Legislature Passes Bill to Provide Relief and Improve Access to Unemployment Benefits

(BOSTON)- Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a bill that will provide additional Unemployment Insurance (UI) relief to low-income families, non-profit institutions and employers. 

An Act Providing Additional Support to Those Affected by the Novel Coronavirus Through the Unemployment Insurance System builds on UI legislation already signed into law waiving the one-week waiting period to receive benefits. 

The components of the bill are as follows: 

Protection for Employers. Employers who participate in UI pay contributions based on their layoff experience. Like other forms of insurance, employers that are more likely to have workers use unemployment compensation are asked to pay more in the system. The system does not anticipate a situation where employers across a number of sectors have been forced to significantly reduce their workforces due to situations outside of their control. This bill prevents layoffs related to coronavirus from negatively impacting employer’s future UI contributions. 

Extending Unemployment Benefit Period. The number of weeks of unemployment compensation available in Massachusetts is tied to unemployment rates around the state. This trigger did not anticipate a situation, however, in which unemployment grows rapidly in a very short period of time. This bill ensures that the 30-week benefit period is triggered by a significant uptick in weekly unemployment claims. 

Lifting the Cap on Dependency Allotment. This bill eliminates the 50% cap for the dependency allotment providing additional benefits to low-income families. This increase will be in addition to the $600 per week benefit add-on provided for in the CARES Act for all workers eligible for state or federal benefits. This provision is effective for 18 months after the end of COVID-19 emergency and the end of enhanced federal benefits.

Currently, UI recipients are entitled to an additional $25 per week for each child in the family, capped at 50% of a recipient’s base allotment. The result is that workers with particularly low allotments, such as low wage workers, can easily be capped out of receiving these additional amounts. 

Non-Profit Contribution Grace Period. Presently, many non-profits self-insure for unemployment claims. This means that when layoffs in the sector occur, non-profits pay the cost of those benefits dollar for dollar at the next billing period. This bill provides a 120-day grace period for non-profits to make these contributions. This delay will allow the state to review additional changes that are warranted, to mitigate the impact on non-profits. The CARES Act provides 50% reimbursement for self-insured benefit payments during the COVID-19 crisis. 

The legislation now moves on to the governor for consideration.

House Passes Bond Bill to Strengthen State’s IT Infrastructure

BOSTON – The Massachusetts House of Representatives voted this week to pass legislation authorizing over $1.6 billion in spending for the improvement of information technology equipment and related projects in Massachusetts. Stronger IT infrastructure is critical for the state’s COVID-19 response.

The House voted for the IT financing package – which also contains key funding for food security -- using its remote voting procedures for the COVID-19 emergency.

The plan includes $650 million in IT needs, including $40 million in education grants to public schools to enhance remote learning environments and services. It also:

The capital plan also includes the following:

  • $30 million in municipal grants for proper safety equipment for first responders; 
  • $100 million for capital projects at Health and Human Services facilities to better handle providing amenities throughout the pandemic;
  • $41 million for food infrastructure and security for the most vulnerable populations;
  • $10 million for software/hardware upgrades at community health centers;
  • $5 million for SNAP Gap development.           
  • Grants to cities and towns for a number of needs, including expanded access to broadband, library construction, ADA compliance, and other generic capital needs our municipalities might have.

The bill will now go to the Senate.

House Passes Legislation to Ensure the Fiscal Health of the Commonwealth

BOSTON – During its historic first remote voting formal session today, State Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) along with her colleagues in the House of Representatives passed legislation to authorize necessary state borrowing during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The legislation, An Act to Facilitate the Delay of the Income Tax Filing Deadline, authorizes the State Treasurer to borrow in anticipation of tax receipts by the end of Fiscal Year 2020 and to repay those sums by June 30, 2021. This action is necessary due to the delay in tax revenue as a result of the extended deadlines of income tax filings and payments to July 15, 2020, which were extended because of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The session, which included remote voting, was the first held following the passage of Emergency Rules enabling Members to vote and debate safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill will now go to the Senate.

 

5/7/20 Update: The bill has now been passed by the Senate.

Massachusetts Legislature Passes Moratorium on Non-Essential Evictions and Foreclosures Amid COVID-19

BOSTON – On April 17, Representative Joan Meschino and her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and State Senate passed legislation to provide a critical safety net for renters, homeowners, and small businesses grappling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus public health emergency. 

