One year ago today, I was given the privilege of representing the interests of the 7th Plymouth District at the State House when I was inaugurated on January 5th, 2011, as part of the 187th General Court. I am proud to report that, though the combined efforts of elected officials and the resilience of the hard working families and businesses of the Commonwealth, we have been able to significantly lower unemployment, increase our bond rating and rainy day fund, plus enact policies to enhance the safety of our fellow citizens.
The first half of the 2011-2012 session has already demonstrated the positive effects of the 25% changeover in the legislature. Instead of new taxes, fees and business-as-usual politics, fiscal reform and relief for Massachusetts cities and towns, plus new business opportunities, have taken precedence on Beacon Hill.
The following is a list and description of successful legislation and budget initiatives from the House, some missed opportunities, and a look forward to see what priorities are in store for 2012 and beyond.
LEGISLATION AND THE FY12 BUDGET
Reversions to Local Aid: Because of the struggling economy, many areas of state funding were cut in order to balance the budget, including government aid to cities and towns. In fact, my #1 campaign promise was to restore local aid funding. As a result, the Republican caucus proposed a creative solution aimed at maintaining funding for local aid at its current level. Under the proposal, which was unanimously adopted by the Legislature, half of all unspent appropriations in the FY11 budget that would otherwise “revert” to the General Fund will be given to cities and towns. On October 31st, the Department of Revenue certified that amount of money available from this amendment was $65M, level funding local aid for FY12 and restoring the cuts made in the Governor’s original budget. The town of Abington received $120,305, East Bridgewater got $91,541 and Whitman was given $148,090.
Veterans’ “Welcome Home” Bonus Funding Increase: The House was able to secure increased funding for the “Welcome Home” Bonus account by $700K within the FY12 Supplemental Budget. Given the President’s recent announcement to draw down the number of troops in Iraq, it made sense to secure a portion of the $395 million in anticipated surplus revenue to ensure the Commonwealth’s 11,000 deployed service members would receive up to $1,000 when they return from active deployment. [Adopted unanimously on a voice vote, signed by the Governor on 11/11/11]
EBT Commission: The Legislature adopted within the FY11 Supplemental Budget (H.3737) an amendment establishing a commission to study the use of electronic benefit transfer cards and the cost of requiring the Department of Transitional Assistance to include on the cards a photograph of the cardholder. This commission will hopefully provide the Commonwealth with further insight into how we can best prevent inappropriate use of electronic benefit transfer cards. [Adopted unanimously on a voice vote, signed by the Governor on 12/21/11
Chapter 90 Transportation Funding: Each year the state provides cities and towns with a reimbursement for eligible road projects. This funding is capped and distributed proportionally to each municipality based on a number of factors, including the size of the municipality and the number of road miles. Traditionally, the total amount of Chapter 90 funding available to all cities and towns was roughly $155M. This year, however, economic conditions spurred the Legislature to provide $200M in Chapter 90 reimbursement monies in order to spur job growth from these transportation projects. [RC #31 (148Y to 0N), signed by Governor on 04/11/11]
Municipal Health Insurance: Probably the most important reform passed by the Legislature this session, this well publicized budget amendment was enacted to provide the most relief for Massachusetts cities and towns – estimated at close to $100M by the Mass. Municipal Association. In order to curb year-over-year increases in municipal employee health insurance, lawmakers crafted a proposal to bring municipal health insurance plans in line with those offered to state employees. After negotiations between the Governor and the Legislature, the final plan calls for a 30-day timeframe for a governmental unit and labor to negotiate a plan that either transfers employees into the GIC or to implements plan design changes aligning municipal plans with the plans provided by the GIC. Also adopted was Labor’s requirement to have 25% of the savings, realized by making plan design changes or moving to the GIC, be returned through employees through health care savings accounts or some other out-of-pocket expense relief. Finally, the plan requires all eligible retirees to enroll in a Medicare health plan. [Governor’s amendment adopted on RC #87 (150Y to 2N), signed by Governor on 07/12/11]
