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League Scores Big Wins in 2013-2014 Legislative Session

LWVMA saw major victories in the two-year legislative session that came to a close July 31.  Several bills that the League been advocating in favor of for years finally made it to the Governor’s desk and were signed.

Key successes came in the areas of election law and campaign finance reform, along with wins in such significant areas as gun control and access to women’s health clinics.

Here is a brief summary of some of those victories.  Detailed reports from our legislative specialists on these areas follow.

  • Election reform—Establishes early voting, online voter registration, post-election audits and pre-registration of teens.
  • Massachusetts Disclose Act—Requires timely disclosure of funding behind SuperPACs and listing of top five donors to groups buying ads in those ads.
  • Reproductive Health Care Access—Revises the rules governing protests at women’s health clinics after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state’s “buffer zone” law.
  • Gun Control—Brings Massachusetts into national background check system, requires background checks on private gun sales, and allows discretion by licensing authorities for rifle licenses.
  • Patient Safety—Permits hospitals, nurses and nurse-managers to decide the number of intensive care patients assigned to a nurse.
  • Transportation—“Active Streets” law encourages communities to consider “active” use by pedestrians and bicyclists in designing public street projects.
  • Meeting Basic Human Needs—The comprehensive welfare bill includes provisions increasing educational and training opportunities for low-income families.

Other bills we supported, including a bill to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18, and one to address the emergency shelter needs of unaccompanied homeless teens, remained in committee at the end of the session.

Many bills LWVMA supported that were not passed will be introduced again when the legislature convenes in January 2015, and we will continue working to get them passed.

Here are reports from our legislative specialists:

Education—Terry Yoffie:  Three bills, S.208/H.3290/H.523, would raise the age requirement for remaining in school from 16 to 18 and create intervention programs for vulnerable students earlier in their school years to prevent them from dropping out of school.  The bills were sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Rep. Edward Coppinger and Rep. Marty Walz, and remained in the Senate Ways and Means Committee at the end of the session.

The League has been supporting these bills since they were drafted. They would support our K-12 schools to help vulnerable students stay in school and enable access to programs geared toward their success.

Elections and Voting—Linda Freedman:  The League and our partners in the Election Modernization Coalition worked for the passage of a comprehensive voting reform bill, H.4072. It was signed by the governor on May 22, 2014.

This law is the culmination of years of efforts by the League and our partners to improve voter registration, validate election results and increase voter participation in elections.  It establishes early voting, online voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, post-election audits of voting machines and changes to “inactive voter” procedures.

It also sets up a task force for study of Election Day registration, cost of early voting, the need for additional sites and hours, and other election issues.   The Election Modernization Coalition will have a seat on the task force.

Equal Rights—Carole Pelchat:  On July 14, 2014, Sen. Harriette Chandler submitted An Act to promote public safety and protect access to reproductive health care facilities in response to the U. S. Supreme Court’s determination that the Commonwealth’s current buffer law was unconstitutional.  The elements of this bill were based on the information included in the Supreme Court’s decision as to actions that would be considered constitutional.

Basically, the bill allows law enforcement officials to order the immediate withdrawal to a distance of not less than 25 feet from the entrance or driveway to a reproductive health care facility of one or more individuals who have impeded access to or departure from that entrance or driveway.  This withdrawal is to remain in effect for those individuals for a period of eight hours.  The remainder of the law provides for fines and/or imprisonment for severity of impeding access.

LWVMA’s Legislative Action Committee and then the LWVMA board voted to support the bill July 16 and submitted testimony to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary July 17.

The bill was referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on July 15, and a hearing was scheduled for July 16.  It was reported favorably by the Joint Committee and passed by the Senate on July 16.  It was received in the House on July 17 and debated and passed by the House July 23, with one amendment related to fines.  The Senate concurred with the bill as amended by the House on July 24.  The bill was signed by the Governor on July 30.

Good Governance—Carolyn Lee:  The Massachusetts Disclose Act, mandating timely reporting of campaign contributions and the funders of advertising, passed on the last day of the session.  H.4366 was the culmination of a four-year effort begun immediately after the Citizens United decision.  In the 2012 legislature, it passed the Senate and died in the House. This session, many groups including LWVMA came together to work with the legislative committee on a compromise bill that would be strong and would pass.

The Disclose Act will require SuperPACs to reveal the sources of their funding no more than seven days after making an expenditure, such as placing a television ad. The reporting deadline changes to within 24 hours for the 10 days before an election.  In addition, groups placing television, print and internet ads must list their top five donors in the ad and include the website of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, where voters can find a list of all contributors.

The bill doubles the amount of money individuals can contribute to campaigns for state offices and the legislature, from $500 to $1,000, the first increase in decades.  Corporations, labor unions and special interests would be required to disclose expenditures in statewide, county or local races.

Health Care—Judy Deutsch:  LWVMA supported H.1008/S.557, An Act related to patient safety, which passed this session.  However, the final bill was not as originally written and as we supported it.  It originally included these provisions:  the number of patients that would be assigned to one nurse in different hospital units; the establishment of patient/nurse ratios to ensure that there are sufficient nurses to care for the patients,  and that failures to adhere to the legislated ratios will be reported to the Attorney General.