The bill, H.4647, prohibits all non-essential evictions and foreclosures and provides mortgage borrowers with forbearance options and protects tenants from late fees as well as other protections.  

To address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its adverse impacts on renters, homeowners and small businesses, the bill includes the following components:

  • A moratorium on all stages of the eviction and foreclosure processes for 120 days from the enactment of the legislation or 45 days after the State of Emergency has been lifted, whichever period of time is shorter. 
  • Prohibits all non-essential evictions for residential properties and small businesses.
  • Prohibits residential landlords from terminating tenancy and sending a notice to quit.
  • Halts landlords from issuing late fees and reports to credit agencies for nonpayment of rent, provided that a tenant offers notice and documentation to the landlord within 30 days of the missed rent payment that the non-payment was related to a financial impact from COVID-19.
  • Allows for video or telephone conferencing during the State of Emergency for reverse mortgage loans in lieu of in-person counseling until the State of Emergency order  is lifted.
  • Evictions may proceed during the moratorium for actions that involve allegations of criminal activity or lease violations that are detrimental to public health or public safety. 
  • Requires mortgage lenders to grant a forbearance of up to 180-days on required mortgage payments if the homeowner submits a request demonstrating financial hardship as result of COVID-19.
  • Allows landlords to use a tenant’s last month rent for expenses like mortgages payments and property maintenance, while protecting tenant rights regarding rent paid in advance.

The bill, which is the latest action by the Legislature to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its effects on Massachusetts, has now been signed into law by the Governor.

House Unanimously Passes Legislation to Help Protect Persons with Developmental Disabilities from Harm

BOSTON – This week, Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) and her colleagues in the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to create a registry of care providers who have harmed a person or persons with an intellectual or developmental disability. The bill’s purpose is to prevent those providers from being hired for programs funded or operated by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

The legislation, An Act to Protect Persons with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities from Abuse, creates a registry of care providers against whom the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DCCP) has made a final decision regarding “substantiated findings” of acts resulting in serious physical or emotional injury of a person with an intellectual or developmental disability.

“I was proud to vote in support of this bill to promote the safety and wellbeing of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Representative Meschino. “This legislation was thoughtfully developed to combat abuse, and will help give families across the Commonwealth peace of mind.”

The bill requires employers to consult the registry prior to hiring or retaining any person as a care provider, and prevents employers from hiring or retaining any provider who appears on the registry.  The employers include those with DDS licenses for day services, those that have contracts with DDS, and those receiving funding from DDS. Under the bill, DCCP imposes monetary fines or other penalties on any employer that fails to comply.  

The legislation balances these critical protections of the vulnerable with care provider rights.  The legislation includes robust due process protections for care providers with opportunities to appeal administrative rulings to a court of law.

The legislation builds on ongoing increased support for those departments serving adults and children with intellectual or developmental disabilities. From 2012 to 2020, DPPC funding has increased by 93 percent.

The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.

Update: Massachusetts Legislature Enacts Historic Education Funding Bill

BOSTON – This week, Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) and her colleagues in both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature voted unanimously to enact The Student Opportunity Act. This legislation, providing an unprecedented $1.5 billion new investment in Massachusetts K-12 public education system, ensures public schools have the resources to provide high-quality education to students across the state, regardless of zip code or income level. Assuming inflation, over the seven-year implementation timeline the bill will provide an estimated $2.2 billion in support of public schools.

The Student Opportunity Act provides significant support to school districts that serve English learners and high concentrations of low-income students. At the same time, all school districts across the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the existing funding formula, along with increased state investments in vital education aid programs such as special education transportation, school construction and renovation, and the 21st Century Education Program. 

“The Student Opportunity Act will be a transformative investment in public education, in particular, for children living in poverty,” said Representative Meschino. “The legislation takes the first steps towards building equity in our K-12 education system and commits the Commonwealth’s support for all our school districts.”

The Student Opportunity Act fully implements the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) to support the “educational programs and services necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s educational goals” as stated in the Commission’s mission. The bill provides an estimated $1.4 billion in new Chapter 70 aid over and above inflation when fully implemented over the next seven years. The bill modernizes the K-12 education funding and policy landscape in four areas:

  • Estimates school districts’ employee and retiree health care costs using up to date health insurance trend data collected by the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC).
  • Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions to more accurately reflect district enrollment.
  • Increases funding for English learners (EL) and differentiates the financial support by grade level to reflect the greater resources required to educate our older EL students.
  • Addresses the needs of districts educating high concentrations of low-income students by:
    • Providing additional funding based on the share of low-income students in each district; districts educating the largest percentage of low-income students will receive an additional increment equal to 100 percent of the base foundation; and
    • Returning the definition of low-income to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, as opposed to the 133 percent level used in recent years.

