Dear Constituents and Friends,
Last week, I sent you an update on my work for the 29th Middlesex District in 2015. As promised, I am now sending an overview of my broader legislative efforts and accomplishments during the year.
The House Rules
As you may recall from the press reports, the 2015-2016 legislative session started out with a surprise when the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo, introduced a rules package that eliminated the 8-year term limit on the Speakership. The House had passed the term limit rule at Speaker DeLeo’s initiative when he was first elected Speaker in 2009. Unfortunately, at the start of this session the House reversed course and eliminated it.
I was one of 11 Democrats who voted against eliminating the term limit and the only Democrat to speak against it on the floor of the House. In my view, the reasons for term limits on the Speakership — including ensuring fresh leadership and increasing public confidence in the House — are as valid today as ever. I believe that eliminating term limits will further concentrate power in the Speakership, reduce open debate and independent thinking in the House, and heighten the risk of corruption and other abuses.
These are very significant problems and I remain committed to working to make the House a more open and democratic institution, while also striving to be as active and effective as possible in advancing legislation that reflects my priorities and values and those of the district.
Legislative Measures in the FY16 Budget
Legislative activity in the first half of the year was dominated by fiscal issues, especially the FY16 state budget. In the course of budget debates, I advocated for district priorities such as local aid, special education, and transportation and also statewide concerns such as the environment, legal aid, the arts, and services for the elderly, persons with disabilities, and persons with mental illness.
During budget season, the legislature also adopted several important policy measures:
First, responding to a bill Governor Baker filed in conjunction with his budget, the legislature enacted an early retirement incentive program for state employees with the goal of producing $178 million in savings to help balance the budget. To ensure the desired savings, the program included a strict cap on hiring to replace those who had retired under the program. I had serious concerns about the legislation — I feared that the sudden departure of large numbers of employees, especially more experienced ones, would jeopardize the ability of some state agencies to carry out their functions. (Any employee in the covered agencies who met the criteria for early retirement could choose to take advantage of it.) To address this, I successfully introduced an amendment requiring the Baker Administration to report to the legislature on how state agencies are allocating the duties of retirees whose positions are not filled. This will create transparency about the impact of the early retirement program and increase pressure on the Administration to ensure that vital services are not impacted.
Second, in the budget itself, the legislature expanded the earned income tax credit (EITC) from 15% to 23% of the federal credit, which will raise the maximum state credit from $951 to $1,459 for 400,000 low to moderate-income individuals and families. Because the EITC grows with each additional dollar of earnings, it has proven highly successful as an incentive to employment and a boost out of poverty. I was strongly supportive of the EITC expansion – in fact, I had earlier co-sponsored a bill that would have gone further and increased the state EITC from 15% to 50% of the federal credit.
Third, the budget also included steps to improve the performance of the MBTA. It created a new MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board, appointed by and answerable to the Governor. I supported this as a more effective and accountable leadership structure. In addition, the budget also exempted the T for three years from the Pacheco Law, which requires state agencies to demonstrate that work outsourced to a private company will be performed more cheaply and at a quality equal to or greater than if tasked to public employees. While there is a need for greater flexibility at the T and there are legitimate questions about how the Pacheco Law operates in practice, I opposed suspending Pacheco through the budget process. The suspension was inserted in the budget by the House Ways & Means Committee with no public hearing or other opportunity to hear the full range of views on this complex issue. An amendment to strike it (which I co-sponsored) was prevented from coming to the House floor for debate. Suspension of the Pacheco Law was not included or even considered in the Senate budget but the House provision was retained in the conference report negotiated by the two bodies. At that point, it was a fait accompli, since the conference report (essentially the entire FY16 state budget) is not subject to amendment and can only be voted up or down in its entirety. This is a concrete example of how the power of House leadership can result in a major new policy without full, open debate.
Other Major Legislation Adopted in 2015
Since approving the early retirement program, the expanded earned income tax credit, and the two MBTA initiatives, the Legislature has passed a few more major bills:
- Acting on legislation first proposed by Attorney General Maura Healey, the Legislature unanimously passed legislation to bolster penalties for trafficking in fentanyl, a highly dangerous drug often mixed with heroin or cocaine and responsible for many overdose deaths.
- Just before Veterans Day, the legislature unanimously approved several bills related to honoring veterans, including one that makes it a crime to falsely pose as a veteran, service member, or recipient of military honors for financial gain (“stolen valor”), another that exempts Purple Heart recipients from paying entrance fees to state parks, and three more attaching or increasing penalties for defacing veterans’ graves.
- More controversially, the Legislature passed a three-year statute of limitations for disputing the title to foreclosed properties. While this legislation will help those who have purchased foreclosed homes to refinance or sell them, civil rights and consumer protection organizations raised important concerns that the bill would make it more difficult for homeowners to challenge illegal foreclosures of the sort that were so common in recent years. I felt these concerns deserved greater weight in the legislation and therefore voted no.
In the last days of the fall formal sessions, the House also took action on two long-awaited pieces of legislation.
First, the House unanimously adopted reforms to the Commonwealth’s public records law. The House bill clarifies the time periods within which state and local agencies must reply to records requests, reduces fees, and strengthens enforcement. All of these were much needed changes backed by Common Cause and other advocates for open government. I am pleased that the House also adopted an amendment to create a commission to examine whether and how to apply the public records law to the Governor’s office, the Legislature, and the judiciary. On the whole, however, I would have liked for the bill to be more ambitious. I am hopeful that the Senate will beef up the legislation when it takes it up in early 2016.
Second, the House paired a small raise to the solar net metering caps with major changes to the policies that support the development of solar energy in Massachusetts. For those who are not familiar with the topic, net metering is a mechanism that allows solar energy generators to be compensated for energy they send back to the grid. Caps on net metering currently set limits on net metering as a percentage of a utility’s peak load. The caps have already been hit in the areas served by National Grid and are fast approaching in Eversource territory, stalling solar development in the state.