Court Reform: Following reports of patronage hires, the Legislature took the first step in addressing the issue by reforming the administration of the courts. The legislation places the financial and administrative responsibilities with a professional court administrator rather than the Chief Justice of Administration and Management. Perhaps most important, the bill reforms the courts hiring process, allowing legislator recommendations to be considered only in the final stage of the hiring process and making all written recommendations public record. [RC #77 (152Y-0N), signed by Governor on 08/04/11]
Alimony Reform: The Commonwealth’s alimony system has been viewed as deeply flawed and one of the most generous to the recipient of alimony payments in the country. Lifetime alimony payments were permissible, with little consideration of the recipient’s income or assets. This reform creates different types of alimony categories with clear durational limits, thus providing judges with clear guidelines for alimony judgments. [RC #91 (151Y-0N), signed by Governor on 9/26/2011]
House and Senate Redistricting: Following the completion of the decennial census, the representative and senatorial districts of the General Court are required to be redrawn to account for the change in population over the last decade. The Redistricting Committee worked closely with individual members, in an inclusive, bipartisan effort to create a map reflective of the Committee on Redistricting’s ideals and the wishes of the constituents of the Commonwealth. The revised House map includes 20 majority minority seats, and an increase of 10 seats over the 2000 Census. Individual legislators had the opportunity to meet with Chairman Moran, who led the House redistricting efforts, multiple times over the course of the year-long effort; and the process was as open and transparent as possible. [Adopted on RC #128 (151Y-3N), signed by Governor on 11/03/11]
Pension Reform: This legislation makes many changes to the current pensions system and will potentially save the Commonwealth $6.4B over the next 30 years. Highlights of the bill include: increasing the retirement age from 55 to 60; increasing the COLA base from $12K to $13K; increasing the average of highest 3 years to highest 5 years for pension calculation; and mandating members who serve in more than 1 group to pro-rate benefits based upon the total years of service that member rendered in each group (all for employees hired after 4/2/12, with the exception of the COLA increase). [RC #147 (152Y-0N), signed by Governor on 11/18/2011]
Human Trafficking: At the time the legislation was filed, Massachusetts was one of only four states in the nation that had failed to address the growing issue of human trafficking. This legislation makes human trafficking a criminal offense and gives prosecutors new tools to target prostitution and forced labor networks. [RC #145 (153Y-1N), signed by Governor on 11/21/2011]
“Evergreen” Clause: Current law specifies that a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) shall not exceed a term of three years. However, certain CBAs include an “evergreen” clause, which allowed the terms of the CBA to remain in “full force and effect” beyond the maximum three year term, until a new CBA was negotiated. On October 22, 2010, the SJC ruled that, since the law specifies that the terms of CBAs shall not exceed three years, “evergreen” clauses are unenforceable because, in essence, that would extend the term of the contract beyond the statutorily allowable maximum. In its decision, the SJC noted that an “evergreen” clause can serve a purpose, but until the Legislature takes action to change the law, the Court must rule based on the Legislature’s original intent – which was to limit the terms to three years. Thus, this bill allows CBAs to include, in their 3 year agreement, a provision that allows the terms of the agreement to remain in effect beyond the 3 years, until a new contract is negotiated. As written, the inclusion of an “evergreen” clause is permitted prospectively. The bill also allows for retroactive enforcement of an “evergreen” clause if it was included in your already-executed CBA and that CBA matter was not involved in a pending or adjudicated case between October 22, 2010 (the date of the SJC ruling) and November 1, 2011. [RC #181 (151Y-2N), signed by Governor on 11/22/11]
Expanded Gaming: Another well-covered bill that made headlines during its passage, this legislation, which was unsuccessful in the last session, allows for expanded gaming in the Commonwealth. A new 5 member Commission, called the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), is established to enforce the laws governing gaming licenses and to establish any necessary rules or regulations. The MGC makes the final determination for licensure. They may issue up to three Category 1 (casino gaming) licenses and one Category 2 (slot parlor) license. These casino licenses are awarded by region, but the slot parlor license is not site specific. All licenses are awarded by the MGC on the basis of the suitability of the licensure application. Estimates for annual tax revenue fall somewhere around $300M and it is believed that a total of around 15,000 jobs will be created once all three casinos and the slot parlor are up and running. [RC #144 (121Y-33N), signed by Governor on 11/22/11]