In addition to implementing the FBRC’s recommended formula changes, The Student Opportunity Act provides an additional $100 million in state financial support in several categories to help public schools and communities deliver a high-quality education to every student.  These fiscal supports include:

  • Increased foundation rates for guidance and psychological services in recognition of the growing need for expanded social-emotional support and mental health services;
  • Commitment to fully funding charter school tuition reimbursement, which provides transitional aid to help districts when students leave to attend charter schools, within a three-year timetable;
  • Expand the special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation as well as instructional cost, to be implemented over the next four years; and
  • Raise the annual cap on Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) spending for construction and renovation by $200 million (from $600 million to $800 million), enabling more school building projects across the state to be accepted into the MSBA funding pipeline, which reimburses towns and cities for a portion of school building costs. 

In addition to new funding and other supports, The Student Opportunity Act establishes the 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide districts and schools access to flexible funding to pursue creative approaches to student learning and district improvement.

In order to track and reproduce successful school and district-level programs and policies, the legislation calls on school districts to develop and make publicly available plans for closing opportunity gaps. These plans will include specific goals and metrics to track success. The bill includes language, to ensure that plans consider input from school committees and other stakeholders. In addition, the Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education will collect and publish data on student preparedness in each district for post-graduate success in college and the workforce. 

Furthermore, The Student Opportunity Act establishes a Data Advisory Commission to help improve the use of data at the state, district, and school levels to inform strategies that strengthen teaching, learning and resource allocation. The legislation increases the scope of data collected and moves towards establishing targets for college and career success.

To support ongoing efforts to address education-funding challenges, the legislation also includes the following provisions:

  • Establishes a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the unique challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment and make recommendations for further updates to help impacted districts and communities;
  • Directs the Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to analyze the method of determining required local contributions in the Chapter 70 school funding formula for the purpose of improving equity, predictability and accuracy; and
  • Requires the Massachusetts School Building Authority to undertake a review of the current program, now in its fifteenth year, to ensure that capital reimbursements meet district needs.

The legislation requires the Foundation Budget Review Commission to convene at least every ten years to review the way foundation budgets are calculated and to ensure that the school funding formula continues to reflect the needs of school districts across the Commonwealth.

The legislation now goes to the governor for his signature.

Massachusetts Legislature Passes Distracted Driving Legislation

(BOSTON) – This week, Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) joined her colleagues in the Legislature to enact legislation to ban drivers from using hand-held electronic devices while operating a vehicle unless the device is in hands-free mode.

“This measure will increase roadway safety in Massachusetts,” said Representative Meschino. “Distracted driving endangers other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians; I am proud that the House took action on this issue.”

The bill defines “hands-free” as a device mode that engages in voice communication with and receiving audio without touching, holding or otherwise manually manipulating a mobile electronic device. Law enforcement officials will issue warnings to drivers for first offenses of the new law until March 31, 2020.  

Additionally, this legislation improves transparency in public safety by granting expanded access to traffic stop data.  It has been fifteen years since the last public report on traffic stop data; under this bill the state will be required to publish and analyze the data annually.  Expanding access to this information improves transparency and public safety outcomes.

The bill will also:

  • Allow drivers to use mapping or navigation devices if the device is affixed to the windshield, dashboard or central console or integrated into the vehicle and only involve a tap or a swipe;
  • Exempt use of electronic devices in the case of an emergency and for first responders if the device is used as part of their duties;
  • Penalize drivers with $100 fine for the first offence, $250 fine and a safety course for the second offence, and $500 fine and an insurance surcharge for third and subsequent offences;
  • Expand data collection of identifying characteristics including age, race and gender and location when police issue a uniform citation;
  • Hold law enforcement agencies accountable if data suggests a jurisdiction may be engaging in racial profiling, by requiring them to collect data on all traffic stops for a one-year period and provide implicit bias training;
  • Require the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) to publish data online annually;
  • Mandate EOPSS to contract with a research institution to conduct an annual analysis of the data collected;
  • Direct the EOPSS Secretary to hold three public hearings across the Commonwealth annually to present the findings of the annual report and analysis and field public testimony; and
  • Create a public awareness campaign informing and educating drivers on the dangers of using technological devices while driving.

