In The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

Representing the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the State Senate this session has been one of the greatest honors of my life. From the bill filing deadline all the waaaaaay back on January 18, 2019 to this July sprint inside a marathon, my team and I have given our whole hearts to our work on behalf of our region.

I am proud of the legislation that the Senate passed this session. The Senate took action on mental and physical health care, local public health, transgender rights, climate change, and made badly needed investments in infrastructure. The legislature passed landmark education funding reform, banned texting while driving, and passed one of the strongest laws in the country to ban the sale of flavored vaping products and menthol cigarettes in the Commonwealth, which came through my Public Health Committee. And so much more.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit like a wrecking ball in mid-March and everyone’s focus shifted. On March 4, I led the Public Health Committee as we convened a formal oversight hearing to look at the storm clouds that were just beginning to draw public attention. The experts who testified told us to expect that the situation would worsen and that much more was needed from our government. Following that hearing, the Senate President appointed me chair of the Senate’s COVID-19 Working Group. This was perhaps the most intense time of the entire legislative session, as schools and business closed, supply shortages that nobody previously imagined appeared overnight, and unemployment skyrocketed. The working group met daily and quickly formed nine subgroups. In addition to chairing the overall working group, I also chaired the Safety Net subgroup, which successfully developed multiple pieces of legislation to protect low-income people during the crisis including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and a full slate of spending mandates which were realized in the supplemental budget.    

Although July has traditionally marked the end of formal sessions (where we debate and have roll call votes) in the two-year legislative session, there are many issues that cannot wait. The science on climate change is clear, and the damage done largely irreversible. The health care gains from telehealth are commonsense and this expanded access to care must be preserved permanently. And then we must usher in a single payer system. Immigrants must be able to travel safely in the places where they live. And so much more.

I feel this urgency and I know many of my constituents do as well. So the work continues. We must stay vigilant around COVID-19 priorities, we must finish the massive bills now in conference, and we must pass a budget.

And my team and I have also begun strategizing for next session, if we are fortunate enough to serve again. 

So what the heck happened in July?!

Feel free to use this handy list to jump to individual bills:

IT infrastructure bond bill

$1.1 billion COVID-19 relief supplemental budget

Transportation infrastructure bond bill

Mosquito control

Police reform

Resolve to establish a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the Commonwealth

Expanding higher education opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Economic development, jobs, and recovery omnibus legislation

Healthy soils and agricultural innovation

Step therapy and patient safety

Genocide education

Midwife registration and out-of-hospital birth access

Improving access to treatment for individuals with perinatal substance use disorder

Reducing racial disparities in maternal health

Outlawing female genital mutilation

Strengthening accountability for children and families

IT infrastructure bond bill

July began with the Senate taking up a $1.7 billion infrastructure borrowing bill which makes a down payment on all sorts of infrastructure: software for remote learning in classrooms, additional funds for the Last Mile broadband internet build out, and much more. Senator Adam Hinds and I collaborated to include language and $10 million in funding to direct the state’s Technology Services agency to work with our local planning agencies and rural policy experts in order to study and then fund infrastructure to improve cell service in rural areas. There’s so much more in the conference committee report, passed into law on July 31, here, including funding for food security initiatives, and more.

$1.1 billion COVID-19 relief supplemental budget

The same day the Senate voted on the infrastructure legislation we also took up a much-anticipated COVID-19 relief supplemental budget. The Senate’s COVID-19 working group, which I am continuing to chair throughout August and the fall, worked very closely with Senate Ways and Means and the Senate President’s team to ensure that the supplemental budget contained funding for critical COVID-related needs.

Ultimately, the supplemental budget made investments like: $20 million for RAFT affordable housing, $8 million for individual and family shelters, $9 million for emergency food assistance, $10 million in small business assistance, $10 million to be granted through community foundations to immigrants cut off from federal assistance, and more badly needed funding infused into the Commonwealth for a total of $1.1 billion in state investment.

I worked to bring back an additional $250,000 to the district and am partnering with local chambers of commerce to ensure it has the broadest possible impact, more here

This same budget also included a provision to make Juneteenth a state holiday, and you can read more about how Amherst’s Dr. Amilcar Shabazz propelled this forward, here. Since the Governor signed the supplemental budget into law on July 24, the money is flowing and Juneteenth is a formal Massachusetts holiday.

Transportation infrastructure bond bill

The Senate tackled transportation infrastructure in mid-July, authorizing over $18 billion in borrowing to fund things like railroad improvements, grants for small bridges and safe street improvements, and road repairs. Regional colleagues and I focused on boosting investment in western Mass rail projects like the Valley Flyer, Route 2 Rail, East-West Rail, and more. You can read more here. A conference committee has now been appointed to negotiate the House and Senate versions of this bill, before sending a final bill to the Governor.

