As we pause to reflect at the end of the year, I am grateful for your friendship and support.
Please accept my best wishes to you and your family for a happy and prosperous New Year!
-- Senator Ben Downing
District Office Update by Vasundhra Sangar
2015 was an eventful year in Senator Ben Downing's district in terms of local outreach within the four western counties. Senator Downing continued his tradition of visiting with his constituents through his popular Coffee and Conversation program. This year he visited 10 towns – Goshen, Clarksburg, West Stockbridge, Hancock, Heath, Lee, Williamstown, Chesterfield, Florida, and Washington – and held 2 hour open forums at each to discuss local and state issues affecting constituents. Various locations, including Hancock's Ioka Valley Farm, the Lee Public Library, the Milne Memorial Public Library in Williamstown, the Community Center in Chesterfield, and the Senior Center in the Town of Florida, graciously opened their doors to offer the Senator the opportunity to visit with and listen to his constituency face-to-face in a laid-back atmosphere. Each event was well attended and brought up several hot topic discussions including the Last Mile broadband initiative to bring internet access to homes in the western-most parts of the state, concerns over the proposed Kinder Morgan Tennessee Gas Pipeline and how it would impact the future of the region, and increasing net metering and solar incentives across Massachusetts. In each scenario, the Senator was able to hear directly from those affected by an issue and present his concise views on the situation in a personal manner which, as he often states, is his favorite part of the job.
Senator Downing and his staff were able to give back to the community in May when all of Team Downing participated in Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity's Women Build in the Berkshires to help install plywood flooring and rebuild an exterior deck on a Habitat for Humanity home on Francis Street in Pittsfield.
The Senator had the chance to better acquaint fellow colleagues from the Legislature with the Berkshires several times this year. In February, during the Senate President's Celebrate the Berkshires Town Hall Forum in Great Barrington, Senator Downing, Senate President Rosenberg (D – Amherst) and fellow western Mass. Senators heard about priorities such as public education, arts and culture, and the specific needs of rural communities. In June, Senator Downing again hosted the Senate President during his visit to the Berkshires where they toured Berkshire Community College, met with members of 1Berkshire and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and took a tour of LTI Smart Glass to view the progress of an emerging industry right in the heart of Pittsfield first-hand.
Senator Downing was able to continue in this endeavor during the month of June by joining Senator Anne Gobi (D – Spencer) and Representative Paul Schmid (D –Westport), the co-chairs of the Joint Committee of Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, on a farm tour of Southern Berkshire County. Starting in Sheffield, the Senators and Representative were joined by Representative Jaime Eldridge (D –Acton) and the four Berkshire County representatives - Paul Mark, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Gailanne Cariddi, and William "Smitty” Pignatelli - on walking tours of several South Berkshire field crop, produce, dairy, and livestock farms. Coming full circle and ending with a tour of Berkshire Mountain Distillers' Sheffield distillery was the cherry on top of a day dedicated to portraying the importance and the efficiency of local Berkshire farming and agriculture.
The year wrapped up nicely with the Senator's 5th Annual Toys for Tots Holiday Open House on December 1st in his Pittsfield office. This year the Senator visited Crosby Elementary in Pittsfield, Brayton Elementary in North Adams, St. Mary's Academy in Lee, and the Pittsfield Family YMCA to meet with students and school-aged children to discuss his roles and responsibilities as state senator and ask them to enter a submission to his Holiday Card Design Contest. Out of more than 250 submissions Senator Downing chose Hannah Chrznowski's drawing. Hannah, a student at St. Agnes Academy in Dalton, is featured on his holiday greeting card this year, which is sent to thousands of friends, colleagues and supporters across Massachusetts.
Looking ahead to 2016, the Senator remains committed to acknowledging the concerns of his district as directly as possible and continuing to highlight its successes and achievements as well as its needs for the rest of the Commonwealth.
