- Paul Donato, State Representative, Medford/Malden
I have had the opportunity to serve as an elected official in good economic times as well as difficult economic times. I feel there is a greater challenge for me and my colleagues to work harder during these difficult times to pass legislation that will conserve funds and stimulate growth while preserving social programs needed to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Not an easy task! However, I am proud of what we were able to accomplish in the last legislative session and I would like to share with you the following highlights of that session. While there is always the prospect of doing more, overall, many needed areas were addressed and essential services maintained.
With an eye to offsetting the pain of the economic downturn, the House closed the session by passing two major pieces of legislation that create jobs and curb health care costs on patients and business, respectively.
The House placed creating and retaining jobs at the center of its agenda. It sent to the Governor a strong piece of legislation that implements strategically-focused economic development policies to make Massachusetts more competitive. The bill achieves that by improving the Commonwealth’s innovation economy, promoting economic prosperity through infrastructure investments and streamlined permitting, facilitating the expansion of new and existing businesses, and training our workforce for the future. The bill also places a unique focus on the “innovation economy” as one of the pillars of Massachusetts” economic future.
Few issues burden families and businesses as much as the high cost of health care. Accordingly, the House worked on historic health care cost containment legislation that addresses the unsustainable cost of health care while allowing the health care industry to continue to provide world-class quality care. The bill aims to empower patients and assist hospitals while streamlining health care in the Commonwealth through the use of electronic health records. Under this law, patients will be provided with more tools to make informed decisions as they pertain to care and cost and struggling hospitals will get assistance from a Distressed Hospital Fund.
Aware of the tough economic circumstance some families find themselves in, the House took action to protect homeowners who have fallen victim to predatory mortgages and unnecessary foreclosures. Under this legislation, lenders and banks will have to offer loan modifications to borrowers in certain circumstances so that foreclosure can be avoided.
Also at the end of session, the House approved a tough sentencing bill that cracks down on habitual offenders and establishes new requirements to improve the functions of the state parole board. After much deliberation, the House approved a bill that requires the habitual offender tag to be placed on anyone convicted of two crimes from a list of the most serious offenses, including murder, rape and kidnapping. It mandates that any habitual offender found guilty of a third offense from the list of most serious crimes would be ineligible for parole. The balanced bill also reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.
These major pieces of legislation follow the House’s work on a municipal health insurance reform plan that aimed to help communities save on healthcare costs, while also protecting care quality for retirees and municipal employees. Under this legislation, municipal workers pay no more in co-payments and deductibles than those paid by subscribers to the largest plan offered by the Group Insurance Commission (GIC), which provides health insurance to state workers and legislators. The municipal healthcare reform legislation was a large part of the year’s budget and just recently, Governor Patrick announced on the one-year anniversary of this legislation that over 127 communities in the Commonwealth have combined to save an estimated $175 million in health insurance premiums, nearly double the predicted savings at the time of House approval.
Another major success of the House over these past two years has been the final passage of landmark expanded gaming legislation. The long-awaited expanding gambling bill that was passed by the House and Senate and later signed by Governor Patrick will allow for three resort casinos in separate regions of the state and one competitively-bid slot facility. These gambling venues are projected to provide 15,000 jobs in the Commonwealth, fuel our growing economy and generate hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year for the state.
Back in January, the House refocused on cost savings, immediately picking up where it left off after the holidays with passage of unemployment insurance rate freeze legislation that would save the average employer $141 per employee. Efforts such as these ease the burden on small businesses during these tough fiscal times.
After approving legislation that improves the governance, financial accountability, and state and local oversight of regional education collaboratives, the House worked a number of other bills that allow landfills to be used for renewable energy, update the state’s current organ donation law, and provide easier access to forensic analysis in court cases to help avoid wrongful convictions.
During the budget process, the House renewed its commitment to the Commonwealth’s citizens and municipalities by crafting a budget for fiscal year ‘13 that focuses heavily on local aid and passing legislation that will improve the quality of life here in Massachusetts.
The House and Senate agreed upon a $32.5 billion spending plan that prioritizes funding for cities and towns and commitments to reform and job creation. The budget does not contain any new taxes and uses a combination of ongoing revenue initiatives, one-time resources and spending reductions to close a $1.4 billion budget gap, the smallest budget gap the state has had since FY08.
The budget increases funding for local aid by $288.9 million over FY12 projected spending, including $899 million for unrestricted local aid, increases Chapter 70 funding to $4.17 billion, ensuring that all school districts receive at least an additional $40 per pupil in aid, and increased Regional School Transportation funding to $45.52 million. Additionally, the budget fully funds the Special Education Circuit Breaker at $242 million for first time since FY08.
In addition, the budget calls for increased oversight of community colleges, continues to improve public higher education resources and connects those resources to workforce needs across the state, adds to the state’s community preservation trust fund, and increases funding for elder protective services, substance abuse services, independent living centers, and the department of veterans services. The budget also worked to reform the state’s EBT system in an attempt to weed out any fraudulent use of the state’s resources.
In a year where we’ve seen a lot of fiscal improvement with a steady decline in the unemployment rate and an increase in our state’s bond rating, Chairman Dempsey of the House Committee on Ways and Means announced that Massachusetts finished FY ’12 at $107 million above benchmark with a balance of $1.34 billion in the state’s stabilization fund.
The House finished of the year working on a number of other bills that aimed to improve the quality of life for servicemen and women, those in need of housing, and commuters. With passage of the VALOR Act, the House expands the services offered through the Massachusetts Military Family Relief Fund, assists military families in transitioning in and out of Massachusetts, and increases the efficiency of veterans’ service officers in our communities. The House later worked to add a level of job security for call and volunteer firefighters and, through passage of supportive housing legislation, the House created easier access to supportive housing for those who need it most.
Throughout the session, the House has remained committed to improving the state’s transportation system and supporting the MBTA. The House approved funding to improve transportation infrastructure in municipalities across the state through a Chapter 90 allocation and also passed legislation that closes the MBTA’s gap for the upcoming fiscal year and provides vital assistance to the regional transit authorities.
Other session accomplishments include:
- Passage of a groundbreaking court reorganization and probation reform legislation in accordance with Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland. Following the recommendation of the Monan Commission Report, the bill created an Office of Court Management and a Chief Justice of the Trial Court to divide the responsibilities currently held by the Chief Justice