4146 ext. 4, and my State House office at 617-722-2430 if you have a constituent issue, or if you would like to discuss legislation. You can also contact me via email at Jennifer.Benson@MAHouse.gov.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Benson


Rep. Benson Votes to Enact Student Opportunity Act

The historic legislation invests $1.5 billion in public schools, updates statewide education policy, and supports effective approaches to address student opportunity gaps

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) along with her colleagues in both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature, unanimously voted to enact the Student Opportunity Act. This legislation provides an unprecedented $1.5 billion in new investment in Massachusetts’ K-12 public education system, and ensures public schools have the resources to provide high-quality education to students across the state, regardless of zip code or income level.

The Student Opportunity Act provides significant support to school districts that serve English learners and high concentrations of low-income students. All school districts in the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the funding formula, along with increased state investments in vital education aid programs such as special education transportation, school construction and renovation, and the 21st Century Education Program.

“The Student Opportunity Act makes a lasting and profound investment in the Massachusetts public education system and places a special emphasis on English learners and districts serving our low-income students,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “We’re building on our ongoing efforts to support our neediest students and to close opportunity gaps. I want to thank Chair Peisch for her leadership on this legislation, and Chair Lewis for his hard work, and the conference committee especially Representatives Tucker and Ferguson. This was a collaboration among the House and the Senate, and I appreciate Senate President Spilka’s partnership as we make this historic investment.”

“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 extraordinarily proud to cast my vote for this once-in-a-generation education equity bill.”

The Student Opportunity Act fully implements the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) in order to support the “educational programs and services necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s educational goals” as stated in the Commission’s mission. The bill provides an estimated $1.4 billion in new Chapter 70 aid over and above inflation when fully implemented over the next seven years. The bill modernizes the K-12 education funding and policy landscape in four areas:

  • Estimates school districts’ employee and retiree health care costs using up to date health insurance trend data collected by the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC).
  • Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions to accurately reflect district enrollment.
  • Increases funding for English learners (EL) and differentiates funding by grade level to reflect the greater resources required to educate our older EL students.
  • Addresses the needs of districts educating high concentrations of low-income students by:
    • Providing additional funding based on the share of low-income students in each district; districts educating the largest percentage of low-income students will receive an additional increment equal to 100 percent of the base foundation; and
    • Returning the definition of low-income to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, as opposed to the 133 percent level used in recent years.

In addition to implementing the FBRC’s recommended formula changes, the Student Opportunity Act provides an additional $100 million in state financial support in several categories to help public schools and communities deliver a high-quality education to every student. Those fiscal supports include:

  • Increasing foundation rates for guidance and psychological services in recognition of the growing need for expanded social-emotional support and mental health services;
  • Committing to fully funding charter school tuition reimbursement, which provides transitional aid to help districts when students leave to attend charter schools, within a three-year timetable;
  • Expanding the special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation, to be implemented over the next four years; and
  • Raising the annual cap on Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) spending for construction and renovation by $200 million (to a total of $800 million).

In addition to new funding and other supports, the Student Opportunity Act establishes the 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide districts and schools access to flexible funding to pursue creative approaches to student learning and district improvement.

In order to track and reproduce successful school and district-level programs and policies, the legislation calls on school districts to develop and make publicly available plans for closing opportunity gaps. These plans will include specific goals and metrics to track success.

To support efforts to address education-funding challenges, the legislation also includes the following provisions:

  • Establishes a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the unique challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment and make recommendations for further updates to help impacted districts and communities;
  • Directs the Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to analyze the method of determining required local contributions in the Chapter 70 school funding formula for the purpose of improving equity, predictability and accuracy; and
  • Requires the Massachusetts School Building Authority to undertake a review of the current program, now in its fifteenth year, to ensure that capital reimbursements meet district needs.

The bill requires the FBRC to convene at least every ten years to review the way foundation budgets are calculated and ensure the school funding formula continues to reflect the needs of school districts across the Commonwealth.

The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

Rep. Benson Helps Pass Child Health & Wellness Legislation

Rep. Benson co-chaired the conference committee that negotiated the legislation that will provide health insurance to foster children, require insurance companies to keep accurate provider directories, and examine issues of pediatric health care access and quality.

(BOSTON) – This week, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg), along with her colleagues in the House and Senate, passed legislation supporting the health and wellness of children in Commonwealth. This bill aims to better address the complex health and wellness needs specific to the Commonwealth’s 1.4 million children. The effort creates a foundation for better access to services and more data to inform future policy, while supporting a comprehensive approach to children’s health care.

After the House and Senate passed bills with differing language, a conference committee was appointed, led by Representative Benson and Senator Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington), the House and Senate Chairs of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. The conference committee filed their report on Monday afternoon, and the legislation was passed and laid before the Governor on Wednesday.