Mosquito control

The same day the Senate tackled transportation infrastructure, we sent a bill to the Governor to reform the way the Commonwealth does mosquito control. I must say, I did not expect this to be one of the things I would take on during my first term. So when the Governor filed legislation to address mosquito control, it came to the Public Health Committee and we were flooded with calls from constituents, conservationists, organic farmers, and concerned citizens. We dug in mightily on what we called “the bug bill.” The Governor’s original language essentially said that the state could spray whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted, wherever it wanted, if the Governor’s administration determined it was necessary. We said, no. That does not make public health sense. And so we dug in. As we spoke with advocates and current and former state officials, we came to understand that the Commonwealth’s system for pest management had not been updated in more than 50 years. This bill isn’t perfect, but it does establish a Mosquito Control for the Twenty-First Century Task Force, which should lead to a permanently reformed system grounded in environmental and public health principles. I have high hopes. More about the result, here. 

Police reform

Since late May, the Senate Advisory Group on Racial Justice, of which I am a member, met almost every day, sometimes twice a day, eventually putting forward a police-reform bill titled the Reform, Shift + Build Act. This omnibus legislation was the subject of intense debate. Here’s a brief summary of the bill’s provisions. Here is a summary of my team’s major contribution: a shift to non-police response for mental health and substance abuse issues. A conference committee has now been appointed to negotiate the House and Senate versions of this bill. The two chambers took slightly different approaches, but the bills are still similar to each other and I am hopeful this conference committee will produce legislation that goes to the Governor’s desk.

Resolve to establish a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the Commonwealth

For the first time since this legislation was filed in the House nearly 40 years ago, A Resolve to Establish a Special Commission Relative to the Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth, came for a vote before the full Senate and passed UNANIMOUSLY. You can listen to my remarks on the legislation during the Senate’s debate here.

As we mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth, we have a responsibility to tell the truth about the ravages of colonization, which continue to take their toll today. 

Under this bill, the Commonwealth will launch a commission to examine the Massachusetts flag and seal. The commission will recommend a new official state symbol and motto that reflect the mutual respect and connection we strive for between all people who share the Commonwealth today.

Decades ago, when I was an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Western Massachusetts office, I worked with the Nipponzan Myohoji Peace Pagoda of Leverett on a state-wide walk inspired by then Mashpee Wampanoag Chief Slow Turtle in support of this legislation. It was the Amherst students from the Fort River School who first stood in solidarity with Slow Turtle and then Representative Byron Rushing, the bill’s first sponsor, to raise their voices. The walk ended on the steps of the State House — one of countless such walks and actions and campaigns over many years in support of changing this symbol.

Twenty-one of the 24 cities and towns in our Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district have voted to endorse this legislation. As we debated, decades of western Massachusetts voices echoed through the Senate chamber and my email inbox was flooded with messages — rejoicing at this “monumental vote” and the profound new understanding and healing this legislation and our vote represents.

Expanding higher education opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities

This is a beautiful bill that I was proud to hear and strongly support this session as Vice Chair of Higher Education.

It removes barriers to and increases access for students with disabilities, ensuring that they are not left out of the promise of public higher education.

It applies to credit bearing and non-credit bearing courses as well as career training opportunities and waives the requirements of a standardized college entrance aptitude test, a high school diploma or its equivalent, and a passing score on the statewide assessment tests utilized as a basis for competency determinations.

On the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is particularly moving to me to have been able to advocate for and vote for this bill.

Economic development, jobs, and recovery omnibus legislation

To kick off the final week of July, the Senate debated and voted on S.2842, An Act to encourage new development and usher in a recovering economy, otherwise known as (The ENDURE Act), an economic development, jobs and recovery bond bill that passed the Senate unanimously last night after more than ten hours of debate. 

Massachusetts remains one of the states hit hardest by COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis. Before COVID-19, we had a 3% unemployment rate. Now it’s 17.4% with more than 1 million Commonwealth residents currently receiving some sort of unemployment support.

The Senate bill seeks to do three main things: Improve the financial health of our business sector to ensure that there’s liquidity to rebound from this crisis, help affected workers, and bolster job training with an eye toward equity gaps and the workforce needed to fill 21st century jobs.

This bond bill, which is essentially an authorization to borrow, also carried a number of policy wins.

