I’m still catching my breath from the final month of our two-year legislative session.
July was a sprint at the end of a marathon as the House and Senate collaborated to bury the Governor’s desk under a pile of important legislation.
The joint rules for the House and Senate stipulate that “formal sessions,” where we gather to debate and vote on legislation, conclude at the end of July. On July 31, our final formal session lasted until 10:15 a.m. on August 1. It was an intense, 23-hour session – with a lot at stake for our region. I was glad for the partnership of western Massachusetts House and Senate members, some of whom are pictured here on the State House balcony at dawn.
(Left to Right: Senator Eric Lesser, Representative Natalie Blais, Representative Dan Carey, me, Senator Anne Gobi, Senator Adam Hinds.)
As we close this session, with the Supreme Court rolling back reproductive rights and threatening to exacerbate gun violence, with high inflation, high prices, and rising costs of living, and with extreme weather like heat waves and droughts reminding us that the climate crisis is already upon us, there has been a lot of timely legislating to do.
Read on for a massive round up and a timely update on the status of critical legislation, but first a personal note:
I’ve had a pretty significant uptick in outreach via texts, Facebook messages, etc. regarding my abruptly shaved head some months ago – so much outreach that I want to address questions and concerns publicly.
First, thank you to folks who have reached out.
Here’s the scoop: I donated my hair to Locks of Love. It was something that had been on a personal to-do list for me for some time. Long before taking office.
I grew my hair during the pandemic and then, to get the longest braid, I asked the great folks at Bucci in Northampton to shave my head. When I received the confirmation of my donation, I was elated.
Locks of Love is ALWAYS looking for donations. The organization either uses the donated hair to make wigs for children struggling through hair loss – often due to cancer – or it sells the hair to help fund its critical work.
Reforming and transforming local public health
A proud victory of the session is the unanimous passage of the SAPHE 2.0 bill (SAPHE = Statewide Accelerated Public Health for Every Community), a bill I filed back in January 2019 to transform the Commonwealth’s local and regional public health system.
With this bill, a person’s zip code will no longer determine the public health protections they are afforded. This victory does not belong to me alone, however. It belongs to the local public health officials who labored tirelessly during the pandemic – and for years and decades before that – largely unseen and without adulation, to make us well and keep us well. This victory belongs to the advocates who were tired but kept on pushing.
I explained what this bill does, how it builds on the $200 million in ARPA funds which I helped secure this spring, and how it will make us all healthier when it passed the Senate. You can find a video of those remarks here. We’re waiting now for the Governor’s signature.
Kudos to Legislative Director Brian Rosman and Chief of Staff Jared Freedman who have been central to this work.
Finalizing the state budget for this fiscal year
July also means the start of the new fiscal year. My team and I spent hundreds of hours leading up to and during the FY23 budget process talking with constituents, advocates, and colleagues in order to impact the budget as significantly as possible on behalf of our district and statewide priorities. You can read about the final budget here, or read about where we threw down for the district during debate in May here. The Governor signed the overall budget and sent back changes. The Legislature overrode some of those changes and all of our priorities were retained in the final version.
Investing in transportation infrastructure and passenger rail for western Massachusetts
Almost $10 billion dollars. That’s how much federal funding Massachusetts received from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed under President Biden. In July, the Senate passed an omnibus transportation spending bill focused on using that federal funding to modernize and improve our transportation infrastructure. For over a year now, I have been working with western Mass colleagues to ensure that we did not miss the opportunity presented by these funds to advance passenger rail solutions in western Mass. You can see my floor remarks here.
I’m delighted to tell you that the final transportation bill contains a bond authorization for $275 million for passenger rail infrastructure in western Massachusetts, while also setting up a super quick process to develop the legislative language necessary to create a regional rail authority to oversee and administer the passenger rail lines that are pending or already operate in western Mass. There will be much more on this in days to come. The delegation is meeting weekly on this issue.
Tax relief and omnibus economic development legislation
The legislature typically takes up an economic development bond bill every two years, which contains funding for grant programs on which our communities and small businesses rely. This session’s economic development legislation, however, was a different beast entirely. It included the most significant tax relief package the legislature had proposed in many years, as well as rebates for families grappling with rising costs of living. In addition to the typical bonding authorizations, the bill also included over $3 billion in spending, relying on both federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and surplus revenue from FY22.
