Senator Downing's Press Pass - January 2014

Downing named Community Mediation's "Outstanding Champion"

On January 15th, during a State House policy and budget briefing, Senator Ben Downing was presented with the 2014 Community Mediation Outstanding Champion Award by the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration at University of Massachusetts - Boston and the Community Mediation Coalition of Massachusetts.
Downing was honored for to his leadership in establishing the Community Mediation Center Grant Program to broaden access to justice for all Commonwealth citizens.
 
Downing's colleague, State Representative Sarah K, Peake (D- Provincetown) was similarly honored at the event. Representative Peake has worked with Senator Downing as the House lead to secure funding for the Community Mediation Center Grant Program.   |more|

Legislative/Policy Update

On January 2nd the General Court convened in the House and Senate Chambers to resume formal deliberations for the second year of the 2013-2014 legislative session.  Under the Joint Rules, policy committees have until March 19th to make recommendations on timely filed bills, and all roll call votes must be taken before midnight on July 31st.  It is about to get busy on Beacon Hill!

Throughout January the Massachusetts Senate passed legislation on Election Reform, clearing titles on foreclosed properties and a $177 million Military Bond Bill.

The House of Representatives passed a Transportation Bond Bill on January 29th, which will now come to the Senate for consideration.

Regarding health care policy, throughout January the Commonwealth implemented more provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). This increased access to high-quality, cost-effective health insurance for thousands of additional residents. Here are a couple important updates that may affect you:

  • As of January 1st, public and private universities must accept all health insurance plans purchased through the Massachusetts Health Connector; this includes subsidized plans such as MassHealth and CommonwealthCare. This will save students and parents thousands of dollars that are usually spent on purchasing private plans through the institution.
  • As of January 1st, self-employed people who lose their health insurance coverage will no longer face a 6-month waiting period to enroll in a subsidized public plan. This will prevent thousands of entrepreneurs and small-business owners in the Commonwealth from facing tax penalties and lapses in health coverage.

Please contact my health care policy staff at (617) 722-1625 if you have questions about either of these provisions.

Remember:  open enrollment for health insurance through the Massachusetts Health Connector ends in March!


Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit information available

This month Senator Downing unveiled his annual informational pamphlet on the Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit, updated specifically for Tax Year 2013. First published by the Senator in January 2008 for Tax Year 2007, this brochure is intended to help Massachusetts citizens, aged 65 or older, determine their eligibility for the tax credit.

"The state Department of Revenue reports that the Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit returns more money to the wallets of senior taxpayers in Massachusetts than any other state tax credit,” said Downing. "Each year I distribute this informational brochure to those serving seniors in western Massachusetts hoping to spread the word about this opportunity.”
 
Every year Senator Downing provides copies of his pamphlet to the Councils on Aging serving communities throughout his Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. It is also available under the Hot on the Hill tab of his website, www.SenatorDowning.com. The brochure is free and all are welcome to print and share this information to those who may find it helpful.
The Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit is an income tax credit designed by the Legislature to alleviate some of the burden from property taxes, so-called because it is "triggered,” like an electrical circuit breaker, when property taxes, water and sewer bills exceed 10% of a senior citizen's annual income. For Tax Year 2013, the maximum credit is $1,030. |more|

Fiscal Year 2015 Budget process begins

On January 23rd, Governor Patrick released his final budget proposal of his tenure in the corner office. The budget document – called H. 2 – lays out the Governor's spending and policy priorities for Fiscal Year 2015. 

Public education is the hallmark of this budget proposal, highlighted by a $100 million increase in Chapter 70 education aid – translating to a $25 per pupil hike for all public schools in Senator Downing's district. The budget also continues the Governor's commitment to early education, once again dedicating an additional $15 million to reduce waiting lists in early ed programs. H. 2 also includes $1.1 billion in total funding for public higher education, and $4 million for targeted education programs in Gateway Cities – two major priorities of Senator Downing's. 

The Governor's budget will be the subject of eight Joint Ways & Means Committee hearings during February and March, held in various locations across the Commonwealth. The House budget debate will begin in April and the Senate debate will follow in May. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2014.

