In The People's Blog

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This is looooong. You can jump to the sections that interest you by clicking the links below:

Education

Flavored Tobacco

Road Safety

Campaign Finance

Children’s Health and Wellness

Plastic Bags

Dissolving the Hampshire Council of Governments

We had a productive last day of formal sessions for the year on Wednesday. It was a late night, but the Massachusetts legislature passed legislation dealing with education funding, flavored tobacco and vaping, cell phone use while driving, campaign finance, and children’s health and wellness. The Senate also passed a bill restricting single-use plastic bags, and members of the local Hampshire-Franklin delegation worked to pass legislation to protect and preserve the historic Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton.

  • On education, we passed the Student Opportunity Act, an unprecedented $1.5 billion new investment in Massachusetts K-12 public education on Wednesday. Click here for details on the education bill.
  • I’m proud that the bill we passed banning flavored tobacco and vape products came out of the Public Health Committee that I co-chair. Read more about the bill here.
  • The legislation restricting the use of cell phones while driving was called the “hands-free bill” while it was being considered. I supported the bill because of the danger to public safety posed by cell phone use while driving, but expressed serious reservations about the weak protections against racial profiling that may result from increased enforcement authority. My summary of the bill is here.
  • The campaign finance reform bill increases transparency in the Commonwealth’s elections by reforming fiscal reporting requirements. I know this sounds technical, but I believe this is a major step in increasing public accountability in our campaign financing system. Learn more about the bill here.
  • Our children’s health bill makes serious progress in a number of areas related to care for children and young adults. It also addresses a key Western Mass concern, which is the difficulty people have locating an in-network care provider, particularly for behavioral health care. The bill takes aim at the “ghost networks” that insurers claim are available for their patients. Details on the bill are here.
  • The Senate approved a bill banning single-use plastic bags in retail stores statewide. Similar bans are already in place in Northampton, Amherst, South Hadley and Greenfield. This is an important step to reduce solid waste, reduce petrochemical use and protect aquatic life. The bill still needs to pass the House before it can become law. More information is here.
  • Finally, it was past midnight when we passed legislation allowing the state to take over control of the historic Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton. This legislation is the first component of our work to dissolve the Hampshire Council of Governments and transfer its duties to the state and others. We needed to get this aspect done now, because it required a roll-call vote under the state Constitution. Under the bill, the Courthouse will remain protected as a historic site for public use. You can learn more here.

As always, you can contact me by email at Jo.Comerford@masenate.gov.

Education

The legislature passed the Student Opportunity Act, an unprecedented $1.5 billion new investment in Massachusetts K-12 public education on Wednesday. Passage of this bill was a long time coming, and it’s incredibly heartening to see it pass. As you know, I ran for the Senate so that I could fight for a reinvestment in our schools. The is a true game-changer bill that targets historic levels of funds to close opportunity gaps for the commonwealth’s students.

The Student Opportunity Act increases funds for schools with low-income students, teacher and faculty health care costs, English-language learners, special education and school transportation. Included in the bill is recognition of many of the needs we have in western Mass, such as the costs of rural schools, our school construction costs, and transportation for students receiving special education. 

Specifically, the legislation:

  • Estimates school districts’ employee and retiree health care costs using up to date health insurance cost data).
  • Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions. While the bill increases special education funds, I know there is still a “SPED Gap” – a big gulf between the costs of special education and the funding providing using the assumptions in state law. I have introduced legislation to quantify the gap so we can grapple with this ongoing problem.
  • 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, 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 guidance and psychological services, charter school tuition reimbursement, and raising the annual cap spending for construction and renovation. 

I also worked closely with Senator Adam Hinds from the Berkshires district to establish 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. 

The compromise legislation also retained language that I added through an amendment, requiring the Department of Revenue and the Department of Elementary Secondary Education to study the impact of Proposition 2½ on the ability of communities to fund education. This was one of the few amendments adopted during the Senate debate. Proposition 2½ mandates that the total annual property tax revenue raised by a municipality cannot exceed 2.5% of the assessed value of all taxable property within the municipality, as well as mandates that a municipalities annual increase of property tax cannot exceed 2.5%. Out of the 20 towns in the state with the highest property taxes, seven are in our Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district. My amendment requires “an analysis of the impact of Proposition 2½ on the ability of municipalities to make their required local contributions in the short-term and long-term and recommendations to mitigate the constraints of Proposition 2½.” 

Flavored Tobacco

The legislature passed landmark legislation to reduce youth access to tobacco and nicotine products. In the wake of widespread increases in youth vaping, this bill offers a comprehensive approach to protecting young people from nicotine use and addiction. The bill, An Act Modernizing Tobacco Control, bans the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol; institutes a 75 percent excise tax on e-cigarettes and e-liquids; and expands health coverage for tobacco use cessation products and counseling.