Senator Downing's first public event of the year will be his January Coffee & Conversation forum. Save the Date: Monday, January 11th from 2:00-4:00pm at Chester Town Hall, located at 15 Middletown Road.
Budget & Policy Update by Christopher Gilrein
Earned Income Tax Credit
One of Senator Downing's top priorities entering the 189th session was increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for working families. To that end, he filed S. 1475 – An Act reinvesting in working families. The bill would have doubled the EITC from 15% to 30% of the federal credit, and paid for the increase by halting a scheduled cut in the personal income tax.
In collaboration with the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue, the Senate built on the foundation of Downing's bill and included a plan in the Senate budget to deliver major tax relief to the bottom 60% of income earners in the Commonwealth by increasing both the EITC and the personal income tax exemption.
The final budget signed by Governor Baker includes an increase in the EITC from 15% to 23% of the federal credit - increasing the maximum credit to working families from $951 to $1459 - paid for by repealing a tax benefit for large corporate entities.
Streamlining Local Services
The FY16 budget included additional policy changes based on bills filed by Senator Downing. Included in the outside sections of the final budget were the texts of Downing's bills S. 1071 – An Act promoting cost savings and transparency in local government, and S. 1352 – An Act relative to the municipal health care market.
Together, these sections increase transparency and flexibility and reduce costs for towns by allowing them to provide annual reports in electronic versions, reducing the lock-in period for towns joining the state's Group Insurance Commission (GIC) from 6 years to 3 years, and requiring the GIC to provide member towns access to their own claims history information.
FY16 Priority Spending Accounts
In addition to the legislative victories, The $38.1 Billion conference budget contains millions of dollars in spending championed by Downing during the Senate's budget debate, including:
Senator Downing also ushered a number of bills requested by municipalities through the Senate in the first year of this session. Bills authorizing the town of Dalton to grant an additional liquor license, Middlefield to continue employing Police Chief Thomas Austin beyond the statutory retirement age, Charlemont to reduce the membership of its board of health from 5 to 3 members, Mount Washington to borrow funds to own and operate its own broadband infrastructure, and Adams to enter 1,008 acres of the Greylock Glen into permanent Article 97 protection have all been engrossed by the Senate and await final approval.
Legislation allowing the Town of Williamsburg to employ firefighter Paul Sanderson beyond the statutory retirement age received final enactment in both chambers and was signed into law by the Governor.
Advancing the Senate Agenda
Senator Downing has also been active and engaged in debating and advancing the agenda of the Massachusetts Senate as a whole. The major Senate Policy Initiatives and Accomplishments for 2015 include:
TUE Committee Update by Christina Fisher
As Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy (TUE) Senator Ben Downing committed a significant amount of time to energy matters while in the State House this year.
The Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy started off the 2015-16 legislative session with two informational hearings on the "State of Energy" in the Commonwealth. The goal of these hearings was to learn about the successes, impediments, missed opportunities, future hurdles and how we can improve to help further the Commonwealth's climate, clean energy, and efficiency goals. The first hearing included testimony from Attorney General Maura Healey's office, Clean Energy Center CEO Alicia Barton, ISO-NE, utility companies and officials from the Baker Administration, including testimony from Secretary Beaton, Department of Energy Resources Acting Commissioner Dan Burgess, and Department of Public Utilities Chair Angie O'Connor. The second hearing included testimony from energy related businesses, consumer advocates, power generators, and environmental and advocacy organizations. Both hearings were very well attended and were very helpful to all Committee members, but especially to our new members including our new House co-chair, Rep. Thomas Golden (D-Lowell).
Additionally, to date the Committee has convened 8 public hearings on timely filed legislation. Topics included solar/net metering, energy efficiency, clean energy procurement, and utility reliability. For a full list of our hearings please visit the Committee website. According to the Joint Rules of the Legislature, the Committee must make a recommendation on all timely filed bills in its custody by March 16, 2016.
