Massachusetts Senate Passes Marijuana Legislation with Senator Jason Lewis’ Support

The Massachusetts Senate passed, by a 30-5 vote, legislation to ensure the public health and safety of patient and consumer access to medical and adult use of marijuana in the Commonwealth.

“This legislation takes important steps to shrink the black market, promote a diverse and responsible industry, and establish strong public health and safety protections, especially for our youth, while respecting the will and intent of the voters,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “Further, by mandating rigorous research and data collection to inform public policy, as well as a commission on drugged driving, the legislation also lays the groundwork for sound lawmaking around marijuana policy in the future.”

The Senate bill would strengthen oversight.  The legislation: expands the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to five members: one appointment each from the Treasurer, Governor, and Attorney General, with two additional consensus appointments; establishes a commission on the effects of impaired driving and how to detect impaired drivers; mandates clear advertising, packaging, and labeling standards while preserving flexibility for the CCC to adjust to changing industry practices; implements a strong research agenda that tracks marijuana use trends, economic trends and impacts, monitors the elimination of the illicit market, tracks employment trends in the marijuana industry, and compiles data on any continued enforcement of Chapter 94C crimes related to marijuana; and, creates public awareness campaigns to reduce youth usage, reduce impaired driving, and education about responsible usage.

The bill would expand economic opportunities for all.  The legislation: removes the head start for businesses already licensed for medical marijuana so that all individuals and businesses have a fair shot at entering this industry; allows for the production and sale of industrial hemp under the Department of Agriculture; and, requires the CCC to encourage participation by farmers and small businesses, including providing lower priced licenses and the ability to form cooperatives to small cultivators.

The bill would promote justice.  The legislation ensures that possession of marijuana by those under 21 is treated the same as underage alcohol possession, and promotes opportunities in communities impacted by the War on Drugs.

The bill would protect and preserve the medical marijuana program.  The legislation: protects the ability of the medical marijuana program to serve patients and reduces bureaucracy by carefully transferring the oversight of the medical marijuana program to the CCC over the next 18 months; institutes significant privacy protections for patients participating in the medical marijuana program; and, helps current medical marijuana facilities to compete by allowing them to convert into for-profit entities.

Senator Lewis was pleased to have a number of amendments he proposed ultimately adopted into the final Senate bill.  Among them: requirements were included that packaging be opaque, child-resistant, and re-sealable, and a prohibition was instituted on knock-offs of existing products; requirements were included for labeling to include key health warnings and symbols to prevent consumption by minors; marketing and advertising restrictions were strengthened, with the burden of proof on the industry that ads cannot be targeted to minors; and, key funding was directed toward substance use disorder prevention for schools and community coalitions.

With the Massachusetts House of Representative having recently passed its own marijuana legislation, a conference committee comprised of both House and Senate members will now work out the differences between the Senate bill and the House bill.  Their compromise bill will return to the House and Senate for passage before heading to the Governor’s desk.

Column: The Latest Teen Craze: Vaping

Most adults are not familiar with e-cigarettes or vaping. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for teenagers. The use of e-cigarettes in recent years has exploded among middle and high school students, who think that they are cool and harmless. This has rapidly become a major public health concern.

An e-cigarette is a handheld electronic device that creates an aerosol by heating a liquid, which the user inhales. The use of e-cigarettes is referred to as vaping. The liquid typically contains nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerine, and various flavorings. Since they contain nicotine, e-cigarettes are tobacco products.

Since e-cigarettes are still largely unregulated (although the FDA is now moving forward with some health and safety regulations), it is impossible to know all of the ingredients in any particular brand of e-juice (the liquid that goes into the device). However, researchers have found that e-cigarette vapor may be filled with cancer-causing chemicals. One study, noted in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that e-cigarette vapor can contain cancer-causing formaldehyde at levels up to 15 times higher than regular cigarettes. The American Society of Clinical Oncology notes that “according to one analysis by the FDA, the tobacco solution used in e-cigarettes contains a toxic chemical found in antifreeze and several cancer-causing chemicals, such as nitrosamines.”

There has not yet been sufficient time to study the long-term health effects and risks of vaping. Some tobacco control advocates and public health experts believe that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking and, therefore, can be a harm reduction strategy for adult smokers who have been unable to quit. Others disagree and believe it is a mistake to treat e-cigarettes differently than other tobacco products.

There is universal agreement, however, that young people should not be vaping. Nicotine — whether in cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, or e-cigarettes — is a highly addictive drug. Teenagers are much more susceptible to nicotine addiction than adults, and nicotine has harmful health impacts on the developing brain. In fact, ninety-five percent of tobacco users become addicted to nicotine before age 21.