Habitual Offenders: Following the murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire and passage of a crime bill by the Senate, the House finally took action on a version of the Habitual Offenders Bill. The bill, based on Melissa’s Bill, which has been filed and advanced for many years by Representative Brad Hill and Melissa’s father, Les Gosule, targets the worst criminal offenders in the Commonwealth. This bill would ensure that an offender convicted of certain violent offenses who has been convicted twice previously of one or more the violent offenses, will be considered a habitual offender and be punished by imprisonment for the maximum term provided by law for the third offense. The bill includes amendments to require that parole for life sentences only be granted by a two-thirds vote of the parole board, and that the AG, DA, Chief of Police, and victim be notified in writing of parole hearings for an offender convicted of a violent crime who has served more than 5 years. The House and Senate have begun to meet in conference with hopes of coming to an agreement and taking final action on compromise language in 2012. [RC #180 (142Y-12N), in Conference Committee]
The 2011-2012 legislation was not without its disappointments. Efforts aimed at implementing further reforms, providing municipalities with better fiscal forecasting, and reducing taxes were not supported by everyone in the House. Here are some initiatives that failed to pass.
Secure Communities: After several months of “studying” whether the state would join the Secure Communities Program required by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be implemented by all states by 2013, the Governor’s Administration chose to hold Massachusetts out of the program. This program leverages existing information sharing capabilities between the DHS and the Department of Justice to identify aliens who are arrested for a crime and booked into local law enforcement custody using fingerprint technology. [Rejected on RC #73 (73Y-84N) during House Budget Debate]
Local Aid Resolution: In order for many cities and towns to properly manage and set their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, local leaders are forced to almost guess the amount of state aid that they expect to receive. Under this proposal, the Legislature would have been required to adopt a local aid resolution by March 15th of each year, setting the minimum amount of local aid from the state in a timely manner. [Amendment rejected on RC #16 (32Y-123N) during Joint Rules Debate]
Income Tax Roll Back: In 2000, voters approved a ballot initiative to reduce the income tax from 5.95% to 5%; but the Legislature overrode the will of the voters and froze the rollback at 5.3%. This amendment would have reduced the income tax to 5% by decreasing the rate 0.1% each year for three years. [Rejected on RC #39 (34Y-121N) during House Budget Debate]
Sales Tax Roll Back: Despite warnings from economic and business leaders to avoid regressive tax increases during a sluggish economy, Massachusetts Democratic Legislators raised the state sales tax by 20% in 2009. After initially suggesting the tax increase would generate $900M in new revenue, decreased consumer spending during the recession resulted in much less tax revenue ($580M). During debate on a sales tax holiday, Republican Leadership sought to debate the merits of reducing the state sales tax over the next two fiscal years; however, Majority Leadership used procedural tactics to prevent a debate on the issue. [Ruled beyond the scope. Vote was on supporting the ruling of the Chair – RC #94 (118Y- 35N) during Sales Tax Holiday Debate]
With a busy first half of the 2011-2012 legislative session, the second half looks to be equally active. The following issues are anticipated to be debated by the House at some point prior to session adjournment:
Jobs Package: After holding 8 Jobs Tour Events around the Commonwealth over the last several months, the Republican Caucus is poised to release a Jobs Package in January in response to the feedback provided to the members by local business owners. The legislative package will address a number of key issues discussed at each event, including: the state’s complex regulatory system; burdensome tax policy; and the generally poor business climate. The legislation will also seek to elevate and reintroduce a number of policies that have been promoted by small business owners for years, including reforms to: the independent contractor law; unemployment insurance; health care mandates; and several anti-business tax laws.
