House Tackled Many Issues During the Legislative Session

I joined my colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in reviewing recent session accomplishments as the Legislature breaks for elections. As of August 1, 2014, the House passed major legislation pertaining to economic development and reform, education, gun safety and domestic violence, substance abuse, and election laws.

“This session the House of Representatives once again distinguished itself as a national leader,” Speaker DeLeo said. “Whether through gun safety legislation, education initiatives or our election law reform, we’ve set a model for other communities to follow. When combined with our strategic investments and fiscal prudence, Massachusetts is steadfastly affirming itself as the top place in the nation to live, work and do business.”

This session the House of Representatives built on its longstanding practice of strong fiscal management, taking multiple steps to extend economic growth and enhance stability in Massachusetts. In addition to the FY15 budget, which makes a record investment in local aid and closes the existing budget gap, the House passed a second economic development bill. This legislation builds on the 2012 law by strengthening Massachusetts’ innovation industries and positioning the state as a global leader through a focus on emerging industries, workforce development and promoting targeted regional growth.

The bill lays the groundwork for widespread regional renewal through numerous initiatives including the creation of the Transformative Development Fund to support development in Gateway Cities. It targets sustainable job growth by addressing the Middle Skills Gap, connecting employers, students and prospective employees, and investing in MassCAN. MassCAN was founded by a coalition including Google, Microsoft, Mass Business Roundtable, Mass Tech Collaborative, Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and Mass Tech Leadership Council, to establish widespread, progressive computer science education in public schools. Upon implementation, Massachusetts will be the first state in the nation to offer a dollar-for-dollar match with private industry for computer science education.

The FY15 budget, a balanced spending plan which includes no new taxes, makes important investments in education and human services including substance abuse prevention and mental health care. In addition to increased Chapter 70 funds, the budget extends Massachusetts’ ongoing commitment to strengthening the continuum of its educational systems to foster equality and provide residents with a competitive edge. The budget allocates $15 million to expand access to early education and care, and prioritizes higher education through investments in state universities, community colleges and the University of Massachusetts system, including funding that enables UMass to freeze tuition and fees for the second year in a row. The Legislature also took steps to ensure school safety and student wellbeing by passing bills to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law and requiring the creation of a statewide framework for safe and supportive schools

Massachusetts, an established leader in public safety, advanced its national standing this session through gun safety and domestic violence legislation. For the first time local authorities, in conjunction with the court system, now have an avenue to deny a firearm identification (FID) card. The gun safety law authorizes licensed gun dealers to access criminal offender record information (CORI) and creates a framework for improving school safety. It also enhances record-keeping efforts and takes decisive steps to curtail gun trafficking. To address any loopholes created by secondary sales, the legislation requires the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services (DCJIS) to create an online portal for private sales. This will ensure that secondary sales are subject to proper monitoring and information sharing without placing an additional burden on gun owners.

The House of Representatives also led the way in passing a domestic violence bill which creates new criminal offenses and elevated penalties, boosts prevention efforts, seeks to empower victims and establishes new employment rights. The bill creates a specific felony charge of strangulation and suffocation, actions that statistically indicate an abuser is more likely to commit domestic violence related homicide in the future, and establishes a first offense domestic assault and battery charge. Current law includes penalties for subsequent offenses but fails to include a first offense, making the statute unenforceable.

Throughout the year the House renewed its dedication to the Commonwealth’s citizens and municipalities by providing for existing needs while preparing for the future through actions like increasing the minimum wage, improving unemployment insurance (UI) and reforming the welfare system. The Economic Independence Act enhances the efficacy of the state’s welfare system through new initiatives and reforms, including the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program. The legislation builds on the House’s unyielding commitment to safeguarding the integrity of the state’s welfare system by closing loopholes that incentivize individuals to remain on welfare and providing additional resources for the Department of Transitional Assistance.

To balance the needs of businesses and individuals, Massachusetts addressed minimum wage and UI in tandem. The law increases the minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2017, updates the UI rating table and institutes a multi-year rate freeze.

In addition to almost $18 million in the FY15 budget, the Legislature also passed a bill that provides a strong foundation for substance abuse treatment by increasing access to care and changing the way the state monitors and responds to unprecedented public health crises like the one currently being confronted. The bill increases access to treatment by requiring insurers to reimburse patients for addiction treatment from licensed counselors. It also removes prior-authorization requirements for outpatient substance abuse treatment and provides up to 14 days of inpatient coverage when medically appropriate.

Following the 2012 meningitis outbreak linked to contaminated drugs, the Massachusetts House became the first to pass comprehensive legislation relative to compounding pharmacies which was finalized this session. This legislation addresses a previous lack of consistent standards, at both a state and federal level, governing the operations of specialty pharmacies engaged in sterile and complex non-sterile compounding by improving oversight, licensing and quality standards.

This session the House took two actions to foster a more vigorous, inclusive and just elections process including a comprehensive election laws bill that authorizes early voting for biennial state elections starting in 2016, creates an online voter registration system and allows 16 and 17-year olds to preregister to vote in the Commonwealth. To combat dark money and heighten transparency, Massachusetts made dramatic changes to campaign finance regulations. To ensure the public has timely and relevant information before voting, the bill updates reporting timeframes and mandates that entities disclose expenditures in state, county and local elections within seven days (if made within ten days, but more than 24 hours before an election, the report must be filed within 24 hours). Additionally, television advertisements that are funded through independent expenditures  or electioneering communication, including PACs and Super PACs, must list the top five contributors on the commercial.

The House passed numerous measures aimed at improving environmental sustainability including legislation that came in response to federally-mandated flood insurance hikes. The law, which prohibits creditors from requiring individuals to purchase flood insurance that exceeds their outstanding mortgage balance, enacts various other provisions to protect homeowners and defend against potential economic consequences. The House also:

• Reformed management of the water and wastewater infrastructures of the Commonwealth. This legislation commits to improving existing municipal partnerships and incentivizes best management practices.

• Approved an environmental bond bill that funds essential protection and improvement projects.

• Passed legislation that enhances the state’s ability to anticipate, repair and guard against natural gas leaks to improve public safety.

Other session accomplishments include:

• Allocated funds for long-term improvements to information technology in the Commonwealth.

Robert DeLeo is the Speaker of the House and represents Winthrop and part of Revere.

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