Greetings from your State House,
I blinked and it’s February 10th.
Time feels like it’s speeding up in this second year of our legislative session. While it’s not action-packed in the same way as a Marvel movie, we’ll experience a legislative version of a high-speed chase.
In this newsletter, I’ll tell you what to expect (and get a little wonky with you), share some timely updates, and offer a glimpse of our team’s work over the last weeks.
What to expect
Legislative drive to the finish line
The legislature has just passed Joint Rule 10 Day (JR10).
JR10 is an insider term for an important and quite pressing matter: the fate of bills in committees. After holding public hearings, committees are supposed to make decisions about all the bills in their care by this date, if they haven’t already. Here’s a more detailed snapshot of some of our bills that received a favorable report (which is the first hurdle on their journey). And here are some of the highlights:
- Protect Homes of Deceased MassHealth Members
- No New Prison and Jails
- Support Our Farmers
- Protect Women’s Bodily Integrity
- Promote Solar Energy
- Mental Health Continuity of Care
- Expand Access to Affordable Higher Education
- Abolish Native Mascots
- Make Schools Healthy and Green
- Strengthen Local Public Health
- Ban Toxic PFAS Chemicals
If bills are not reported favorably, they can be assigned to a study order, which is a euphemism for ending a bill’s journey for the current session. That happened to some of the bills about timely, critical issues for which we fought passionately – including one to rethink MCAS testing in the Commonwealth. This is beyond frustrating but we’ll keep fighting.
Bills can also be extended which is often a signal from the committee that it needs more time to consider the legislation. This is an invitation to everyone who cares about this legislation to fight harder than ever before on its behalf. Here’s a list of some of our bills that were extended.
Our team is now taking next steps on all of these issues, having meetings with Senate leadership, and making a plan to move the favorable and extended legislation to the finish line as quickly and strategically as possible.
Money martial arts
It’s the season of preparing for annual budgets and bond bills, while ensuring already appropriated ARPA (federal COVID relief) and fiscal year 2022 funds get to their destinations.
The Senate will take up the fiscal year 2023 budget in May with a goal of having a final budget before July 1. Our team is focused on the spending priorities of our constituents and the cities and towns we represent.
At the same time, we’ll see a flurry of bond bills. Bond bills take us deep into the policy weeds of government funding. Bond bills authorize the state to borrow for certain projects but don’t require borrowing or spending to actually occur. Bond bills can also be vehicles to pass policy. For example, in the economic development bond bill last session, we attached our legislation on Healthy Soils. It prevailed and is now law. The Governor has already filed a capital bond bill and others will follow.
Finally, our team is bridging the gaps between the funding we’ve helped win in the ARPA budget and in the fiscal year 2022 budget to make sure this funding gets from the state agencies in charge of distribution directly to our region. This work is painstaking and requires stamina (and a herculean amount of patience) as each agency appropriates funds a little differently than the next and when millions are on the proverbial table, the stakes are quite high.
Legislature passes a COVID relief bill
On February 3, the Senate and House reached an agreement on COVID relief bills, which had already passed each chamber, directing $101 million to address critical, time-sensitive needs related to the ongoing pandemic. My team and I were part of the work on the Senate bill, focusing on both ensuring the spending in the bill was equitably distributed and honing the provisions in the bill dedicated to closing the gaps in vaccination rates across the Commonwealth. The bill includes the following – which I spoke to during the Senate debate (see video):
- $75 million for masks, rapid tests, and vaccine equity efforts that support children, educators, front-line health care workers, small businesses, and communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The bill also directs the administration to issue a public plan to close the gaps in vaccination rates within four months.
- $25 million to stabilize the COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave Program to ensure it will remain solvent in the wake of the Omicron surge.
- $1 million to support a robust communication effort about the unemployment overpayment waiver process. (Note: If you’re having an issue with unemployment, please reach out.)
Senate takes up drug cost control and transparency
Later this afternoon, my Senate colleagues and I will debate and vote on the PACT Act which is legislation focused on pharmaceutical access, costs, and transparency. This is a massive bill which – among other wins – limits out-of-pocket insulin spending for consumers by capping co-pays at $25 per 30-day supply. The Senate passed sweeping mental and behavioral health care legislation earlier this session, and this bill represents another important step in the right direction toward making health care affordable for all. Read a full summary here.
Continued COVID oversight
On January 11, as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, I co-convened my 15th oversight hearing during the COVID pandemic, calling Governor Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to testify. Here are my opening remarks.
Rail rail everywhere …
One of the first bills that I filed and which was signed into law was a study focused on the restart of passenger rail along the Route 2 Corridor – or Northern Tier. That study kicked off at the end of December. Along with Rep. Natalie Blais and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, I’m working to build public support and leverage the expertise of our region for a robust process. More here.
On January 24, Reps. Natalie Blais, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Smitty Pignatelli and I collaborated to convene a rail-focused meeting for the western Massachusetts delegation with Congressmen Neal and McGovern. It was a pretty exciting meeting with a great deal of follow-up necessary to ensure that the four western counties get our fair share of the federal funds flowing into the region.