Tobacco companies are aggressively marketing e-cigarettes to young people, using the same playbook that led to high rates of smoking in the past. These tactics include celebrity endorsements, ads on social media, cheap products, and enticing flavors like cotton candy, fruit punch, and crème brulee. The industry also downplays any health risks. For example, check out www.juulvapor.com whose products are very popular among middle and high school students in our communities (according to my teen daughter).

As a result, the use of e-cigarettes among teenagers has exploded. According to the CDC, the percentage of high school students who reported using an e-cigarette at least once during the month the survey was taken was 4.5% in 2013.  As of 2016, this number increased to an astonishing 23.7%. Anecdotally, I have heard from some high schools in our area that the vaping rate may now exceed 40%. School officials are scrambling to figure out how to respond.

In my role as Senate Chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, I have filed legislation, An Act to Protect Youth from the Health Risks of Tobacco and Nicotine Addiction, and I’m doing everything possible to see that this bill becomes law in Massachusetts. The bill makes it clear that e-cigarettes are tobacco products; raises the minimum legal sales age for all tobacco products from 18 to 21; and prohibits vaping in schools and other places where smoking is not permitted. A number of our communities have already enacted similar policies through the action of local Boards of Health, but we need to implement these important safeguards statewide.

I also believe we need to step up education and prevention efforts, aimed at both students and parents, in our schools and communities. We must act with urgency if we are going to stem the epidemic of vaping among young people and prevent another generation from becoming addicted to nicotine and tobacco products.

Legislature Advances Fair Share Amendment with Senator Jason Lewis’ Support

The Massachusetts legislature voted 134-55 to advance the Fair Share constitutional amendment to the ballot for consideration by voters in the 2018 statewide elections.  The amendment would assess an additional 4% surtax on individual annual income over one million dollars, and requires the legislature to allocate the increased revenue solely to education and transportation needs.

The amendment specifically states that the 4% income tax will only apply to individual annual income starting at $1 million.  Any income less than $1 million would be taxed at the current state income tax rate of 5.1%.  According to the Department of Revenue, the proposed amendment would affect approximately 14,000 Massachusetts residents and will raise between $1.4 and $2.2 billion annually, earmarked specifically for new investments in education and transportation.

“The Fair Share Amendment is the best opportunity we have right now to make our tax system fairer, invest in education and transportation, strengthen our economy, and begin to restore the American Dream for working families in the Commonwealth,” said Senator Jason Lewis, whose full remarks at the Constitutional Convention are below.

Massachusetts has fundamental needs in both transportation infrastructure and education.  446 bridges in Massachusetts are “structurally deficient,” meaning they have “major deterioration, cracks, or other flaws that reduce the ability to support vehicles,” and an estimated $14.4 billion of bridge repairs are needed.

Further, the revenue generated by the Fair Share Amendment will support ongoing efforts to update the Chapter 70 school funding formula and implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission to ensure adequate funding for our K-12 school districts, an effort for which Senator Lewis has spent his tenure in the legislature advocating.

In addition, the rising cost of college education has hindered the ability of younger generations to afford a college education without exorbitant amounts of student debt.  Before 1987, a student working a minimum wage job could pay their way through UMass Amherst without any debt. Today, the average UMass Amherst student who takes out student loans to pay for school is graduating with over $30,000 in student debt, and the average graduate of Bridgewater State with loans leaves school with over $32,000 in student debt.

Under the Massachusetts constitution, a proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by one quarter of all elected members of the legislature, which would currently be 50 votes.  The legislature must approve the amendment in two consecutive joint sessions, which happen during each two year legislative session, before the question appears on the ballot for voter approval.  Following last year’s 135-57 vote to advance the amendment, and with today’s successful vote, the amendment will be placed on the 2018 ballot.

Remarks in Support of the Fair Share Amendment, as prepared for delivery
Delivered before the Constitutional Convention of the General Court on June 14, 2017

Thank you Mr. President.

I rise in support of the Fair Share Amendment. I believe this proposal would make our tax system fairer, enable badly needed investments in our education system and transportation infrastructure, strengthen the Massachusetts economy, and provide our constituents with greater opportunity and an improved quality of life.

Poor and working families in Massachusetts are struggling to get by every day. For them, the American Dream seems ever more elusive, if not downright impossible. People are working longer hours, and often multiple jobs. Since 1979, worker productivity has increased an astonishing 65%. But workers are not getting ahead and they’re not getting their fair share.

This is taking a terrible toll on our families, particularly our children. The child poverty rate in Massachusetts has been rising for years, with one in six children now growing up in poverty. And one in three children are living in a household with an income below 200% of the poverty level. In a state as wealthy as Massachusetts, this is shameful.

