2013 in Review: Senator Downing's Press Pass

Connecting over Coffee

Throughout 2013 Senator Ben Downing held ten Coffee & Conversation open forums across his district in communities located in Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Counties.  During these events, residents of every age are welcome to visit, say hello to the Senator and his district staff, and share their ideas and concerns or ask questions about state government.  Senator Downing always brings coffee and treats with him, often from local bakeries or shops.
This year, Senator Downing's first four Coffee & Conversations events were held in the four new towns he represents:  Shelburne, Blandford, Buckland and Chester.  From there he made monthly stops in Dalton, Becket, Westhampton, Conway, Cummington and Williamsburg. 
Those who attended often wanted to discuss similar issues and priorities this year, such as broadband access, health care inquiries, public transportation funding, solar energy, concerns about public education and school districts, as well as other issues relating to poverty.
In the New Year Senator Downing will continue his monthly open forums, and has plans to visit  Lansboro, Lenox, Hinsdale, Cheshire, Savoy, Peru, Hawley, Tryingham, Charlemont and Goshen. Event details are announced on a rolling basis in the media and on SenatorDowning.com, please join us as often as you can!
Save the Date:  Join Senator Downing on Monday, January 27th from 2-4pm for
Coffee & Conversation at Lanesboro Town Hall, located at 83 North Main Street.

Legislative Update

Bills Signed into Law

The House and Senate agreed on a number of major initiatives during this first year of the 2013-2014 legislative session that were ultimately signed into law by the Governor. The transportation financing package will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in increased revenue and bonding capacity to update the Commonwealth's transportation infrastructure and build a 21st century system. Enactment of a sales tax holiday saved consumers a projected $20 million and spurred sales numbers for businesses during a traditionally slow summer weekend.

A housing bond bill signed into law in November lays out a long-term capital plan to modernize and expand the Commonwealth's stock of affordable public housing. The Legislature also passed legislation to bring the Commonwealth's laws into compliance with the federal Affordable Care Act and the Right to Repair ballot initiative approved by the voters in 2012.

Bills Passed by the Senate

Bills approved by the Senate and awaiting action in the House would increase penalties for corporations found guilty of causing a death and enhance protections for victims of domestic violence.

The Senate also approved legislation that would incrementally increase the minimum wage from the current $8/hr to $11/hr by 2016 and link future increases to the Consumer Price Index. The bill seeks to restore the value of the minimum wage that has been lost over the past four decades to rising costs and inflation. Senator Downing weighed in during the debate, linking a strong minimum wage to pulling families out of poverty and restoring income equality. His comments during the Senate debate are posted on his Youtube channel.

The House and Senate passed differing versions of bills reforming the state's welfare system, improving oversight of compounding pharmacies, and increasing supports and benefits for veterans and their families. Six-member joint conference committees are now tasked with producing compromise versions of each of these proposals.

Senator Downing's Legislative Agenda

2013 also saw advancement in Senator Downing's personal legislative agenda. A number of local petitions championed by the Senator were signed into law,  including: converting a seasonal liquor license in Adams to a year-round license; allowing for the recall of elected officials in Middlefield; establishing a rent control board in West Stockbridge; and approving a new charter for the City of Pittsfield.

Two of Senator Downing's heart-healthy priorities were approved by the Senate and await action in the House. S. 1918 requires that all public school athletic coaches maintain a current CPR certification, ensuring that a responsible adult on the field is prepared to assist one of the 200,000 student-athletes in the Commonwealth in the case of a cardiac emergency, while S. 1919 requires the Department of Public Health to promulgate regulations requiring all hospitals and birthing facilities to perform a pulse oximetry test on all newborns prior to discharge. Pulse-ox testing is a quick, simple test that is proven to be effective in detecting congenital heart defects (CHD). CHD are the number one killer of infants with birth defects and early detection is paramount in ensuring the safety of individuals with these defects.

A third bill filed by Senator Downing that is now before the House is S. 1926, which prompts the Department of Public Health to enact sensible regulations to control and mitigate diversion of buprenorphine. Buprenorphine is a drug used in treatment of opioid addiction, and while it has proven very successful in combating addiction and withdrawal symptoms, illegal diversion of the drug has become a major problem.  

Additionally, the goals of two more of Senator Downing's bills will be accomplished through the regulatory process in January of 2014. For two sessions now, Senator Downing has filed legislation to eliminate a six-month waiting period for self-employed individuals to switch from private insurance to a public option, and allowing college students currently enrolled in state-sponsored healthcare to remain enrolled, despite the availability of student health plans through the school. Both of these initiatives will be part of regulations promulgated as part of the Affordable Care Act rollout.

Policy Agenda for 2014

Casework:  How can I help you?