When it came to borrowing to help district needs, I was able to secure an authorization for $500,000 for Greenfield Community College’s planning and development of a health care training facility (building on Rep. Paul Mark’s $500,000 authorization in the House bill for a $1 million pot of potential funding) and $1 million for the University of Amherst’s Water and Energy Technology (WET) Center. The WET Center is an award-winning, innovative hub for water research — and the only such center on the east coast north of Georgia tackling PFAS contamination and COVID-19-related detection through water. 

The Senate also adopted a policy amendment I filed to create a healthy soil program in the Commonwealth. (See below for an explanation.) 

I also supported more than 30 other policy amendments to strengthen an already strong bill including an amendment that embodied the provisions of the Work and Family Mobility Act. You can listen to my remarks on the Work and Family Mobility Act here.

While not all of these policy amendments were adopted during the Senate’s debate, the final Senate version of the ENDURE Act does include provisions to create a robust commission to look at the ‘Future of Work’ and examine ways to ensure sustainable jobs, fair benefits and workplace safety standards for all workers in all industries.

It also gives greater protections to student loan borrowers in disputes with companies servicing their loans. It requires servicers to apply for licenses from the state, which the Commissioner of Banks could revoke if the servicer is engaged in abusive practices such as overcharging students or steering them into costlier repayment plans to make higher profits. Student loan servicers that break state licensing requirements or take advantage of students could be fined and forced to repay student borrowers under the bill.

Additionally, the ENDURE Act:

  • Addresses the critical need for housing by enabling municipalities through a simple majority to address building opportunities through zoning reform;
  • Authorizes an additional 2800 megawatts of offshore wind development;
  • Extends the state and local permits held by a real estate developer unable to proceed with the project due to COVID-19 disruptions for one year;
  • Allows farmer brewers and farmer distillers to sell, and provide samples of, their alcoholic beverages at agricultural events and farmers markets;
  • Extends protections for cranberry growers under c.61A out to 2023;
  • Mandates equitable opportunities in state contracts by expanding an affirmative marketing program that elevates hiring firms owned by women and people of color;
  • Reduces onerous and unnecessary regulations for hair braiders;
  • Excludes forgiven PPP loans from Massachusetts taxable income for the purposes of personal income taxes; and
  • Enables Mass Development to better deploy its resources and tools under the TDI program.

This bill is now in a House/Senate conference committee.

Healthy soils and agricultural innovation

As I noted, above, I took this opportunity to file one of my top priority bills, the Healthy Soils bill, as an amendment to the economic bond bill and it was adopted into the final legislation!

I filed the Healthy Soils bill 16 days into my term and since then, have been steadily pushing it forward. The bill creates a Massachusetts healthy soils program that will provide strong support to farmers who want to utilize healthy soils farming practices like low-till farming, crop rotation, cover cropping and other efforts to keep soil healthy and nutrient-rich. Science has shown that healthier soils:

  1. Yield more crops and,
  2. Actively sequester CO2 out of our atmosphere

This issue was a priority of the Food Systems Caucus and has the support of dozens of farming and environmental groups including the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, Mass Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Educational Center in Orange, Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, and many other farmers in our region who have pioneered these practices and welcome state support.

The next step will be getting the healthy soils provision of the economic development bill included in the final law, and then getting the program funded. This session, I have consistently pushed the state to focus on carbon sequestration – through amendments to climate legislation, through forest preservation efforts, and by putting our beautiful natural lands to work! This legislation will focus the state on using soil to sequester carbon dioxide, an important tool, as well as a tool that we’re not currently using, in the fight against climate change.

Through programs that provide grant funding and technical assistance to farmers to farm their land in a way that maximizes the health of the soil, the state will help farmers and fight food insecurity and climate change at the same time. It’s a triple win.

Step therapy and patient safety

This bill ensures that MassHealth patients can access clinically effective drugs. It limits the cases where MassHealth can use “step therapy” (sometimes called “fail first”) to require that patients try the least expensive drug first. It requires MassHealth to consider atypical patients, grant timely exceptions, and allow appeals.

Genocide education

This bill establishes a Genocide Education Trust Fund to educate middle and high school students on the history of genocide. The Fund will accept both public and private money for developing curricular materials, professional development training, and a competitive grant program.

Midwife registration and out-of-hospital birth access

My team and I are proud to have worked on this maternal health justice bill in the Public Health Committee where it was heard and advanced favorably. You can listen to my remarks, here.

The maternal mortality rate in the United State is the worst in the developed world. We are the only such country whose rate is on the rise, with a staggering 26% increase in the U.S. maternal mortality rate between 2011 and 2014 alone. Currently, approximately 700 women die annually in the United States from pregnancy-related complications, and a significant number of these deaths – roughly sixty percent – are preventable.