Sen. Ben Downing identified action on solar and net metering policies as an early priority this session. Net metering allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to receive a credit for the unused electricity they feed back to the grid. Solar growth stalled in National Grid's service territory after their public and private caps were met in March. In response, Sen. Downing filed an amendment to increase the state's solar net metering cap and promote future solar development throughout Massachusetts. The amendment was adopted during debate in July on S. 1973, An Act providing for the establishment of a comprehensive adaptation management plan in response to climate change.
Senator Downing's amendment aligned the net metering cap with the state's 1600MW goal of installed solar capacity and further directs the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) to create a new solar incentive program when the 1600 MW goal is reached. This amendment sets up a long-term framework for solar development, while allowing for continued development prior to the expiration of the Federal Solar Tax credit on December 31, 2016. Notably, Downing's amendment seeks to ensure the future growth of virtual metering and community shared solar, which allows equitable access to solar development for residents who may not otherwise be able participate. The amendment also grandfathers existing projects, ensuring that today's solar installations will not be negatively impacted by future changes developed by DOER post 1600 MW.
The House of Representatives responded in November with legislation that provided a 2% cap increase for public and private projects while also drastically cutting net metering credit value to many solar projects. Under the leadership of Sen. Downing, the Senate proposed alternative compromise language maintaining the 2% increase but hoping to establish a middle ground on the net metering credit value. As the House and Senate solar bills differed, a conference committee was appointed to develop a final bill. Sen. Downing, is the lead negotiator for the Senate in this matter. The conference committee process is ongoing.
Competitive Supplier-Bill Recalculation Refunds
During the extremely harsh 2015 winter Senator Downing heard from several constituents who saw dramatic increase in their monthly electric bill. This cost increase was directly linked to the bill recalculation provision which came into play when constituents switched to a competitive supplier for their basic electricity service. This was an unexpected cost increase that affected many households in the district.
Senator Downing researched this issue and held many conversations with the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), the Attorney General, and distribution companies to find potential relief. On April 13th the DPU issued an Order eliminating the bill recalculation provision, noting that it led to customer confusion and dissatisfaction. While this was a welcome announcement it did not go far enough to help those already impacted. As such, Sen. Downing and Senator Don Humason (R- Westfield) sponsored language requiring distribution companies to provide refunds or credits to those impacted by the bill recalculation provision this winter as an amendment to the Senate budget. In May the amendment was adopted in the Senate budget and was later was adopted in the final version of the FY16 state budget and signed into law. Early this fall the DPU issued an order requiring distribution companies to comply and they did so within 30-60 days of that order. Many of the constituents who received these refunds have contacted Senator Downing recently to express their appreciation.
Year-End Constituent Correspondence Data by Christopher Dunne
Senator Ben Downing's extensive constituent correspondence records allow him to track requests for assistance and determine what topics are of primary interest and concern to residents of his Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden Senate District. In 2015 Senator Downing received a total of 5,722 emails, letters, faxes or phone calls from constituents:
Total Cases Closed: 5,722
Top issues generating the most correspondence for 2015 were:
Introducing the New Team Downing
On Friday, December 18th Bethann Steiner, who has served as Chief of Staff to Senator Ben Downing since his inauguration in 2007, concluded her service in the Massachusetts Senate. Bethann has accepted a new position within the public affairs office of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. A Dalton native, she provided an invaluable local perspective in the Senator's Boston office, and was always a dedicated advocate for the District. For nine years Bethann kept the Senator's two offices -- on Beacon Hill and in Pittsfield -- running smoothly and professionally, serving as the key confidante and advisor for Senator Downing, the main point of contact for local officials and the western Mass. legislative delegation, and a mentor and model for the staff.
While Bethann will undoubtedly be missed, Senator Downing took this opportunity to restructure his staff, promoting Chris Gilrein to the role of Chief of Staff; Chris Dunne to Legislative & Budget Director and Vasundhra Sangar to Constituent Services Director. Christina Fisher continues her role as TUE Committee Counsel. You can learn more about Team Downing on the Staff page of SenatorDowning.com.