Unfortunately, this business remains unfinished. Late in July, concerns were raised about the impact of a long-forgotten 1986 law that was passed by voter referendum during the height of the anti-tax movement. It appears likely that state revenues could trigger this law, once they have been certified by the Auditor in September, which would require providing billions of dollars in tax rebates. Disappointingly, this uncertainty prevented the House and Senate from reaching final agreement on the economic development bill (for now). I’m doubly disappointed because in addition to putting vital investments on hold, including funding for local needs, human services, hospitals, raises for UMass staff, and many other priorities, the bill also included significant regional earmarks and a series of policy provisions that my team and I led on to support farmers and the agriculture economy and a provision to scale back one of the worst policies we have ever encountered called Medicaid Estate Recovery. You can read a full summary of what we added to the bill here. The hoped-for two year finale of this legislative session has been painfully interrupted. I promise that I’ll keep fighting for the passage of this funding and these policies.
Landmark mental health legislation
Right before we finished our work for the year, the legislature passed a sweeping mental health bill, titled the Mental Health ABC Act: Addressing Barriers to Care with my strong support. This comprehensive legislation is driven by the recognition that mental health is as important as physical health and should be treated as such. For too long, society has underfunded and undervalued mental health. The bill offers a wide variety of reforms to ensure equitable access to mental health care and remove barriers to care by supporting the behavioral health workforce.
Among the key elements of the bill are provisions to guarantee insurance coverage for annual mental health wellness exams, stronger enforcement of the mental health parity law, and initiatives to address emergency department boarding. The bill will also level the playing field for reimbursement to mental health providers and eliminate prior authorization for mental health acute treatment and stabilization services.
I am particularly pleased that the bill directs the Department of Mental Health to consider barriers to care, like distance and travel time, when contracting for services in geographically isolated and rural communities. There is a lot more in the bill, and you can see a more complete summary here and read the full bill here.
Passing timely legislation on reproductive rights and gender affirming care
The legislature worked quickly to respond to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade as well as to protect health care providers in Massachusetts from laws in other states seeking to target both providers and those seeking reproductive or gender affirming health care services.
You can read a full summary of that bill here. Thankfully, the Governor signed the bill into law on July 29.
The Senate also established a working group to identify other reproductive equity actions the legislature should take in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, and I am honored to have been appointed to co-chair that working group alongside my good friend, Senator Cindy Friedman. We look forward to the critical work ahead.
Clean energy and climate
At the beginning of this session, we passed into law a bill to require our Commonwealth to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, after the Governor vetoed climate legislation from the previous session. In that bill, our team focused on winning net zero building construction and advancing a state-wide commitment to carbon sequestration.
After months of work on this session’s omnibus clean energy and climate legislation the House and Senate reached agreement and sent the bill to the Governor’s desk in mid-July. The Governor sent back the bill last Friday with recommended amendments, rather than vetoing the whole thing. The legislature adopted a version of his amendments and sent it back to him just before the current session closed. The bill represents the nuts and bolts of how we’ll get to net zero emissions, including expanding access to solar power, decarbonizing the transportation sector, moving us away from fossil fuels, and going all-in on offshore wind. We’re waiting for the Governor to sign or veto the revised, current bill.
I’m particularly pleased that the bill removes biomass from the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, as well as authorizes a 10-community fossil-fuel free construction pilot program. (I wanted to include more communities, but this is a start.) The bill also includes a number of provisions I championed with House colleagues, including grid modernization, the first state initiative on green and healthy schools, and permitting more than one solar installation on a single parcel, like a low-income housing development, to access net-metering credits. I’m heartened by all the wins we’ve achieved together and deeply grateful to constituents and advocates for propelling the work forward. You can learn more about the bill and the work we led here.
I served on the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of An Act relative to equity in the cannabis industry, a bill to improve equity and fairness to both municipalities and cannabis businesses. The committee recommended a compromise bill on the last day of the session.
Our proposal recognizes the need for state-led equity standards, and requires that the Cannabis Control Commission promulgate equity policies and develop model policies and agreements between cannabis businesses and municipalities. These reforms also include the establishment of a Social Equity Trust Fund to provide funds to cannabis license applicants from communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
The new bill allows legitimate cannabis businesses to deduct their ordinary business costs under the state income tax code, which is not allowed currently. In addition, the law increases expungement eligibility of criminal and juvenile cases for possession, cultivation, or distribution of marijuana and removes certain marijuana cases as disqualifying for employment eligibility for most cannabis establishments. This is also waiting for the Governor’s signature.
