2017 in review

Dear Constituents and Friends,

As a tumultuous 2017 comes to a close, I’m writing to share with you some reflections on our accomplishments and challenges during the past year and discuss what’s in store for the second half of the 2017-2018 legislative session.

Legislative Accomplishments

While the news out of Washington has been mostly grim, we have been working hard in the Massachusetts legislature to keep moving forward – by increasing opportunity, standing up for fairness, and dealing squarely with our challenges. So far this session, we have passed the following major bills (which I supported):

The Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act – to give greater employment protections to pregnant women and new mothers
The Language Opportunities for Our Kids (LOOK) Act – to give schools more flexibility to teach English Language Learners in ways that work best for each student
An Act Advancing Contraceptive Coverage and Economic Security in our State (ACCESS) – to guarantee women in Massachusetts continue to have access to the affordable contraceptives of their choice, no matter what happens on the federal level
An Act relative to Massachusetts’ Participation in the Paris Climate Agreement’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards – to reaffirm our commitment and contribution to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

We also passed An Act to Ensure Safe Access to Marijuana, implementing the 2016 ballot question to legalize adult marijuana use. Though I was disappointed in – and voted against – the House version of the bill, which I felt ran contrary to the ballot question, the final bill that came out of conference with the Senate resolved most of my concerns.

Most recently, the House passed its version of comprehensive criminal justice reform. This historic and long-overdue legislation contains significant improvements to many parts of our criminal justice system, including bail, sentencing, solitary confinement, and juvenile justice. I worked closely on this bill with concerned residents, advocacy organizations, and progressive colleagues. One result of these efforts was the adoption of an amendment I introduced to expand the use of pre-trial diversion. The House bill now goes to conference with the Senate, where I hope we can achieve further progress toward a criminal justice system that is effective, humane, and equitable.

District Priorities and Projects

In addition to this legislation of statewide (or broader) significance, I continue to put much time and effort into advocating for district-specific projects and resources. One of the most important avenues for that is the annual state budget. I’m pleased that this year’s (FY18) budget again provides higher levels of local aid for K-12 education and general government services. Watertown and Cambridge both received increases of 5-6%. In addition, we maintained support for senior services through our local councils on aging at historic high levels. This year’s budget also carries forward a line-item I authored several years back to fund local mental health jail diversion programs, which have taken on even greater importance in the face of the opioid epidemic. Representative Lawn, Senator Brownsberger and I were also successful again this year in amending the special education line-item to include additional funds to address Watertown’s usually high level of spending for out-of-district placements.

We have also continued to work closely with residents, local government, and state agencies (DCR, MassDoT, and MBTA) on several major projects to improve transportation in the area. These include:

• The Watertown-Cambridge Greenway (Phase II), connecting the Charles River paths to the Fresh Pond multi-use trail and the bike path network at Alewife Station, hit a major milestone this fall when MassDoT committed $2.5 million for construction. The contract is out to bid and if all goes well, the entire Greenway may be open for use towards the end of 2018.
• The draft final report for the Mount Auburn Street Corridor project (here) is now available for comment, along with a proposal for short-term measures that include reconfiguration of the Mount Auburn Street/Fresh Pond Parkway intersection, traffic signal upgrades, and a bus priority pilot on portions of Mount Auburn Street. These short-term measures are being refined in light of residents’ feedback, with implementation scheduled for mid-2018. They show considerable potential for improving pedestrian and bike safety, increasing efficient movement for all types of vehicles and users, and making the 71 and 73 buses faster and more reliable.
• The final report for the Arsenal Street Corridor study (here) has also been released. Recommended actions include reconfiguration of the corridor “gateways” at Soldier’s Field Road and Watertown Square, traffic signal upgrades, new bicycle facilities, and numerous public transit improvements. We will be pursuing implementation of these measures as funding becomes available from state and local sources as well as private development projects.

We also continue to press Massport and the FAA to take steps to address the excessive airplane noise that has been affecting parts of Watertown and Cambridge since Logan adopted its area navigation (RNAV) departure system. In response to community pressure, Massport and the FAA last year hired MIT researchers to investigate ways to mitigate the problem. A first set of proposals, to alter the speed and thrust of departing planes, has received preliminary approval and will hopefully be implemented by the airlines by the middle of next year. Another, more complicated set of changes, related to flight paths, is still under study by the MIT team. In order to keep up the pressure on this issue, I and other legislators recently formed a “Fair Skies Caucus” and are pushing legislation to strengthen the capacity of the Massport Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), which is the main voice for area communities in their dealings with Massport and the FAA.

Another consistent focus of my district work has been improving state-owned parklands. We received welcome news just before Thanksgiving that the DCR has approved a $60,000 partnership grant (matched by Cambridge CPA funds) to plan a second phase of restorations in historic Lowell Memorial Park, located between Brattle Street and Mount Auburn Street. I want to recognize and thank the Cambridge Plant & Garden Club, as well as the Cambridge Historical Commission, for their key role in advocating for this project and the DCR grant.

Last but certainly not least, the advocacy of many parties, including my office, was rewarded last week when Watertown received word that its statement of interest for Watertown High School has been accepted into the initial phase of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) program. There is much work still to be done but this was a critical first step in putting Watertown on the path toward having a high school that meets modern educational standards and needs. Kudos to the Watertown School Department, School Committee, Town Manager, Town Council and all the community members whose hard work made this possible.