For more information on the state budget, visit www.mass.gov/budget or review Senator Downing's Guide to the Annual Budget Process.


TUE Committee Report

On January 8th the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy (TUE) held its first hearing of 2014. The Committee received testimony on two bills: H3754, A Resolve providing for an investigation and study by a special commission relative to vegetation removal by public utility companies and H3802, An Act relative to distributed generation contracts. Following the hearing the panel opened an executive session so that members could consider the recommendations of the chairs on S.1593, An Act relative to credit for thermal energy generated with renewable fuels.  

The Committee reported S. 1593 favorably to the Senate Committee on Ways & Means, which must review and report on the bill before it can be debated by the full Senate.  This legislation adds renewable thermal energy technologies (such as solar hot water and geothermal) to the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (APS).  

The APS was established as of January 1, 2009, under the Green Communities Act of 2008. APS offers a new opportunity for Massachusetts businesses, institutions and governments to receive an incentive for installing eligible alternative energy systems, which are not renewable. It requires a certain percentage of the state's electric load to be met by eligible technologies. These resources contribute to the Commonwealth's clean energy goals by increasing energy efficiency and reducing the need for conventional fossil fuel-based power generation. 

On January 10th Chairman Downing was invited to join Governor Patrick's press conference at the New England Aquarium announcing a $50 million investment for a comprehensive climate change preparedness initiative. Senator Downing spoke alongside several of his colleagues addressing the present and future impacts of climate change in Massachusetts.

The plan includes a $40 million municipal resilience grant program, to be administered by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), that will enable cities and towns to harden energy services at critical sites using clean energy technology. The Department of Public Utilities (DPU) will work with utilities to determine ways to accelerate storm hardening and deploy micro-grids and resiliency projects for transmission and distribution. In addition, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) will establish an inventory of generation facilities vulnerability and preparedness plans. The Governor's plan also calls for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to conduct a statewide vulnerability assessment for all facilities and adopt Climate Adaptation Plans by 2015.


Lanesboro Coffee & Conversation & Local Art Exhibition Program

On Monday, January 27th, Senator Ben Downing held his monthly Coffee and Conversation open forum in a comfortable conference room at the Lanesboro Town Hall. Several constituents from the area were present to share their questions and concerns directly with their state Senator.  After the forum Senator Downing remained at Town Hall to participate in the Select Board's meeting.

During the C&C many local issues, such as the town's budget, recycling programs, education and veterans' rights were discussed, which led to broader conversations about broadband expansion, transportation throughout Berkshire County, and the Senate's legislation to increase the state minimum wage. 

What's Next: Senator Downing's February Coffee & Conversation open forum will be held in Lenox.  Details will be announced soon!


A note about the District Office

We are sad to announce that Friday, January 24th was Christine Monska's last day as a member of Team Downing.  For three years she served as the Senator's Casework Manager, providing direct assistance to constituents seeking help or referrals to state agencies, programs and services.  Christine always provided callers with an empathetic ear and dogged advocacy, and during her time on the Senator's staff was a tremendous resource, single-handedly assisting hundreds of residents and families.  She was also a leader in our community, serving on both the Board of Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC) and as a commissioner on the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women.  Christine is now pursuing an advanced degree in Global Affairs, International Law and Human Rights at New York University and we wish her only the best!

However, Christine's departure leaves the Pittsfield office in transition as we work to fill her position. Please note that until otherwise announced the District Office will be open and staffed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:00am until 5:00pm.  Callers are invited to leave a voicemail which will be returned the next day, however, if you require immediate staff assistance on Tuesdays or Thursdays please contact the State House Office at (617) 722-1625 between 9:00am and 5:00pm.

Thank you for your understanding and join us as we say Thank You, Good Luck and Farewell to our friend Christine!

Attention Local Artists: Senator Downing is still seeking local artists to participate in his Local Art Exhibition Program. For more information visit SenatorDowning.com or contact our District Aide, Liz Connor, at 442-4008 during business hours on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.


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