Senator Downing's district office, located in downtown Pittsfield, handles most community relations inquiries affecting his Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden county constituency. When an individual is having trouble connecting with an executive office, state agency or program they may work with the Senator's local staff to obtain a referral or learn about community resources that may assist them in their time of need.

During 2013 the state Department of Unemployment Assistance transitioned to a new online system for unemployment benefits.  The roll out was challenging for users and many constituents contacted the Senator to report the difficulties they faced navigating the new program. In response to the influx of calls the Berkshire County legislative delegation drafted a letter to the Secretary of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development asking her to address the issues presented. Further, the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight convened a series of public hearings to investigate the efficiency and usefulness of the Department's new online system.  As Congress addresses the status of the Unemployment Insurance federal extension program, many constituent's expressed their fear that they may not be able to provide for themselves or their families. If anyone is continuing to have issues contacting the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance please do not hesitate to call the Senator's casework manager at (413) 442-4008.  

The increased need for public transportation service in rural areas also came to the forefront in the 2013. Many constituents facing issues getting to work and workforce development training contacted Senator Downing to advocate for more public bus routes and later service hours.  With the help of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, Senator Downing was able to assist rural Councils on Aging in the hilltowns obtain a van to transport elders to their day program in neighboring communities. In the upcoming year we plan to continue to work with communities to bring more opportunities for rural transportation.  

This year many working families contacted Senator Downing to inquire about access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the need to increase assistance for recipients living on an average of about $30.00 per week.

Those who need assistance or want to learn about state programs that may be able to help, should dial 2-1-1 for counseling, domestic violence, emergency shelter, substance abuse programs, child care, senior services, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, financial assistance, parental education programs, disability services, legal assistance, veterans service, volunteer opportunities, mentoring opportunities, donating food and much more. Berkshire County Community Action Council (BCAC) also published a new community resources guide that lists all resources for each assistance program. For more information please contact our district office.  

Quick Fact:  This year Senator Downing's office processed 5,025 inquiries from residents of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Senate District seeking guidance on casework, budget and policy matters.

Health Care:  What you need to know

2013 has been a transformative year for health care, both nationally and here at home in Massachusetts. From the implementation of the landmark federal Affordable Care Act to the state's cost containment legislation known as "Chapter 224”, there have been incredible achievements in the health care industry.

With the passage of Chapter 35 of the Acts of 2013 in July, Massachusetts was brought into compliance with the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) and was able to widely expand health insurance for its residents. Among many provisions, the Act allows small businesses to claim tax credits to help cover over 50% of costs for insuring employees. Additionally, the ACA allowed an additional 200,000 Massachusetts residents access to affordable and high-quality health care through Medicaid expansion.

The Massachusetts Health Connector, which was created under Massachusetts' 2006 groundbreaking universal health care law, has also been hard at work improving access to and affordability of health insurance. Most notably, the Health Connector recently released regulations which will require colleges and universities in Massachusetts to accept students' subsidized coverage such as MassHealth or ConnectorCare. This means that students may now get a thorough education and not be burdened with taking on incredible debts from buying private insurance.

The ongoing implementation of these federal and state programs certainly means it is easy to become confused and frustrated. Please know my health care policy staff is available to assist businesses and consumers navigate this new health care landscape. This year alone my office has helped over fifty individuals in obtaining private or subsidized health care coverage. Additionally, I published a brochure to help small businesses understand their rights and responsibilities under the ACA.

Looking ahead to next year, I continue to offer my staff's assistance in any health care matter that you or someone you know may be experiencing. Additionally, I will further seek your input as we continue to improve our health care system and keep Massachusetts a national leader in this field.

TUE Committee Report

The Joint Committee of Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy (TUE) had a slower paced but productive first year of the 2013-2014 legislative session. Early in the year the Committee convened members and staff for its initial breakfast of the legislative session. The breakfast was an opportunity for the chairs to meet the members of the Committee and discuss legislative priorities. Additionally, between June and December, ten public hearings were held on a variety of topics including natural gas infrastructure, renewable energy, expanding the Bottle Bill and wind power. For a full list of TUE hearings and the bills heard, click here

In November the TUE Committee held its first executive session. A re-drafted Committee bill on natural gas leaks and a bill on double poles were reported out favorably. A second executive session is scheduled for January 8, 2014 at 10AM in Hearing Room A-2. The Committee will be voting on an amended version of S.1593, An Act relative to credit for thermal energy generated with renewable fuels filed by Sen. Finegold. 