All aboard the Valley Flyer for hassle-free, eco-friendly train travel to New Haven, New York City, and beyond, making stops in the region, including in Greenfield and Northampton. The Legislative delegation continues monthly meetings with folks at MassDOT and Amtrak to help ensure that this north/south rail pilot becomes a permanent reality. More info here.
As part of our efforts to support the Valley Flyer, I worked with Sen. Eric Lesser and Rep. Natalie Blais to secure $250,000 for marketing. These funds continue to return great media campaigns to build ridership thanks to the great shepherding by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. See an example below.
In mid-December – even though the ground was frozen and these shovels were more for show – work was heating up on a track extension project in Deerfield funded by a MassDOT Industrial Rail Access Program grant. Rep. Natalie Blais and I joined Franklin County Chamber executive director Diana Szynal and All States Materials Group to celebrate expanded freight capacity.
Two public health speaking gigs
I was honored to be asked to speak to rising public health student stars at the annual public health forum. You can see my remarks about the importance of a commitment to public health here. I also opened a Massachusetts Health Policy Forum with a welcome focused on the future of public health. You can read a policy brief created by UMass Amherst Public Health researchers and the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum here.
In celebration of Dr. Marty Nathan
On December 20, I joined with Senators Gobi, Gomez, Hinds, Lesser, and Velis to adjourn the Senate session in honor of Dr. Marty Nathan. You can listen to our tribute here.
Out and about
On January 14, I joined Sen. Adam Hinds and Reps. Natalie Blais and Jake Oliveira to announce a hard-won $7.5 million for municipalities throughout central and western Massachusetts for unanticipated costs caused by July storm damage.
The Town of Deerfield had over $1 million dollars in damage. The Town of Erving had over $2 million. The Town of Northfield had $1.5 million in damage. The Town of Warwick had $1.8 million. The Town of Royalston had over $300,000. And more.
We didn’t qualify for FEMA (federal) aid but we could not leave these towns to grapple with these enormous costs alone. I worked with Senator Hinds to secure this funding in the ARPA budget when it became clear that FEMA was not going to provide any reimbursement to these towns. I’m grateful to Rep. Blais for her leadership in the House and to Rep. Oliveira and all our western Mass colleagues for their solidarity. The work now is to get these funds appropriated equitably.
Manna in Northampton believes there is both dignity and love baked into necessarily delicious food – in addition to very necessary nutrition.
I was part of last Friday’s 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. crew at Manna, working with incredible staff and volunteers preparing the delicious Friday meal.
Manna’s staff and volunteers serve up COVID-safe take out and delivered meals – and go way, way beyond that – especially in these truly difficult times.
If you need meals, want to volunteer, or can support Manna: https://mannanorthampton.org/.
Thank you as well to the communities of Edwards Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church for welcoming Manna into your kitchens and gathering spaces.
In mid-December, I joined LaunchSpace CEO Brianna Drohen, Congressman Jim McGovern, Sen. Anne Gobi, and Rep. Susannah Whipps for a tour of the Pleasant Street School (PSS) in Athol – the location of a tremendously exciting project that’s one part community kitchen, one part makers’ space, one part business incubator, and beyond. Exciting things are happening in the North Quabbin. For more information about LaunchSpace PSS please see the PSS Press Kit.
It’s cold outside but it’s warm and bustling at Grow Food Northampton’s Winter Market (only 4 dates left) with vendors from across Hampshire and Franklin Counties.
SNAP and HIP are accepted and matched and the Winter Market is a great way to support local farmers and artisans.
My wife, dad, and I shopped Saturday morning and felt privileged to leave with fresh produce, local meat and eggs, fresh tortillas, bread, pierogies, and more.
In mid-December, I joined Congressman Jim McGovern, Rep. Mindy Domb, and Dr. David Reckhow and his team from the UMass Amherst Water and Energy Technology (WET) Center.
We were there to celebrate the Congressman’s critical work on infrastructure and to acknowledge the state’s investment of $1.5 million in the WET Center, which Rep. Domb and I worked to make happen in the ARPA budget.
And we were there to continue to raise public awareness and help drive a laser focus on the need to combat PFAS chemicals at every level of government.
You can see a very informative live stream from the event here.
On January 25, I joined three Center for New Americans (CNA) classes of students and educators. Every trip (virtual or in-person) to CNA restores my faith in democracy and immigrant-focused adult education.
Icy cold could not put out the fire in Congressman Jim McGovern’s and Northampton City Councilor Garrick Perry’s passionate calls to protect and defend voting rights at an Indivisible Northampton rally on #MLKDay2022.
Sending our love to you,
Jo, Rachel, Elena, Brian, Cameron, and Jared
P.S. Welcome Rachel Klein! You may have noticed a new signature on the team line above. Our team is thrilled to welcome Rachel Klein who is our new Director of Constituent Services. Rachel joins our office after having worked at Housing Navigator MA to reform and simplify the affordable housing search process for renters. She looks forward to speaking with constituents and getting to know the communities of the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district. You can read Rachel’s full bio here.
P.P.S. Our office’s website is the place to go if you want to see all the letters I’ve written, testimony I’ve submitted, remarks I’ve offered, or votes I’ve taken. They’re all here: https://senatorjocomerford.org/news/.
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