General government infrastructure
The General Government Infrastructure Bond bill authorized upwards of $5.2 billion for housing, water pollution abatement, food systems and much more. One type of infrastructure I believe we don’t need is more prisons, and I filed an amendment to the Senate bill to put a five-year moratorium on any new prison construction and you can watch my remarks in support of this provision here. Governor Baker has proposed spending some $50 million to renovate or build a new women’s prison, despite Massachusetts having one of the lowest populations of incarcerated women in the nation. With this money we could instead fund individualized community-based alternatives to incarceration for women, providing housing, medical care, and other services to address the root causes of incarceration. The legislature included a variation of my moratorium provision in the bill sent to Governor Baker. The Governor has until the end of this week to sign or veto that section of the bill. The Boston Globe had a terribly misguided editorial on this subject which I rebutted here. Thanks to Director of Communications and Engagement Cameron Lease for his stellar leadership on this issue.
Holyoke Soldiers Home reform
The House and Senate both passed legislation that makes key reforms to the governance structure of the state’s veterans’ homes. The bill requires that both homes be federally licensed as health care facilities, elevates the Department of Veterans Services to an Executive Office, and creates independent oversight and accountability of the management of veterans’ homes. The tragic deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during the COVID-19 pandemic can never be reversed, but I am heartened that the legislature took major steps in this bill to ensure that such a tragedy will never happen again.
When this bill was debated, the Senate accepted an amendment I filed to strengthen quality oversight of our Soldiers’ Homes. Previously these homes were not required to also be licensed as health care facilities. The amendment I filed requires the Soldiers’ Homes to be licensed under strict Department of Public Health (DPH) standards for skilled nursing facilities. These standards include requirements such as fire safety, food quality, record keeping, lighting, ventilation, and many more, enforced by regular inspections. More about this bill here.
Early education and care
The Senate unanimously passed S.2973, An Act to expand access to high-quality, affordable early education and care. This bipartisan legislation will transform early education and child care in the Commonwealth by making it more accessible and affordable for families, providing high-quality care for young children, strengthening early education providers, improving compensation and professional development for the early education workforce, and addressing the workforce needs of Massachusetts employers. I filed an amendment, which was adopted, focused on “enforceable compliance standards” that would measure and enforce equity by helping to ensure that the funding proposed in this bill goes to the most vulnerable children and that families are truly able to access the programs envisioned in the bill. The bill has not been taken up by the House but we’ll keep supporting the Senate’s lead, Senator Jason Lewis, as he pushes forward thanks to the great advocacy of constituents.
Updates on more of the bills YOU care about
Below, are short updates on the bills you’ve asked me about recently:
S.2027/H.3191, An Act establishing an Indigenous Peoples Day – I was humbled to file the Senate version of this bill at the beginning of this legislative session, and I’m proud to report that this bill was reported favorably from the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight for the first time in its history! The bill will not be passed into law this legislative session, but there is huge momentum for its passage and I plan to continue to fight for this bill in the new year.
S.868, An Act empowering cities and towns to impose a fee on certain real estate transactions to support affordable housing – I’m proud to have filed this bill to allow for a local option to put a fee on the transfer of high-end real estate to generate locally-controlled funds for affordable housing development. I spoke to the bill on the floor during a debate. This bill will not succeed this session, but you can be sure we’ll refile next year.
S.27, An Act relative to extending COVID-19 accommodations for municipalities in elections and for representative Town Meetings – I’m glad to report that part of this bill has been signed into law. The new law, now titled “An Act relative to extending certain state of emergency accommodations, extends to March 31, 2023 a number of provisions related to the public meetings that were first put into place to accommodate needs during the pandemic.
S.1384/H.2381, An Act relative to end of life options – I was honored to be the primary Senate sponsor of this bill this legislative session, and to report the bill out favorably from the Joint Committee on Public Health. The bill is now in the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. The bill will not be passed into law this legislative session but the momentum and support for the legislation continues to increase. I will continue to file and fight for this bill in the new year.
S.890/H.1426, An Act to guarantee a tenant’s first right of refusal – I’m a proud cosponsor of this critical legislation to protect housing. This bill was reported favorably by the Housing Committee and went to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. This bill will not be passed into law this session, but I look forward to cosponsoring again in the new year.
S.2596/H.4331, An Act allowing municipalities to reasonably regulate solar siting – Thanks to constituents, I have understood the pressures communities face around solar siting and this complexity was conveyed into the bill I filed. I continued this work in the energy and climate bill. We’ll keep fighting to help municipalities have the tools they need and deserve to engage.