Senator Downing has been visible in his role as co-chair of the TUE Committee throughout 2013. Most recently he was invited to speak at the New England Electricity Restructuring Roundtable, "Evolving Landscape and Regulatory Framework for Solar in New England & California," on December 13th. Senator Downing participated on a panel with Department of Energy Resources (DOER) Commissioner Mark Sylvia, Ron Gerwatowski, Senior VP, US Regulation & Pricing, National Grid and Carrie Cullen-Hitt, Senior VP, State Affairs, Solar Energy Industries Association. The panel spoke before a crowded room of over 200 people on the current state of solar development and future growth in the industry.

On October 30th Senator Downing co-hosted a briefing on the 2013 Massachusetts Clean Energy Industry Report with his TUE co-chair Representative John Keenan. MassCEC CEO Alicia Barton spoke to a crowded room detailing the progress to date in the clean energy sector and identifying areas for improvement and growth in the future. Notably, the Clean Energy Industry Report shows that clean energy jobs have grown by 11.8% since 2012 and is anticipated to grow another 11.1% in 2014. To view the full report, visit: http://www.masscec.com/content/2013-clean-energy-industry-report.

On September 25th Senator Downing moderated a panel on Energy System Resilience in a Changing Climate at the 4th Annual Sustainable Economy Conference. The panel included Assistant Secretary of Energy Steven Clark, CEO of MassCEC Alicia Barton, Senior Energy Analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists Michael Jacobs and Senior Research Engineer at MIT Energy Initiative, Howard Herzog. The conference provided and opportunity for stakeholders with different backgrounds to come together and share their viewpoints on energy and climate change.

On May 20th Attorney General Martha Coakley hosted her first Energy Summit in Norwell. Four panels comprised of wide range of experts and stakeholders from throughout the Commonwealth presented on topics such as reducing energy costs, advancing energy policy in the Commonwealth, and innovative ideas and technologies. Senator Downing spoke alongside Chairman Keenan during lunchtime on last session's legislative accomplishments and hopes for the new legislation session moving forward.

Lastly, the 2nd Annual Clean Energy Day was hosted in the State House by Senator Downing and Chairman Keenan on May 9th. Both chairs spoke on the legislative agenda for the upcoming session. Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Frank Smizik were presented with Clean Energy Champion Awards. After the awards were presented, Senator Downing met with several parties involved in developing and promoting clean energy.  

In 2014 the co-chairs will continue to review the bills remaining before the Committee. All timely filed bills must be acted upon by the Joint Rule 10 deadline of March 19th. Additionally, the Committee expects to receive solar regulations from DOER on their SRECII program. The Committee will have 30 days to review and respond to the regulations.

Seeking Local Artists

Senator Ben Downing is currently seeking local artists to participate in his Local Artist Exhibition Program throughout 2014.  

The program offers local artists an exhibition space for their works of art (the Senator's downtown Pittsfield office).  An open reception is held to celebrate each new exhibit.

If you are interested in participating, please contact Liz Connor or Christine Monska at (413) 442-4008 Monday through Friday during business hours. 

Announcing the Spring Citizens Legislative Seminar

Senator Ben Downing is pleased to announce that the 72nd Citizens' Legislative Seminar (CLS) will take place on Tuesday, March 4th and Wednesday, March 5th from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Massachusetts State House. 

CLS, a citizen seminar that aims to better educate the public on the Commonwealth's legislative process, was established in 1976 through a collaborative effort of the Massachusetts Senate and the University of Massachusetts.  The two-day event features presentations by Senators and staff on aspects of the day-to-day experience of legislators in the Commonwealth. Topics will include the history and process of the Legislature, the parliamentary role of the Clerk of the Senate and the future of the Legislature. 

The CLS culminates with a simulated legislative hearing and Senate session where participants are invited to use what they have learned and participate as "Senators” in the Senate Chamber in order to have a first-hand experience of the legislative process.  

Any resident of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District who is interested in participating in the CLS should send their resume to the Senator's Chief of Staff, Bethann Steiner by Noon on Thursday, January 16th.  The Senator will nominate participants to attend on a first come, first serve basis.  Applicants must be able to attend both days of the program in order to be nominated.

THANK YOU for making our Toys for Tots collection a success!

Keep in touch during 2014

Senator Ben Downing spends time each week in both western Massachusetts and on Beacon Hill.  As his travel schedule keeps him busy, he uses various social media platforms daily to engage his constituents and keep them updated and informed about his policy agenda, local events, major announcements and his public schedule. 

If you do not already do so, consider connecting with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  You can also watch his session debate remarks on his YouTube Channel.  

His online office, SenatorDowning.com is updated frequently with information and photos from local and State House events, the Senator's official press releases and information on what the Massachusetts Senate is working on.  You can also email the Senator directly from this portal and sign up to receive and access past editions of Senator Downing's monthly E-newsletter , the Press Pass

Senator Ben Downing and his staff wish you the best during this Holiday Season and a safe, happy and healthy New Year!

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