And it’s not equally bad for all mothers. In the U.S., Black mothers are 4 times more likely to die from childbirth than their white counterparts. Racial disparities in maternal mortality are inextricably tied to racism – be it historical and structural racism in the health care system, or implicit bias, or other forms.

In Massachusetts, we think of ourselves as home to the best medical care in the world, but the Commonwealth is the 17th worst state in the nation when it comes to maternal harm. We can do better than this and we must do better than this. Nothing will change unless we as a legislature take action. 

This bill takes an important step towards addressing this shocking disparity in birth outcomes and reducing preventable deaths by establishing a process for midwives to become registered and licensed with the Department of Public Health.  

Improving access to treatment for individuals with perinatal substance use disorder

This bill creates a special commission, which will have one year to make recommendations on removing barriers to substance use treatment before and after giving birth. The commission will include health experts from the Administration, advocates, a patient, and legislators.

Reducing racial disparities in maternal health

This bill establishes a special legislative commission, which will have one year to investigate and recommend legislation to reduce or eliminate racial inequities in maternal mortality and morbidity. The commission will be made up of racially and geographically diverse legislators, physicians, midwives, doulas, advocacy organizations, and people who have been affected by maternal morbidity and mortality. You can listen to my remarks, here.

Outlawing female genital mutilation

This bill bans female genital mutilation (FGM) in Massachusetts, imposes criminal penalties, and allows victims to bring civil suits. It also establishes programs to educate the public about the harms of FGM, train providers to recognize FGM risk, and assist victims.

Strengthening accountability for children and families

One thing that COVID-19 has shown us is the importance of having good data on vulnerable populations.

As COVID-19 swept through nursing homes, shelters, towns and counties, we realized just how important it was to have timely and accurate data – in order for state government to do its job to serve the most at risk among us.

With this bill, the legislature will begin to have access to the data that we need in order to protect one of the most at risk populations in the entire Commonwealth: children in DCF care.

Since the declaration of the state of emergency on March 10, reports made of child abuse and neglect have alarmingly decreased 51%.

Let us not for one second pretend that child abuse and neglect has somehow become less of an issue during the COVID-19 crisis, as stressors increase. What has changed, however, is that children are no longer coming into contact with mandated reporters during this quarantine period. So what is the solution?

This legislation says that we should not have to guess when it comes to finding a solution. Under this bill, the legislature would have access to a data dashboard, updated every month, on changes in child abuse and neglect cases for the duration of the COVID crisis.

What’s more, foster, pre-adoptive, and kinship caregivers play a critical role supporting the more than 6,000 children currently in the care of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The responsibilities of foster parents are made clear through training and Department of Children & Families’ policies and regulations. However, it is equally important for foster parents to have a clear understanding of their rights

My wife Ann Hennessey and I became parents to two incredible children through the Commonwealth’s foster care system, so my work with this system is personal. We had the benefit of a rock star DCF social worker for most of our years with the department, but others do not fare as well.

Today, the rights of foster parents are dispersed among a set of laws, regulations, DCF policies and procedures, and undocumented historic practices. The result is a maze of rules, which are often inconsistently applied, and which sometimes leave foster parents feeling confused, untethered, and unfairly treated.

These concerns led me to join my House colleague, Representative Farley-Bouvier from Pittsfield, to introduce An Act establishing a Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights. Spurred on by the tremendous advocacy from the non-profit Friends of Children in my district, the Foster Parents Bill of Rights sets out a comprehensive set of rights that establish a clear understanding between foster parents and DCF. 

The legislation before us today incorporates many of these provisions, codifying upwards of 20 rights for the benefit of the state, foster parents, and, most importantly, the children who are our top priority. 

These include: 

  • The right to receive information that is necessary for caring for and protecting a foster child
  • The right to receive appropriate training, services, and supports to care for a child, including access to a 24-hour emergency hotline to assist with any urgent needs

During COVID-19, the complexities of being a foster parent have only increased as DCF resumes visits with biological families — as it should, as it must. 

This bill creates a framework so that foster parents will be treated with respect and will be provided with resources and information needed to provide loving care, to help sustain relationships with biological parents — which is so crucial, especially during these turbulent and uncertain times. 

All in all, this comprehensive bill ensures the state does better business with the children in its care. Better business with the people entrusted to watch over those children.

In closing, I want to say a brief word about the rights of the biological parents and families of children in DCF care. This Legislature must ensure their rights as well. Must ensure that they have the support they need and deserve to care for their children.

For now, there are simply not enough foster parents in Massachusetts. Recruitment, training, and retention of foster parents must be a priority. Codifying rights, along with responsibilities, is an important step forward.

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