The bill now goes to the Governor for his signature.

House Passes Historic Education Funding Bill

Massachusetts House Introduces Child Wellness initiative

(BOSTON) – Last week, Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) and her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass legislation supporting the health and wellness of children across the Commonwealth. This bill is one part of a multi-tiered initiative to address the specific needs of children and adolescents in an integrated fashion. 

An Act Relative to Children’s Health and Wellness is part of the comprehensive, session-long House Children’s Wellness Initiative, which aims to break down silos of service to better address the complex health and wellness needs specific to the Commonwealth’s 1.4 million children. The effort seeks to make access to healthcare easier for vulnerable populations, eliminate barriers to care and formulate data-driven recommendations to improve service delivery and system coordination. The initiative supports a holistic approach that provides services early and often – ensuring that children grow up to be healthier, happier and more productive adults. 

The first bill in this initiative creates a foundation for better access to services and more data to inform future policy.  The legislation seeks to address child wellness in the following eight areas:

  1. Requires the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to report on efforts to improve the foster care system in the Commonwealth, including steps it is taking to provide increased coverage in underserved regions, share relevant medical history with foster parents, and provide access to mental health supports and timely information on children in DCF custody who have died from abuse or neglect.  The report is due by October 15, 2019.
  2. Secures healthcare benefits for foster children until the age of 26, making it easier for this vulnerable population to access the MassHealth benefits they are entitled to, at minimal cost to the Commonwealth. It codifies the practice for Massachusetts in the event of change on the federal level to the Affordable Care Act. 
  3. Requires insurance companies to maintain accurate and accessible provider directories for health plans. The provision directs companies to make the directories available without requiring users to create a new online account or profile. The directory must be updated frequently to ensure the information is correct. Insurance companies must take steps to make the directories user-friendly for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency. Establishes a task force to develop recommendations to ensure the accurate electronic posting of directories headed by the Commissioner of Insurance. 
  4. Creates childhood behavioral health centers of excellence via a pilot program that designates three regional centers to act as clearinghouses to connect families, providers, and educators to services and training opportunities. Requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to report on progress and impact after one year of implementation.
  5. Requires the Heath Policy Commission to conduct analysis within the next year of children with medical complexity to analyze costs and population characteristics of this group in order to develop recommendations about how to serve this unique population.
  6. Establishes a task force to study pediatric behavioral health screening tools
  7. Creates a special commission to examine the pediatric workforce to address pediatric provider availability and adequacy. The Commission would recommend strategies for increasing the pipeline of pediatric providers and expanding access to practicing providers.  
  8. Charges a 17-member special commission to review the Department of Public Health’s School-Based Health Center Program for the purpose of strengthening, improving, and considering ways to replicate best practices across the state. 

The bill now goes to the Senate.

House Unanimously Passes $1.3 Billion for Community Climate Resiliency Projects

This week, Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) voted with her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pass legislation investing $1.3 billion to help cities and towns across Massachusetts to fund infrastructure projects aimed at fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The legislation establishes a $1 billion, 10-year grant program – known as GreenWorks – to fund clean energy, energy efficiency, and climate change resiliency measures that cut greenhouse gas emissions, fortify infrastructure and reduce municipal costs. The legislation also invests $325 million in other municipal green projects

“Ensuring that municipalities have access to funds for mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency is crucial as we combat climate change,” said Representative Meschino. “The investments GreenWorks makes in every town unlocks their potential to lead the way.”

Modeled after the state’s MassWorks program, GreenWorks funds projects that improve climate preparedness and resiliency, promote or produce clean energy or energy efficiency, build energy storage facilities, implement measures included in Massachusetts’ statewide climate adaptation strategy or otherwise help mitigate the impacts of climate change or reduce carbon emissions.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs will accept applications annually and administer the program, which is to be funded through the issuance of bonds.  In addition, the legislation makes targeted investments of $325 million in energy infrastructure, including:

  • $100 million for investments in municipal microgrid energy systems
  • $125 million for electric vehicles in municipal or regional transit authority fleets
  • $20 million for the hiring of sustainability coordinators to develop and manage municipal projects resulting for the GreenWorks program 
  • $50 million to establish the Green Resiliency Fund to offer low-interest loans for municipalities when pursuing GreenWorks projects
  • $30 million for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources’ MOR-EV electric vehicle rebate program 

The bill, which passed the House unanimously, will now go to the Senate.