Senate Closes Session With major policy initiatives, local priorties
Health Care, Energy, Jobs, Transportation Bond, Crime, Storm Response and
Foreclosure packages addressed
BOSTON – State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) announces action on a series of policy priorities by the Senate in the final days of the formal legislative session, including bills regarding health care cost containment, energy and electricity, economic development, transportation projects, storm response and foreclosures. Additionally, the Senator worked with House colleagues to secure passage of local bills important to the Towns of Lee, Lenox and Hinsdale. All bills are now before the Governor for his approval.
Local bills. Several local land transfer bills received final approval by both branches. Bills for the Towns of Lee and Lenox will change the purpose of certain town land in order to facilitate the establishment of a photovoltaic generation facility. Legislation impacting the Town of Hinsdale will make possible the reconstruction of a freight rail bridge and make 10 acres of land abandoned due to tax liens available for recreational and conservational use.
Health Care. The Legislature approved the third iteration of Massachusetts healthcare reform focusing on reigning in climbing healthcare costs through new, alternative payment methodologies. These new methods will shift the focuses way from the current fee-for-service system to one based on the quality of care the patients not the quantity of care received. Additionally, the legislation creates many consumer-minded approaches in informing the public of their options to make better health decisions, including consumer-friendly websites, improved communications and methods for members to change their health plans and a creation of quality measures for health plans. Senator Downing led the effort to improve the newly created Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund by opening the fund for workplace wellness programs. A portion of the funds will go to helping pay for the implementation of programs proven to help reduce costs to employers and improve the overall health of the workplace. The savings as a result of this healthcare package is estimated to save Massachusetts $200 billion over the next 15 years.
Energy. Senator Downing’s energy and electricity costs bill received final approval as well. This bill seeks to stem the rising cost of energy while encouraging further renewable energy development. The bill doubles the net metering cap, allowing more solar, wind and now anaerobic digestion systems to take advantage of the program; allowing more residences, businesses and municipalities to offset their electricity bills by generating energy. S.2395 further commits to these green goals by further supporting hydroelectric power and by creating an energy efficiency rebate pilot program for the five largest gas and electrical companies in each service territory. The bill also creates a new requirement for long term renewable energy contracts which will be jointly procured by the Commonwealth’s four utilities and must be competitively bid. Through joint procurement and competitive bidding, the bill seeks to reduce the ratepayer impact in the short-term while providing diversified, clean energy with long term rate stability in an uncertain electricity market.
The high cost of energy continues to be a top reason for slowed expansion of many business sectors in Massachusetts. While this bill increases the Commonwealth’s green energy efforts, it also addresses the cost containment of energy. S.2395 requires regular rate cases and directs the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to examine the reconciling factors that utilities ask for and receive.
Economic Development – The Senate finalized an economic development package that includes a host of grant programs and tax credits aimed at increasing the business-friendly environment in the Commonwealth, providing training for a 21st century workforce, and incenting entrepreneurs to site and grow their businesses in Massachusetts. The bill promotes investments in infrastructure and research and development, while employing the educational assets the state already has to improve workforce development for high-tech and middle skills careers.
The compromise bill includes several of Senator Downing’s personal legislative priorities. The small business start-up credit is a provision that the Senator filed as a standalone bill at the beginning of this legislative session. It authorizes a refundable tax credit for qualifying businesses equivalent to the minimum corporate excise in each of the company’s first three years. The bill also increases the annual cap on the historic rehabilitation tax credit from $50 million to $60 million – a main priority of the Gateway Cities Caucus that Downing co-chairs.
Transportation – The legislation gave final approval to a transportation bond bill authorizing major, long-term transportation projects to be funded through the sale of bonds and other long-term borrowing. Projects such as the repair and construction of roads, bridges and tunnels are funded through the capital budget – a long term borrowing plan for the improvement of infrastructure in the Commonwealth. The transportation bond provides a roadmap of potential projects to become a part of the capital improvement plan.
The final bill includes several district priorities championed by Senator Downing: $2 million for the Woodlawn Ave bridge, with a 2013 date certain; $1.6 million for reconstruction of Black Brook Road in Savoy; $750,000 for reconstruction of Washington Mt. Road through Washington, Becket and Dalton. Also included are the following: $6.5 million for the design and reconstruction of Rt. 143 in Worthington and $6.3 million for Rt. 143 in Chesterfield; $500,000 for the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail from Lanesborough to Pittsfield; $150,000 for bridges in New Marlborough and $200,000 for bridges in Lee, and; $300,000 for the reconstruction of a bridge on South Road in Westhampton.
Habitual Offenders – The final compromise sentencing legislation carves out a select list of violent crimes for which a third conviction, with a sentence of at least three years, would result in a maximum sentence for that crime without the possibility of parole. The bill also expands the membership of the parole board and reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses.
Storm Response. Senator Downing’s bill to address the response of utility companies during an emergency situation or weather event, such as 2011’s hurricane and October snow storm. The bill requires public utility companies to provide three-times-daily estimates to customers about when electricity will be restored following a 24-hour damage assessment period. The bill also requires companies during major storms to set up a call center which must be located in Massachusetts within 50 miles of a utility’s service territory and have sufficient staffing to handle calls.
Utilities must also report storm outages to the state and designate a community liaison in each community when implementing an emergency response plan. To enhance that effort, the legislation requires utilities to designate staff at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate statewide response.
Furthermore, utilities will pay an assessment charge to help the Department of Public Utilities pay for storm investigations. The cost of this assessment cannot be passed onto customers, nor can any costs of penalties assessed on utilities for violating emergency preparation and response requirements.
Foreclosure Prevention – The House and Senate also agreed on legislation to stem the tide of foreclosures in the Commonwealth, one of the biggest remaining impediments to economic recovery. The bill requires banks and other lenders to offer loan modifications to borrowers in certain circumstances to avoid foreclosures. Lenders must conduct a complete financial analysis of the loan and offer a modification, if it would be more beneficial to receive lower monthly mortgage payments than to foreclose on the home.
The bill establishes a 150-day timeframe for deciding whether or not to offer the loan modification which may come in the form of either a reduced interest rate or principal, or an extension of the loan repayment period. The modified loans would allow borrowers to stay in their homes, lenders to avoid foreclosure costs and potential market losses, and neighborhoods to avoid the problem of abandoned properties and vacant lots.
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