Income and wealth inequality in our country is at levels not seen since the roaring 1920s, right before the Great Depression. Massachusetts is the sixth most unequal state. While there are no doubt a number of factors that have contributed to stagnating incomes for working families and such high levels of inequality, our state tax policy is one of these factors. And, unlike the forces of globalization or rapid technological change, state tax policy is within our direct control. We can change it.

Our current tax system in Massachusetts is regressive. People in the bottom 20% of the income scale pay 10.5% of their annual income in state and local taxes, while people in the top 1% pay only 5% of their annual income in state and local taxes, after federal tax deductions. This is unfair.

Furthermore, our current tax structure is unable to support the needs of our Commonwealth. In 2001, we invested 11% of the state’s economic output in our state budget. Today, that has fallen to 9.5%. Virtually every area of the state budget is underfunded, especially education and transportation that are critical to our state’s future economic growth.

Opponents of the Fair Share Amendment wring their hands and claim that it will drive millionaires out of Massachusetts. Yes, some very wealthy people may move; perhaps they were already thinking about retiring to Florida or Arizona where it doesn’t snow. But the overwhelming evidence from studies of state tax policy strongly suggests that the vast majority of high-income households will not leave the state simply because of a higher marginal tax rate. There are many other good reasons to stay in Massachusetts. In fact, investments in a stronger education system and improved transportation infrastructure will make Massachusetts an even more desirable place to live, raise a family, and grow a business.

The Fair Share Amendment is the best opportunity we have right now to make our tax system fairer, invest in education and transportation, strengthen our economy, and begin to restore the American Dream for working families in the Commonwealth. Thank you.

Senator Jason Lewis to Host Community Conversation in Reading on Housing Issues

Continuing his “Community Conversations” issue discussions, Senator Jason Lewis is excited to announce an upcoming conversation he will hold on housing issues in our communities.  Held in every community of the district, “Community Conversations” are issue discussions delving into a different topic at each forum, with ample opportunity for residents to share feedback and have their questions answered by experts on the given topic.

This upcoming event – Community Conversations: Addressing Housing Needs in the Commonwealth – will take place on Wednesday, June 28, at 6:00pm.  The event will occur in the Conference Room at the Reading Public Library, 64 Middlesex Avenue, Reading, and is free and open to the public.  Attendees will hear from: Chrystal Kornegay, Undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, offering perspective of statewide priorities pertaining to housing policy; Steve Finn, Executive Director of the Malden Housing Authority, offering insight on housing needs and priorities at the local level; and, Eric Shupin, Director of Public Policy for the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), sharing perspective on near-term and long-term priorities of housing advocates.

This forum will offer the chance to hear directly from numerous issue experts regarding the current state of housing in the Commonwealth and the priorities that need to be addressed to keep housing affordable in our communities for lower-income and middle-income families.  There will be ample opportunity for Q&A from attendees.

“The availability and affordability of housing in our communities are fundamental concerns for families in our region,” noted Senator Lewis.  “I am eager to delve into this with policy experts, as these topics will help shape the character of and quality-of-life in our communities.  I am also eager to hear feedback on these issues from local residents, as the conversations I have directly with constituents across the district are the best source of information and guidance to help me do my job in the legislature.”

“Community Conversations” forums have been held in all six communities of the 5th Middlesex district on topics including: public education; public transportation; small business and entrepreneurship; challenges facing senior citizens and caregivers; veterans’ issues, energy policy and environmental priorities; and, efforts to combat substance abuse and opioid addiction in our region.

Senator Jason Lewis Receives HIV/AIDS Legislative Leadership Award from AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts

Citing his support for vital public health efforts, AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts presented Senator Jason Lewis with their HIV/AIDS Legislative Leadership Award prior to the 32nd annual AIDS Walk on Sunday, June 4.  AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts’ mission is to stop the epidemic and related health inequities by eliminating new infections, maximizing healthier outcomes for those infected and at risk, and tackling the root causes of HIV/AIDS.

The award recognized Senator Lewis’ efforts “supporting expansion of syringe access programs and working towards the goal of getting to zero new infections in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”  Harm reduction programs like needle exchange are a proven, effective public health response to the opioid crisis we face, and a safe way to engage injection drug users with needed care.  Senator Lewis has served as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health since 2015.

“When the Syringe Access Coalition needed an ally to champion the importance of expanding needle exchange programs in the Senate, we immediately turned to Senator Jason Lewis who has long been an advocate for public health in the Legislature,” said Carl Sciortino, Executive Director of AIDS Action Committee.  “AIDS Action Committee is proud to present Senator Lewis with our HIV/AIDS Legislative Leadership Award.”

“I’m proud to work with AIDS Action Committee, the entire Project ABLE coalition, and public health advocates and activists across the Commonwealth as we work toward achieving the goal of zero new infections,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “We need to continue expanding resources for HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C support services, for prevention, screening, health navigation, education, and outreach.”