The bill was considered in the Public Health Committee which I chair. I spoke out in favor of the bill during the Senate debate, and an amendment I proposed was adopted by the Senate and included in the final bill. In the debate I brought up that one of the three deaths from vaping in Massachusetts was a 60-year old woman from Hampshire County.

A high school student from my district recently described, in stark detail, how vaping is changing her high school — much for the worse . She has young friends who now talk openly about their addiction to vaping. She told me: “Our high school can’t handle this. My friends say they can’t handle this. The state has to help us.”

I also pointed out in the debate that “Menthol flavor is perhaps the biggest culprit. Of young menthol smokers, 65 percent said they would quit if the menthol flavor were banned. Put simply, this flavor makes tobacco products easier to smoke and harder to quit.”

The fact is that youth use of e-cigarettes and vaping products has increased dramatically. The 2017 Massachusetts Youth Health Survey reported over 20 percent of high school students were currently vaping–a rate six times that of adult use. More recent reports put estimates on youth e-cigarette use closer to 27 percent.

The bill specifically targets the sale of flavored tobacco products because they have historically been used to attract young people. Flavored cigarettes were banned by the federal government in 2009 as part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. However, that law did not apply to other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, which come in over 8,000 flavors with youth appeal such as ‘gummy bear,’ cotton candy, fruit punch, mint and menthol.

The legislation bans the sale of all flavors, including menthol, for all tobacco products, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, pipe tobacco, and snuff. Youth smokers remain the age group most likely to smoke mentholated cigarettes, and menthol smoking prevalence now exceeds non-menthol smoking prevalence among both young and young adult smokers.

The bill also institutes a 75 percent excise tax on both e-cigarettes and e-liquids. Taxing tobacco products is a proven method of decreasing youth use and this bill will bring the sales price of e-cigarettes to near parity with cigarette prices.

The bill will expand health insurance coverage for tobacco cessation so that people have access to the products and counseling necessary to quit nicotine. The bill requires coverage of at least one cessation product without prior authorization for MassHealth, Group Insurance Commission, and private insurance members.

Further provisions regarding e-cigarettes and vape products were included in the bill to regulate this growing market, including: expanding oversight of the Department of Revenue to include e-cigarette retailers; limiting the sale of e-cigarette products with nicotine content higher than 20 milligrams per milliliter to adult-only stores; and establishing penalties for the illegal distribution of e-cigarettes.

Tobacco use and nicotine addiction remain the leading causes of preventable illness and premature death in Massachusetts. Each year, more than 9,300 people die from tobacco use across the state and smoking-related illnesses are responsible for more than $4 billion in annual healthcare costs to the Commonwealth.

Governor Baker has not said if he will sign the bill. I’m urging him to sign it. 

Road Safety

The legislature passed legislation to ban drivers from using hand-held electronic devices in vehicles unless they are in hands-free mode. The bill defines hands-free mode as one that engages without touching, holding or otherwise manually manipulating a mobile electronic 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 granting expanded access to traffic stop data.  It has been 15 years since the last public report on traffic stop data; under this bill the state will be required to publish and analyze the data annually. I was disappointed that the bill did not go as far as the Senate proposed in tracking racial profiling that could occur as a result of this bill. I expressed my disappointment in a speech on the floor, joined by a number of other Senators, including Sonia Chang-Diaz and Adam Hinds.  

When it comes to the specifics of how this law will be implemented, the bill provides that:

  • Drivers can use  mapping or navigation devices if they are affixed to the windshield, dashboard or central console or integrated into the vehicle and only involve a tap or a swipe;
  • Drivers will be penalized $100 for a first offense, a $250 fine and safety course for a second offense, and a $500 fine and surcharge for third and subsequent offenses;
  • Data collection will be expanded to include age, race, gender and location when police issue a uniform citation;
  • Law enforcement agencies will be held accountable if data suggests those jurisdictions may be engaging in racial profiling, by requiring them to collect data on all traffic stops for a one-year period and provide implicit bias training;
  • Data about these stops will be published online annually by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), and EOPSS must contract with a research institution to conduct an annual analysis of the data collected. 

Campaign Finance

On Wednesday the legislature unanimously passed An Act relative to campaign finance, which increases transparency and accountability in the Commonwealth’s elections by reforming fiscal reporting requirements. I had supported allowing candidates to use campaign funds for family child-care expenses, but the final bill only establishes a commission to study the issue. 

By including all legislative and mayoral candidates in the depository reporting system, this bill will increase accountability by requiring more frequent reports disclosing campaign contributions and confirmation of the expenditures reported in monthly statements filed by their designated financial institutions. Currently, filings for those presently exempt from the depository system occur only two or three times a year.  By increasing filing frequency and pairing candidate disclosures with bank reporting, the legislation seeks to increase transparency in statewide campaign finance activity.

This revised process will assist the Office of Campaign and Political Finance in identifying discrepancies between a candidate’s public disclosure of campaign finance activity and their bank accounting records. The change will make it easier to see how much money a candidate is raising and spending during the course of the entire election cycle.