S.314/H.714, An Act relative to universal school meals – I’ve been working hard to extend a budget provision for universal free school meals that was expiring this summer. Expanding access to nutritious food is critical to keeping students healthy and ready to learn. With the support of a broad coalition of groups, we were successful and meals will continue to be available for the upcoming school year.
S.524/H.851, An Act preserving open space in the Commonwealth – I am a supporter and cosponsor of this bill to make sure that the state doesn’t lose even one square inch of conservation land. The bill has been passed in both the House and Senate, but in different forms. The House-Senate negotiators are working to reach a consensus to bridge the differences and I am hopeful we can complete this work in the fall.
During the two-year session, we had 261 roll call votes. Many were routine, and some were momentous, like the climate bill we passed last week or the bill to allow every resident to obtain a driver’s license. I’m proud that I didn’t miss a single vote the entire session. How I voted on every one of the roll calls is available on my website, here.
Northern Tier rail
We’ve been deep in the study surrounding the possible re-start of passenger rail service along Route 2 – or the Northern Tier. There’s a great deal of information and ways to sign up to receive updates here.
Where’s the money?!
A big part of what my team and I do is work to bring home state dollars to our people and communities. Sometimes that looks like budget wrangling. Sometimes that looks like advocacy around state grants.
To crack open state funding for our communities and nonprofits, District Director Elena Cohen worked in partnership with Regional Planning Agencies, Rep. Natalie Blais, western Massachusetts Senators, and state colleagues to organize a pretty fabulous series of info sessions. There will be six in total. The first FIVE are here.
Our team has been working on the issue of relicensing FirstLight’s hydropower facilities in Northfield and Montague/Gill. This issue has ties to the species that inhabit the Connecticut River, the integrity of the riverbanks, the economies of communities in and around these facilities, and the ability for future generations to enjoy recreational access to the river. We share more about this work and how you can engage here. Thanks to District Director Elena Cohen for leading this work for our team.
Out and about
I met last week with a powerful group of disability advocates, including Chris Hoeh, who has brought smarts and a big heart to push statewide to improve transportation for people with disabilities, along with Rick Glassman and former Senator Barbara L’Italien.
How do my team and I say thank you to tireless Senate colleagues for their work this session and their support of our district?!
I load up my car at dawn with sweet corn from Golonka Farm. (Our district will lose Whately next session, so this is an homage to the farm and to the beautiful town.)
We delivered corn to the Senate President’s team, the team at Senate Ways and Means, the Senate Clerk’s team, the Senate Court Officers, Senate Counsel, and more.
I was glad to join last week with advocates in support of Indigenous Peoples Day. (The day’s heat was no match for a fierce people-powered movement.)
I’m proud to be the lead sponsor in the Senate and to link arms with colleagues like Senator Jamie Eldridge (pictured). Our bill to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day has been reported favorably out of committee for the first time.
I was honored to receive an appreciation award from Dignity Alliance Massachusetts and delighted to be in solidarity with their essential aging and disability service advocacy and work. I was humbled to be recognized along with great colleagues: Senators Chandler, Friedman, and Lewis and Representatives Cutler, Lipper-Garabedian, Stanley, and Campbell.
I’m grateful to Clean Water Action for including me in the list of Legislators who care deeply about the environment. I love the partnership that my team and I have with Clean Water’s team.
This photo doesn’t capture the truly uplifting gathering that happened earlier this week at 5 Franklin Street in Northampton where Dr. Jessica Bossie and colleagues toured neighbors and community allies through a building recently purchased and now being renovated to house individuals who are currently houseless.
In moving remarks, Dr. Bossie thanked a number of stakeholders and supporters, including Northampton’s Community Preservation Committee which made a major investment in the property.
I’m grateful to have directed $128,500 in a state earmark this year for this valuable work – inspired by Dr. Bossie’s vision and thanks to counsel from Pamela Schwartz of the Western Mass Network to End Homelessness.
I saw so many public health and housing champions gathered and was so grateful to join them at this important milestone.
The work embodied in this newsletter would be impossible without the tireless efforts of our fabulous team: Rachel Klein, Cameron Lease, Elena Cohen, Brian Rosman, and Jared Freedman. These five colleagues work every day for the people of our district and I couldn’t be prouder or more grateful. There is not a single accomplishment articulated above that would have been possible without them.
Sending our love to you,
Jo, Brian, Rachel, Cameron, Elena, and Jared
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