Constituent Service

Providing prompt, effective constituent service is always at the core of my work. Over the course of this past year, my staff and I have helped constituents navigate state agencies to make sure they got the health and dental coverage, unemployment and SNAP benefits, housing, and tax refunds to which they are entitled. We also helped get answers to problems or complaints constituents had regarding bus service, poorly maintained sidewalks and bike paths, missing road signs, and broken traffic signals. We have excellent working relationships with our federal legislators and worked closely with them to resolve constituent cases regarding visas, asylum and other immigration matters as well as federal benefits like Social Security. If you or anyone you know in the district needs assistance with any kind of constituent service, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

A Peek Behind the Curtain: My Legislative Office

Having surveyed the range of work we do in my office, I want to take a moment to tell you more about what makes this happen. I have only one legislative aide but during my time as State Representative I have been fortunate to have incredibly capable and committed people in that job. They are a true exemplar of “multi-skilled” – supporting my legislative agenda, representing me at meetings at the State House and in the district, fielding constituent inquiries, and coordinating with other legislative offices. It’s a hard job requiring intelligence, tact, patience, and a lot of juggling. My current aide, who began work in June, is Sarah Steinberg. Sarah came to my office by way of Middlebury College and the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic Coordinated Campaign, where her work as a field organizer impressed Watertown campaign volunteers who in turn recommended her to me. You can reach Sarah at (617) 722-2140 or sarah.steinberg@mahouse.gov.

Adding to our office capacity, this past summer we had 5 fantastic interns who took on a variety of important projects. Honor and Nathan, juniors at Watertown High School, conducted a survey among nearly 500 students about access to water in and outside of school, perceptions of water quality, and drinking habits and presented their findings to the Joint Committee on Public Health. Cris, a sophomore at Harvard College, researched a bill that would divest our state pension fund from companies doing business with governments complicit in genocide. Isaac, currently doing a gap year after high school, researched wind energy, workforce development and early-stage financing of new, large-scale renewable energy projects. Jamie, a senior at Tufts University, researched election laws and transportation demand management and developed ideas for a legislative research office.

A Look Ahead to 2018

As we move into the second year of the 2017-18 session, two of the major items on the legislative agenda are finalizing the criminal justice reform bill and addressing health care costs. The Senate passed an ambitious health care bill in November that aims to cut consumer costs for out-of-network charges and facilities fees, shore up community hospitals, impose new oversight on pharmaceutical prices, and discourage employers from shifting health care costs to the state’s MassHealth program. It also includes language, which I support, to analyze how current levels of health care spending in the state compare with the estimated cost of providing coverage through a single-payer system. We are expecting the House chair of the Committee on Health Care Financing to come forward with a House version of the bill early in the new year.

Beyond these two major pieces of legislation, we will continue work on many other bills filed at the beginning of session in January. I have a number of bills pending that you can read about here, and have co-sponsored many others filed by my colleagues, a list of which you can find here.

Among these, some of my top priorities are:

• Reforming our election system and improving our civic discourse – My bill to make citizens’ initiative review (CIR) a regular part of our election system builds on the successful pilot project my office sponsored in 2016 with Healthy Democracy and the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University (www.CIRMass2016.org). CIR aims to empower voters to help fellow voters better understand complicated ballot questions and cut down on the influence of money and slanted advertising. We are aiming to implement CIR for the 2018 election, when again we are likely to see a number of major ballot questions put before the voters.

• I have several priorities in the public health field stemming from my work as House Chair of the Prevention for Health Caucus. One is an omnibus bill on youth tobacco consumption that raises the age of purchase for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 (Watertown and Cambridge have already adopted this through local rules). The bill also includes my language requiring child-proof packaging of the liquid nicotine in e-cigarettes, which poses a significant risk of poisoning for small children. I will also be advocating for the reauthorization of the state’s innovative Prevention and Wellness Trust, which has supported community-level partnerships to address hypertension, pediatric asthma, falls among seniors, and other preventative health issues.

• I will be keeping a close eye on the development of the new solar energy incentive program (SMART) and advocating for bills, including two I’ve filed, to expand access to renewable energy, particularly among low-income residents and in built-up communities like Watertown and Cambridge. I am also pursuing a number of measures to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation sector, which generates more than 40% of our emissions statewide. I filed one bill and am supporting several others to promote electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure (building on legislation we got passed at the end of last session) and working to ensure the state makes optimal use of $95 million in settlement money it will be receiving from the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal.

• This “low-carbon transportation” agenda is reflected in the work we are doing in the district to promote biking, walking, public transit, transportation management associations, and other alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. It is also complemented by another priority bill I filed with Senator Will Brownsberger and Representative Dave Rogers. An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities contains a series of smart reforms, including traffic safety education for elementary school children, sideguards on state-owned and state-contracted trucks, standardized crash reporting and signage, red light and speed cameras for automated enforcement, and lower default speed limits on certain state highways and parkways, that will make our roads safer and more welcoming for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.

2018 promises to be another year of important conversations and hard decisions about who we are and hope to be as a state and as a country. As always, please feel free to be in touch with me or my office to learn more about the work we are doing and to let me know what matters to you. You can reach me on my cell at (617) 320-8905 or at jonathan.hecht@mahouse.gov.

Wishing you a very happy holiday season and a healthy start to the New Year!


2017 in review