Children’s Health and Wellness

On Wednesday, the legislature passed legislation supporting the health and wellness of children across the Commonwealth. I voted for the bill and enthusiastically support the bill. The bill now goes to the Governor.

This bill aims to break down silos of service to better address the complex health and wellness needs specific to the Commonwealth’s 1.4 million children. The effort seeks to create a foundation for better access to services and more data to inform future policy, while supporting a holistic approach to children’s wellbeing. 

The legislation seeks to address child wellness in these areas:

  • Secures healthcare benefits for foster children until the age of 26, making it easier for this vulnerable population to access to MassHealth benefits they are entitled at minimal cost to the Commonwealth. This codifies the practice for Massachusetts in the event of change on the federal level to the Affordable Care Act.
  • Requires insurance companies to maintain accurate and accessible provider directories for health plans. The provision directs companies to make the directories available without requiring users to create a new online account or profile. The directory must be updated frequently to ensure the information is correct. Insurance companies must take steps to make the directors user-friendly for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency. This is a key issue in Western Massachusetts, where insurer directories promote “ghost networks” of providers who actually do not take the patient’s insurance. 
  • Creates childhood behavioral health centers of excellence via a pilot program that designates three regional centers to act as clearinghouses to connect families, providers, and educators to services and training opportunities. 
  • Requires the Health Policy Commission to conduct analysis within the next year of children with medical complexity to analyze costs and population characteristics of this group in order to develop recommendations about how to serve this unique population.
  • 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.  
  • 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.
  • Creates special commission chaired by the Child Advocate to review and make recommendations on mandated reporting to improve responses to child abuse and neglect.

Plastic Bags

The Senate passed a bill that would implement a statewide ban on all carry-out plastic bags at checkout from retail stores.  Similar bans are already in place in Northampton, Amherst, South Hadley and Greenfield. This is an important step to reduce solid waste, reduce petrochemical use and protect aquatic life. 

The bill requires retailers to charge at least 10 cents for a recycled paper bag at check out, and directs that five cents of the amount collected from the sale of paper bags go back to the city or town for enforcement of the ban, as well as for other municipal recycling efforts.  The retailer may keep the remainder of the fee to recoup the costs of providing paper bags. 

The ban would continue to allow for plastic bags for specific products where plastic serves an enhanced purpose, such as for produce, poultry or other food items to keep them fresh, or for frozen items or items prone to leak, for example. 

To address concerns about cost, the bill allows small retail shops, which use a small number of carry-out bags, additional time to comply with the fee requirement.  It also allows persons paying for their purchase with a SNAP EBT card to acquire their recycled carry-out paper bag for no fee.

I support the bill and hope the House will act on the legislation early next year. When it does, I will work with colleagues to insert some modifications based on feedback that I’ve received from establishments that are ahead of this curve and need to continue to be free to make bold advances.

Dissolving the Hampshire Council of Governments

Since I came into office, the Hampshire County legislative delegation has been working hard to dissolve the Hampshire Council of Governments (HCG) in such a way that its financial liabilities do not fall on its former member towns as a burden, and also to ensure that HCG’s programs and assets find new homes and owners to maintain them. The largest of these assets is the historic Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton.

The courthouse is central to downtown Northampton, and the city and the HCG legislative delegation both hoped that ownership of the courthouse could be transferred in such a way that the building and courthouse lawn remain open to the public. In an effort that actually began with our legislative predecessors Reps. Steve Kulik, John Scibak, and the late Peter Kocot, the HCG delegation has been working to convey the historic courthouse to the Executive Office of the Trial Court, which requires special legislation to be passed. 

This process was complicated by the fact that the courthouse and courthouse lawn have been placed under conservation and preservation restrictions, and for constitutional reasons any legislation to transfer a building or piece of land under a conservation restriction requires a “roll call” vote. Roll call votes can only happen during formal session, and Wednesday was the final formal session of the calendar year. The HCG delegation’s intention was to transfer this courthouse to the state before the worst of winter sets in, so that the building and courthouse grounds are maintained throughout the winter. 

Representatives Natalie Blais, Mindy Domb, Dan Carey, and Senator Adam Hinds and I worked late into the night to push through a floor amendment to the language and pass the bill that transferred the courthouse (S.2417) through both chambers before the legislature recessed. We successfully moved it through the House on a unanimous vote at midnight, and after a rule was passed allowing the legislature to meet until 1:00 AM, we moved it through the Senate with another unanimous vote at 12:18 AM. The bill is now on the Governor’s desk, and we expect that it will be signed without amendment. (In fact we took great precaution to ensure that the bill would be signed by working closely with the Governor’s team throughout this process.)

It has taken an incredible collaboration from the legislators representing HCG member towns to work through the dissolution of HCG, and there is more work left to be done – but this was a crucial step to preserve an iconic building in downtown Northampton.

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