The following is from Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy:
Health care costs. Welfare fraud. Human trafficking. Pension reform.
These are just some of the important issues addressed by the Legislature this session.
As a freshman state senator, I believe the session that ended on July 31 was overall a productive one. Some issues grab more headlines than others. Our debates over casino legislation, for example, drew significantly more attention than the fact we sent a record amount of state aid back to our cities and towns, or that Massachusetts was just one of four states nationally to receive an improved bond rating.
In addition, we eliminated parole for habitual violent offenders, addressed illegal foreclosures and auto repair rules, revamped probation department hiring practices, and, for the third time in four years, cut costs in our state pension program.
There are too many initiatives to rehash in a single column, so I will address a few of these issues now, and provide updates on local legislation in my next column.
Health Care Cost Containment
The success of this legislation is critical to controlling the ever-growing cost of health care. By capping the growth in health care costs at the rate of growth of the state’s economy, as well as focusing more attention on wellness and prevention, we will reduce spending on health care by $150 billion over the next 15 years. That is money that can instead be spent elsewhere in our economy. The legislation also takes pains to ensure that a reduced rate of spending doesn’t translate into worse care, or denied benefits, as insurance companies and providers will also have to meet tougher quality-of-care standards.
Melissa’s Bill/Sentencing Reform
It took several months for a conference committee to work out a compromise, but in the end the Legislature approved, and I supported, a bill that eliminates parole for violent offenders convicted a third-time, and revamps the state’s parole board. While I believe the state needs to do more to address the underlying reasons why individuals commit violent crimes – such as mental
health and substance abuse issues – there are some people who just need to be removed from society. I disagree with provisions in this bill that reduce minimum mandatory sentences for major drug dealers, as they impact our neighborhoods as much as any violent offender, however, the bill accomplishes much to improve our criminal justice system.
Welfare fraud/EBT reform
The vast majority of taxdollars spent on the state’s transitional assistance programs, both the food stamp and the direct cash payment programs, are spent honestly by recipients to purchase basic needs: food, housing and clothing. However, I do not believe any level of fraud or abuse in our public programs should be ignored or dismissed, and clearly there are problems with the state’s EBT card program. EBT cards can no longer be used to buy lottery tickets, alcohol, guns and ammunition, tattoos, vacations or jewelry. Individuals who routinely “lose” their cards will be subject to sanctions, and those who conspire to defraud the system will be prosecuted under new, stringent criminal statutes. I am also supportive of a new commission to look at ways to
further limit fraud by making direct benefit payments to landlords and utility companies.
This isn’t a third-world issue. Human trafficking is happening right here in Massachusetts. Under this legislation, anyone involved in the organization of forced labor or sexual servitude will face tough, new criminal penalties, including up to 20 years in jail. It also creates a new crime of trafficking human organs, and requires anyone convicted of enticing a minor into prostitution
to register as a sex offender. At the same time, individuals who have been victimized would be protected from prosecution and provided with needed services paid for with assets seized from these trafficking rings.
The state’s foreclosure rate remains high, due to a combination of shady mortgage practices and a sluggish economy. Yet, too often we hear how banks are unwilling to work collaboratively to refinance a troubled mortgage, with some banks happy to simply foreclose and resell the property, even at a loss. This legislation doesn’t require banks to refinance all troubled mortgages; rather, it requires banks to simply check if a mortgage refinancing – either at
extended terms, or a lower interest rate – would make financial sense for both the bank and homeowner. I was supportive of the Senate version of the bill, which would have allowed homeowners to request mediation. Banks opposed this, however. I also fought in the Senate version for tougher requirements to ensure that a bank legally owns a mortgage, and has publicly filed its ownership interests with the registry of deeds, before it begins the foreclosure process.
Auto Repair Rules
The Legislature passed a pair of laws designed to protect consumers while getting their cars repaired. First, we passed legislation that prohibits insurance companies from steering consumers to preferred companies, or even companies they have an ownership interest in, for auto glass repairs. It also cracks-down on fly-by-night and under-trained shops who perform shoddy work and are not available later to fix problems. The second bill, the so-called Right to Repair bill,
will ensure that your local repair shop will have access to all the tools, equipment and diagnostic information needed to fix your car, while not requiring manufacturers to disclose trade secrets or other proprietary information. The Right to Repair bill will still appear on this November’s ballot, but both sides have said they will now work to encourage voters to reject it and preserve this compromise version.
Probation Department Reform
This legislation, of course, stems from the 2010 Ware Report that found widespread patronage, and even fraud, in the department’s hiring practices. This was one of the first major bills the Legislature took up after I was sworn in January 2011. It installs a professional administrator in charge of all hiring and firing, strengthens the preliminary exam and interview process, and requires public disclosure by prospective probation department employees of all family members who are state employees, as well as requires that letters of support from elected officials be publicly disclosed.
The Legislature has enacted two pension reform laws that will prevent many of egregious abuses of the system that have rightfully upset taxpayers in recent years. The most recent reform law makes it difficult for public employees to receive late-in-career pay spikes that boost their pensions, prohibits pension bonuses for terminated state employees, and increases the retirement age while reducing benefits for new employees. It could save $5 billion over the next 30 years. I voted against this bill as I did not feel it contained enough reforms, and, by reducing benefits or future employees without also reducing contributions, could result in employees actually contributing more to the system than they could ever receive in benefits.
These pieces of legislation will enable us to be better stewards of your taxdollars, will improve our communities, and will allow Massachusetts to remain among the most desirable places to live and work in the nation.