As of November 27, 2013, the House passed major legislation pertaining to economic development, transportation, education, welfare, compounding pharmacies, and election laws.
Including two major finance bills - the FY14 budget and the transportation finance bill, both of which are designed to stimulate economic growth.
The FY14 budget, a $34 billion plan, allocates essential funds that advance the growth of the local economy and support the Commonwealth’s essential services and programs including:
- local aid
- housing and health and human services
The budget prioritizes education-related items, including increased Chapter 70 funds:
- With decisive action to bolster funding for the University of Massachusetts, state universities and community colleges, including a $478.9 million allocation for UMass that will prevent tuition and fee increases in the upcoming school year
- Reinforces our ongoing commitment to strengthen our education system as a means to create jobs and provide residents with a competitive edge
JOB PREPAREDNESS & TRAINING
Provided new funding and resources for various programs enacted through the 2012 economic development legislation including:
- the Manufacturing Futures Program
- the Mass Works Infrastructure Program, to foster job creation for employees of all skill levels across numerous industries
The transportation finance bill is designed to solve long-standing financial problems through continued reforms and a future, stable funding source without placing too great a burden on working families. The bill continues on the promise of the 2009 transportation reform law by enhancing efficiency and accountability, providing revenue to initiate economic growth and supporting necessary infrastructure projects.
PUBLIC SAFETY REGULATION
- Following the 2012 meningitis outbreak linked to contaminated drugs, Massachusetts became the first state to pass comprehensive legislation relative to compounding pharmacies.
- Unanimously voted on a bill that will help the Commonwealth better regulate the industry.
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 compounding by improving oversight, licensing and quality standards
WELFARE REFORMOn November 6, the House passed the Act to Foster Economic Independence, a $20 million bill containing in it $11 million to create the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program. This program provides numerous resources including job training, education and employment-matching programs to help welfare recipients achieve financial independence. The program requires applicants to search for employment before they receive cash assistance, replacing current regulations in which recipients have 60 days to find a job, but allows for temporary benefits while awaiting placement.
The $20 million bill also appropriates increased funds for the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), including $3 million to hire additional caseworkers, the Department of Early Education & Care, and the Department of Career Services. In addition to educational programs included in the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program, the legislation provides an additional $1 million for the High Demand Scholarship program and requires the DTA to create a financial literacy program regarding the use of benefit cards, bank accounts and savings for higher education.
Moreover, the legislation aids parents and families in numerous ways including:
- Allocates $5 million for childcare subsidies for low-income families;
- Makes individuals participating in the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program eligible for childcare vouchers;
- Strengthens assistance for pregnant teens.
To help welfare recipients maintain economic stability while working towards independence, the bill includes an asset development program that allows individuals to save up to $5,000 for housing and education. These funds would not be counted against the existing $2,500 asset limit.
An Act to Foster Economic Independence builds on the House’s ongoing commitment to preventing welfare fraud and closing loopholes that encourage individuals to remain on welfare through numerous provisions:
- Expands the scope of prohibited EBT transactions to include foreign transmittal agencies to prevent the use of EBT cards for international wire transfers;
- Requires the DTA to notify recipients who have not used benefits or have high balances, and subsequently requires the DTA to expunge or recoup funds;
- Codifies regulations mandating that SNAP benefits are for household use only as a means to prevent overseas food shipments;
- Requires the DTA to create a fraud detection program to analyze risk and refer cases to the Bureau of Program Integrity for investigation;
- Requires self-declarations to be signed under the penalties of perjury and prohibits self-declarations from being used as the only verification of eligibility;
- Allows state agencies to disclose tax forms for eligibility determination;
- Reduces the time period that results in a presumption of abandonment of Massachusetts residency.
These measures follow electronic benefit card reforms made in the FY13 budget and two subsequent supplementary budgets
HOUSING & HEATING
- In the midst of the federal government shutdown the October finance legislation allocated additional and immediate funds for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, an indication of Massachusetts’ government’s ongoing commitment to working together.
- Passed legislation and enacted numerous provisions to help residents secure safe and stable housing including a $1.4 housing bond bill which modernizes public housing and allows for home modification for elderly or disabled homeowners.
Passed two bills related to the military and veterans:
- the 2013 VALOR Act builds on existing legislation to provide increased property tax relief and enhance employment, educational and healthcare support services
- the House also passed a military bond bill which funds projects at military installations around the state.
OTHER SESSION ACCOMPLISHMENTS INCLUDE:
- Approval of election legislation that establishes early voting for presidential elections and provides resources to local officials and residents to make the voting process more efficient. This bill is expected to significantly decrease wait times on Election Day and allow greater access to voting;
- Increased the maximum penalty for corporate manslaughter from $1,000 to $250,000;
- Passed legislation to ensure that students with disabilities have Individualized Education Plans (IEP) that includes short-term objectives and benchmarks. The inclusion of short-term goals in a student’s IEP is important in order to measure the impact of special education instruction and services;
- Expanded efforts to require national background checks through fingerprinting of teachers, daycare providers, and persons living or working on facility premises. The new law, which stemmed from the Federal Bureau of Investigation recommendations, also requires address-based sex offender checks of early education and care facilities;
- Creation of another August sales tax holiday in an effort to boost sales for local businesses.
WHAT IS THE HOUSE CONSIDERING IN 2014?The House is now considering four more big policy items. The details of these are not yet drafted so I will leave the discussion at the level of just identifying that these are issues that are being considered right now.
- Raising the minimum wage (possibly indexing it to inflation, and possibly having several wage hikes over the next few years)
- Unemployment insurance reform
- Earned paid sick-time
- Gun legislation