By State Rep. Jen Benson
February was a short, cold and busy month at the Statehouse. We held our first formal sessions, filed the legislation that will be discussed over the next two years, moved offices and began the state budget process.
This session, as in last session, we have many challenges before us. I am honored to become part of the leadership team as vice chair of Personnel and Administration, which allows me not only to work on behalf of our district, but also gives me an enhanced ability to influence the direction we take as a commonwealth.
I will continue my focus on education, an issue very important to the towns in the 37th Middlesex District, with my work as a sophomore member of the Education Committee. I have filed legislation to research better ways to deliver and fund special education, as well as enhanced ways to assist new school regions.
On the Revenue Committee I will be advocating for an increase in our ability to measure the effectiveness of business-tax credits. More oversight will help us guide the commonwealth in future economic development strategies and protect the taxpayers in any and all plans.
My position on Post Audit and Oversight is a new and exciting challenge. The committee does not receive bills, but has subpoena powers to allow deeper investigation into government agencies and issues. At the end of investigations the committee releases a public report. This broad-ranging committee is a great tool to ensure transparency and compliance in difficult, confusing and often misunderstood areas.
During the 2011-12 session, I will also have the honor of co-chairing the Legislative Elder Caucus. Rep. Kate Hogan and I will work together to advocate for better policies and programs for our elders. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that these items are prioritized in legislation and the budget.
Throughout the past month I have been working to file 21 bills surrounding a wide array of issues. A complete list of all the bills and their summaries is provided on my website. They range from legislation that would require all private agencies, group-care facilities and group-care residences serving persons with developmental disabilities to publicly file information with DDS to a bill that would create an intensive parole/probation program for Level 2 or Level 3 sex offenders. This bill would also allow residents to access information about Level 2 sex offenders in their area through an online searchable database. Another public safety bill I filed would increase the penalties for seriously injuring a police officer while resisting arrest. I filed this bill in conjunction with the Lunenburg Police Department after one of our brave officers was gravely injured by a suspect. I also worked with the Massachusetts Advocates for Children to write a bill exploring the expansion of high quality, cost efficient in-district special-education programs. This month, I also co-sponsored a number of my colleague’s bills. All legislation will now be assigned to committees and given public hearings so that you can weigh in. Contact my office for more information on this process.
In one of our first formal sessions this year, the House unanimously passed legislation to halt a scheduled increase in the unemployment-insurance assessment paid by all employers. By reducing some of the financial burden on companies through this legislation we hope that they will continue to expand and increase hiring. If we had not frozen the insurance rate, employers on average would have been faced with an increase to $872 per employee. The rate freeze will save the average employer $167 per employee. I am happy we started our legislative session on this positive bipartisan note and look forward to working with my colleagues on more bills aimed at spurring economic recovery and creating new jobs.
At the end of January, Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled his proposal for the state’s budget for fiscal 2012. Agencies have seen their budgets dramatically decrease for the past three years and this fiscal year will be no different. The governor’s proposal includes no new taxes and $570 million in reductions across the board. In his proposal there is a reduction of $65 million in local aid, which will have an effect on the ability of towns to fund core services like police, firefighters, and schools, a cut of $16.4 million for Department of Mental Health hospitals which could translate to 160 fewer beds, and the closure of two unspecified state prisons. While every agency will be affected, there are some areas in the budget, however, that would see an increase in funding. K-12 education, for example, would get a boost to help fill the gap left by the end of the federal-stimulus program. The House will begin our budget debates in April. I hope to hear from all of you about your budget priorities as this process continues.
I joined my colleagues this month in the biennial reshuffling of legislative offices. I am now in Room 466, Office of the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets. Note that due to the move, our office number has changed. You can contact me at 617-722-2017.
I look forward to hearing from you. Check my website for additional news and resources, www.jenbenson.org, and stay up-to-date by joining me on Facebook or following me on Twitter.