Working closely with Representative Frank Smizik, Chair of the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, I led the effort among House members to promote legislation that would help continue the strong growth of solar in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, House leadership settled on an approach that 1) would provide an insufficient raise to the net metering caps, endangering the ability of solar developers to take advantage of a key federal tax credit due to shrink at the end of 2016; and 2) would make changes to net metering compensation rates that threaten the viability of many types of solar projects. In particular, community-shared solar projects, which provide the only access to solar for 80% of MA residents (including renters, low-income residents, and those who just don’t have sunny roofs) would become practically impossible to build under the House framework. If that happens, solar energy will become an option for only a minority of MA residents, limiting access to low-cost solar power and undermining the state’s efforts to switch to clean energy and curb climate change.
The premise underlying the House bill is that the costs of solar energy, particularly to non-solar ratepayers, outweigh its benefits. However, this premise is not supported by any objective analysis. In its April 2015 report, the legislatively-established Net Metering and Solar Task Force unanimously recommended conducting a “value of solar” study. In states like Maine and Minnesota where “value of solar” studies have been done, they have found that the benefits of solar offset the costs, even just within the grid (that is, before taking into account broader environmental and national security benefits). Unfortunately, the House bill rushes ahead to make sweeping changes to our solar policies without fully and accurately assessing solar’s costs and benefits.
For all these reasons, I voted against the House solar bill. Luckily, the Senate has staked out a more progressive position on solar and is currently negotiating with the House to produce compromise legislation. With thousands of megawatts of energy coming off-line in the near future, energy policy will remain a pressing topic in the Legislature. I will continue to advocate for policies that grow solar and other renewable technologies in Massachusetts and help the state achieve its clean energy goals.
Ongoing Legislative Efforts
My office has also been active on a number of other legislative fronts this year:
- Reducing youth tobacco use has long been one of my top priorities. E-cigarettes have quickly become the next battlefront in this fight. These products present many public health challenges. Among them perhaps the most pressing is the acute poison hazard posed by the nicotine liquids used in e-cigarettes. A recent CDC study documented a dramatic increase in the number of calls to poison centers involving e-cigarette nicotine liquids, from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014. More than half of the calls involved children under the age of five. To reduce the danger that e-cigarette nicotine liquids pose, I filed legislation requiring they be sold in child-resistant packaging. Attorney General Maura Healey subsequently issued regulations mandating child-resistant packaging and forbidding sales of e-cigarettes to minors, another measure I support.
- The transportation sector accounts for 39% of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts and passenger cars alone account for nearly 25%. That is why I believe that promoting electric vehicles must be a key component of the state’s strategy to meet our Global Warming Solutions Act goals. On an individual basis, switching from a traditional gas-burning car to an electric vehicle can reduce GHG emissions by up to 60 percent.
To raise awareness of the benefits of electric vehicles and showcase the many models now marketed in Massachusetts by major manufacturers, I organized and co-hosted the first ever “EV Ride and Drive” at the State House in September. Legislators, staffers, and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matt Beaton participated in the event, which included vehicles made by Tesla, Nissan, Ford, Chevy, BMW, Cadillac, and Smart Car.
Since the Ride and Drive, I have been working to advance my bill to encourage build-out of EV charging stations and provide other incentives for EV use. In these efforts, I am coordinating closely with the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Commission, a task force formed by the legislature to increase EV use in the Commonwealth.
- For over a century now, the Massachusetts public shade tree law has provided vital protections for trees in our public rights of way. In September, the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government reported out my bill to update and strengthen the public shade tree law by: 1) specifying professional qualifications for tree wardens (the municipal officials responsible for public trees); 2) expanding tree wardens’ powers to enforce prohibitions on cutting or otherwise damaging public shade trees; and 3) authorizing the State Forester to promulgate regulations for implementation of the law.
- I hear frequently from constituents who say they have been misled by telemarketers calling on behalf of charities. In particular, they complain that the telemarketers give potential donors the impression that the vast majority, if not all, of the funds raised will go directly to supporting the charities’ missions.
The reality, however, is that a large share of the funds solicited in Massachusetts on behalf of charities actually go to the telemarketers. In 2014, the most recent year for which records are available, telemarketers kept $205 million of the $543 million they raised for charities. This means that, on average, only 62 cents of every dollar that professional solicitors collected actually ended up with the charities. In many fundraising campaigns, the telemarketers kept upwards of 80 or even 90 cents of each dollar contributed.
To address this problem, I have filed a bill to make it as easy as possible for potential donors to understand the percentage of their donation that will actually flow to the charity they wish to support. I am working actively with the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on this legislation and am hopeful that it will receive a favorable report soon.
Currently 650,000 Massachusetts residents-including veterans, people with disabilities, and many seniors-face mobility limitations that can make it difficult to continue living in their homes or to visit the homes of relatives and others in their communities. This number will grow in the decades ahead, posing important questions about the suitability of our housing stock. Together with Senator Pat Jehlen, I have filed legislation to establish a commission to find ways to encourage the production of more housing that includes three key accessibility features: a no-step entry, a doorway at that entry wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and a bathroom on the entry floor. This legislation passed the Senate last session and I am hopeful that we can build on this momentum and get the legislation signed into law this session.
While I apologize for the length of this update, I hope it has provided you with greater insight into the work I’ve done in 2015 and the agenda I’m pursuing for 2016. Please let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions. Early next year, I will be rolling out a completely revamped website through which I will keep you apprised of my ongoing efforts.
Until then, warm wishes to you and yours for a very happy holiday season.