Health Care & Payment Reform: Despite having 98% coverage, Massachusetts still has some of the most expensive premiums in the country. Action is necessary to reform how we pay for care and to lower costs for Massachusetts businesses, consumers, and municipalities. In January, members of the Legislature will offer a promising alternative to what is currently in place, including several initiatives that address critical issues in health care and payment reform. Some of these key issues include: disclosure and transparency; patient education and consumer protection; workforce development; medical malpractice; governance; electronic medical records; and payment reform.
Education Collaboratives: In the summer of 2011, the Inspector General and State Auditor released reports chronicling vast mismanagement and fiscal abuse at several of the state’s 30 Education Collaboratives. An Education Committee redraft of two bills incorporate aspects into a comprehensive piece of legislation that: improves financial transparency and accountability; increases state oversight; creates new regulations for collaborative employees, board members, and related non-profit/for-profit organizations; and creates a commission to study the future role of collaboratives, including whether they should continue providing adult services.
Main Street Fairness: In August of this year, the Revenue Committee reported out House bill 3673, An Act to promote sales tax fairness for Main Street retailers, favorably to the Joint Committee on Rules. If passed, the bill will make Massachusetts the 25th state signed onto the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSTUA), which was first initiated in 2000. The bill would provide Massachusetts with the option of joining the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board and having three voting delegates (appointed by the House Speaker, Senate President, and DOR). Twelve months after passage, the bill would require Massachusetts to adhere to uniform product definitions and to adopt uniform requirements for filing sales tax returns. Most notably, however, the agreement ties Massachusetts to a yet-to-be passed Congressional bill called the Main Street Fairness Act, which would enable states to collect sales taxes from Internet retailers, like Amazon.com, who do not have a physical presence in the state. Additional revenue estimates resulting from these changes range from $100M – $330M per year.
Tax Expenditure Commission Report: The Tax Expenditure Commission, created in the FY12 Budget, will complete its report April 30, 2012. At a total of $24.2B, the FY12 Tax Expenditure Budget (TEB) is made up of $5.7B in personal income tax exemptions, $1.3B in corporate excise tax exemptions, and $17.2B in sales tax exemptions. On the other hand, the state is projected to collect $21B in total tax revenue to be put toward the $30.5B budget in FY12. The Commission is charged with formulating recommendations for an overhaul of the TEB, and intends to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of each expenditure with an eye toward broadening the overall base and lowering tax rates.
Green Communities Act Reforms: Following from the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy’s Green Communities Act (GCA) Oversight hearing, the Legislature may act to mitigate the costly impacts of the GCA on the Commonwealth’s ratepayers. Most notably, the Committee is expected to address the need for competitive procurement, increased transparency, added clarity in defining cost effective renewables, and the prohibition of sweetheart deals for utilities and renewable developers. Many of these reforms are included in a bill filed by the House GOP caucus. (H. 3767, An act relative to competitively solicited and cost effective long-term renewable energy contracts, in Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy)
High Cost for Electricity and Storm Response: In addition to GCA reforms, the Legislature is expected to address the inadequate response to both Hurricane Irene and the late October snowstorm by the state’s public utilities, as well as other contributing factors to the high cost of electricity in the Commonwealth. This could include different means of increasing competition in transmission and distribution.
Wind Energy Siting Reform: During the previous Legislative Session, the Governor’s Administration pushed for the passage of H. 4955, An Act relative to comprehensive siting reform for land based wind projects, to streamline the siting process for land-based wind turbines and to facilitate the Administration’s goal of 2,000MW by 2020. During 2011, the two hearings held by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy highlighted significant public opposition to the refiled bill (S. 1666), raising concerns regarding the detrimental health effects of inappropriately sited industrial wind turbines in Falmouth. Consequently, the Senate President, previously a key advocate, has renounced support and, as a result, the passage of this bill is no longer certain.
I hope this has been informative and, as always, I welcome your valuable feedback and ideas on how we can make sure that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts remains one of the leading states in our great nation. Please call or e-mail me to set time to talk and, in the meantime, Happy New Year!
Geoffrey G. Diehl | State Representative
7th Plymouth District: Abington | Whitman | East Bridgewater
“Your Voice on Beacon Hill”
State House – Room 167
Boston, MA 02133