The Mass Nurses Association (MNA) said it promoted the original bill because it would prevent there being a lack of nurses sufficient to give quality care to patients, sometimes too few to save patients’ lives.  But finally, the MNA supported the bill that was passed — one that gave the hospitals, nurses and nurse-managers the right to decide whether one or two Intensive Care Unit patients would be assigned to one nurse.

It is expected that new versions of three other health-related bills we supported —S.515/H.1035 An Act for improved Medicare for all, S.572/H.1053 An Act to ensure effective cost control, and H.2008/S/1081 An Act relative to certified professional midwives — will be introduced in the next legislative session.

Meeting Basic Human Needs—Clare Gordon:  The comprehensive welfare bill (Chapter 158 of 2014, An Act to foster economic independence, S.2211) was finally passed in July after similar bills were passed by the Senate and House in November 2013. This bill included measures from two bills supported by the League for several years.

The first League-supported measure, S.35 and H.114 An act regarding pathways to family economic self-sufficiency, advocated increasing educational and training opportunities for low-income persons, especially those receiving “cash assistance” from the state (Transitional Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, etc.).

Measures from that bill incorporated into the Chapter 158 Welfare bill are:

  •  A comprehensive “pathways to self-sufficiency program” will include job readiness, life skills development, English as a second language, and many supportive services.
  •  The outcome of the program for individuals will be tracked and reported.

In addition, the Budget passed for 2015 includes over $11 million in the relevant training line, a huge increase over recent years.

S.37 and H.93, An act promoting financial stability and asset development, encouraged policies that make it possible for low-income persons to move out of poverty as recommended in the Asset Development Commission Report of 2009.

Incorporated into the Chapter 158 Welfare bill were the following measures:

  • Every Department of Transitional Assistance office will have an educational program that provides information on available jobs and low cost educational opportunities.
  •  Education at four-year institutions and vocational training will count toward TAFDC work requirements.
  •  The vehicle value limit is raised to $15,000 from $5000.
  •  The work-related expense deduction is $150 per month.
  •  Recipients are allowed to save beyond the $2500 asset limit in special regulated accounts.

The bill to foster economic independence also contains a host of measures to contain fraud, regulate EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards and, limit what they can buy, as well as vastly increasing the reporting requirements of the Department of Transitional Assistance, measures that LWVMA neither supported nor opposed.

H.135, An Act providing housing and support services to unaccompanied homeless youth, provides for a continuum of voluntary housing options and wraparound support services to homeless youth not able to live with their families, services not currently available. H.135 is currently in House Ways and Means. (During recent months there has been concern that such services not be confused with housing for refugees/unaccompanied immigrants from Central America.) A similar bill will probably be filed in the next session.

S.1317, An Act improving the earned income tax credit for working families, would increase the Massachusetts addition to the federal earned income tax credit from 15% to 20% and mandate outreach to eligible workers. LWVMA has supported the increase for many years because of the high cost of living in the state. S.1317 is in Senate Ways and Means.

Public Safety—Carolyn Lee:  In the aftermath of the Newtown, CT, shootings, more than two dozen bills were introduced in the legislature in the area of gun control. LWVMA joined the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, and worked with the coalition to lobby the legislature. Members of local leagues testified at five hearings around the state in support of strong legislation; we made an impact.

Eighteen months later, in the final hours of the 2014 session, H.4376 was passed and the governor has signed it. This bill was the result of serious compromises on both sides of the debate and some last-minute changes.

The bill brings Massachusetts into the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) that enables rapid and more accurate determination of whether a person is deemed suitable to possess a gun license.  Background checks on private sales are now also required. The bill mandates collection of data on all guns used in crimes or that cause injuries. This data then becomes available in a database for analysis. This is something the NRA has successfully fought at the federal level for ages, and Massachusetts is now the first state to mandate that data collection and analysis. The gun trafficking laws are updated and trafficking three or fewer guns is now a crime. Unfortunately, the mandate of data collection on bulk purchases of guns was pulled at the eleventh hour.

The bill enables limited discretion by the licensing authorities in the issuance of long gun licenses (FID cards), and unfortunately changes the existing law to limit discretion for handguns.  In both cases, the licensing authority must first obtain the concurrence of a district court before denying a license. The good news here is that there are now more conditions specified as legitimate reasons to deny a license.

There are many elements surrounding school safety and around suicide prevention also included in the bill. There will be further work to do getting all aspects of this bill implemented successfully.

Transportation—Robin Roberge:  H.3091, An Act relative to active streets and healthy communities, passed with League support.

“Active streets” are streets designed to allow for more trips to be taken via active transportation such as walking and cycling. This law encourages cities and towns across Massachusetts to routinely include appropriate active streets design elements in locally funded road projects. Communities that are certified by this program by adopting certain policies and procedures would be eligible to receive a modest amount of additional local transportation funding, thereby incentivizing these actions.