“With this legislation the House continues to build on its session-long focus on child and adolescent wellbeing, and our work will help children across the Commonwealth grow into healthy and productive adults,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D – Winthrop).  “This first step in our initiative will begin to develop a comprehensive support system for our most vulnerable children especially for foster children and youth who face behavioral or complex medical issues. I thank Chair Benson, Chair Decker, and Rep. Muratore for their hard work on the conference report, and I appreciate the valuable contributions of Chairs Michlewitz, Gregoire, Cronin, and Vice-Chair Barber. I also want to thank our Senate partners especially Senate President Spilka and Chair Friedman for joining with us to support these policies.”

“I am proud of the efforts of the Legislature this week to expand access to behavioral health services for children in Massachusetts,” said Representative Jennifer Benson, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “This bill bridges the gap between our children and the services available to them, and gives parents the information they need to make informed health care decisions. I would like to thank Speaker DeLeo for prioritizing children’s health and wellness, and for his commitment to getting this legislation passed this session. Thank you to my co-chair Sen. Friedman, and the other conferees for working together on this important legislation that is going to benefit so many families in the Commonwealth.”

“There are several barriers to access for children in the Commonwealth who are in need of behavioral health services, and this legislation takes several steps to address them,” said Senator Cindy F. Friedman, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “I’m especially proud that this comprehensive bill requires provider network directories to be more transparent and include accurate, up-to-date information to help connect children with the mental health providers that they need. I want to acknowledge Senate President Spilka for putting mental health initiatives at the forefront of our legislative agenda this session as well as sincerely thank Rep. Benson and all of the conferees for their hard work on this issue and their commitment to improving children’s behavioral health services in our state.”

The legislation addresses child wellness in the following eight areas:

  1. Secures healthcare benefits for foster children until the age of 26, giving this vulnerable population access to MassHealth benefits at minimal cost to the Commonwealth. It codifies this policy for Massachusetts in the event of changes at the federal level to the Affordable Care Act.
  2. Requires insurance companies to maintain accurate and accessible provider directories for health plans. The directories must be updated frequently to ensure accurate information. Insurance companies must make the directories user-friendly for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency. A task force headed by the Commissioner of Insurance will be established to develop recommendations to ensure the accurate electronic posting of directories.
  3. Creates childhood behavioral health centers of excellence via a pilot program that designates three regional centers to connect families, providers, and educators to services and training opportunities. Requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to report on progress and impact after one year of implementation.
  4. Requires the Heath Policy Commission to conduct an analysis of children with medical complexities to review costs and population characteristics of this group in order to develop recommendations about how to serve this unique population.
  5. Establishes a task force to study pediatric behavioral health screening tools.
  6. Creates a special commission to examine the pediatric workforce to address pediatric provider availability and adequacy. The commission would recommend strategies for increasing the pipeline of pediatric providers and expanding access to practicing providers.
  7. Charges a 17-member special commission to review school-based health centers for the purpose of strengthening, improving, and considering ways to replicate best practices across the state.
  8. Creates a special commission chaired by the Child Advocate to review and make recommendations on mandated reporting to improve responses to child abuse and neglect.

Legislature Passes Distracted Driving Bill

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) joined her colleagues in the Legislature to pass legislation banning drivers from using hand-held electronic devices in vehicles unless they are in hands-free mode.

“We’re proud to have worked with our colleagues in the Senate to make Massachusetts roads safer and save lives by moving this policy forward,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “I want to thank Chair Straus for his leadership on this issue and Leader Wagner, Chair Michlewitz and my colleagues in the House who worked so diligently to advance this legislation.”

This new distracted driving law is going to make our roads safer and save lives in Massachusetts,” said Representative Benson. “The included provisions on traffic stop data collection will allow us to examine this data annually and detect issues of racial profiling in policing.”

The bill defines hands-free mode as one that engages in voice communication with and receiving audio without touching, holding or otherwise manually manipulating a device. Law enforcement officials will issue warnings to drivers for first offenses of the new law until March 31, 2020. Additionally, this legislation improves transparency in public safety by expanding access to traffic stop data. It has been 15 years since the last public report on traffic stop data; under the new law, the state will publish and analyze the data annually.

The bill also:

  • Allows drivers to use mapping or navigation devices or apps if they are affixed to the windshield, dashboard or central console or integrated into the vehicle and only involve a tap or swipe;
  • Exempts use of electronics in the case of an emergency and for first responders;
  • Penalizes drivers with a $100 fine for the first offense, a $250 fine and safety course for the second offense and a $500 fine and surcharge for third and subsequent offenses;
  • Expands data collection, including age, race, gender, and location when police issue a citation;
  • Holds law enforcement agencies accountable, if data suggests agencies may be engaging in racial profiling, by requiring them to collect data on all traffic stops for one-year and provide bias training;
  • Requires the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) to publish data online annually
  • Mandates EOPSS to contract with a research institution to conduct an annual analysis of the data;
  • Directs the EOPSS Secretary to hold three public hearings across the Commonwealth annually to present the findings of the annual report and analysis and field public testimony; and
  • Creates a public awareness campaign informing and educating drivers on the dangers of using technological devices while driving.

The bill now goes to the governor.