Massachusetts Senate Passes Fiscal Year 2018 Budget with Support from Senator Jason Lewis

The Massachusetts Senate passed a $40.8 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2018, investing in key areas related to local aid, education, health and human services, housing and workforce development. The budget makes targeted investments, while limiting the use of one-time revenue sources and protecting the state’s Stabilization Fund.

“I’m pleased that this budget balances responsible fiscal stewardship with the need for critical investments in our Commonwealth,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “From starting to implement the recommendations of the Chapter 70 Foundation Budget Review Commission to fostering innovative approaches in public health to funding key support for workforce development, this budget does right by youth and seniors, workers and taxpayers, entrepreneurs and families.”

In line with the Senate’s “Kids First” framework to invest in our children, the budget directs funding to high quality education for everyone, from children at birth to adults making midlife career transitions.  The budget commits $4.76 billion in Chapter 70 education funding, allowing for a minimum increase of $30 per pupil aid, and takes steps to implement the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations to more adequately and equitably fund school districts across the state, an effort for which Senator Lewis has spent his tenure in the legislature advocating.  The budget allots $545.1 million for community colleges and universities, and $534.5 million for the University of Massachusetts.  Importantly, $293.7 million is committed to fully fund the Special Education Circuit Breaker for the 6th year in a row, reimbursing school districts for the high cost of educating students with disabilities.  To enhance the ability of all young people to meet their potential, $15.1 million is budgeted to expand access to high quality preschool for 4-year-olds in low-income households, $10 million is included to boost salaries for early educators, and $3.7 million is committed for after-school and out-of-school programs to support students who need more time and specialized attention.

The budget continues the Senate’s strong partnership with municipalities in directing significant investments to local aid and community services, including: $1.06 billion for Unrestricted General Government Aid to support community investments in education, health care, public safety and roads and bridges; $83 million for Regional Transit Authorities; $26.7 million for the Board of Library Commissioners, from which $10.4 million is committed for regional library local aid and $9.8 million is allocated for municipal libraries, with $2.3 million for technology and automated resources; $16.5 million for the Massachusetts Cultural Council to support the state-wide creative economy and local arts and culture; and, $14.2 million for local Councils on Aging to strengthen programs and services in senior centers.

The budget takes steps to contain health care costs and invests in health and human services to ensure access to high quality, affordable health care and to support children, seniors, people with disabilities and veterans.  This includes: $388.4 million for mental health support services for adults, including $1 million to expand community-based placements to alleviate longer than necessary stays in inpatient units or emergency rooms; $144.1 million for a range of substance abuse treatment, intervention, and recovery support services; $91.6 million for mental health services for children and young people; $31.3 million for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment; $24.2 million to fully fund Department of Developmental Services Turning 22 services to help young people with disabilities transition to the adult services system; $13.2 million for Family Resource Centers, providing community-based services for families across the state; and, $3.5 million to encourage collaboration among agencies, schools and community partners to strengthen programming for early detection and screening for mental illness in children.

As part of his ongoing efforts to contain healthcare costs and enhance public health through prevention, Senator Lewis successfully championed an amendment to the budget that reauthorizes and expands the Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund (PWTF), to be funded through a tax on flavored tobacco products, which had previously avoided its due level of taxation through a special loophole.  Senator Lewis helped lead the effort to create a first-in-the-nation PWTF in 2012. The PWTF funds community partnerships made up of municipal governments, healthcare providers, and local health and human service organizations, all working closely together to achieve a community-wide focus on prevention and wellness. The goal is to reduce rates of the most prevalent and preventable health conditions, address health disparities, and reduce healthcare costs.  Since its creation the PWTF has increased access to preventive services for nearly one million Massachusetts residents.

The budget invests $464.1M in low income housing and homelessness services, with a focus on preventative and supportive resources to connect people with affordable, stable housing, as well as assistance for those in crisis. In addition to increasing funding, the budget expands access to housing and homelessness prevention resources by increasing the income threshold for rental vouchers, expanding eligibility for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, and increasing the HomeBASE re-housing subsidy cap to better divert families to housing.

The budget also makes targeted investments to promote self-sufficiency among low-income families and create opportunities for people to develop the skills they need to compete in the workforce and boost our economy, including: $30.8 million for adult basic education services; $20 million for civil legal aid services for low-income people; $17.6M for the emergency food assistance program; $12.5 million for summer jobs and work-readiness training for at-risk youth; and, $2.5 million for Small Business Technical Assistance grants.

As a safeguard for our Commonwealth’s commuters, Senator Lewis successfully championed an amendment to require that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) more effectively identify and notify any drivers who owe more than $100 in tolls and fees to prevent commuters from unknowingly accruing unexpectedly sizable overdue payment fees.

Finally, the budget includes several initiatives to maximize state and federal revenue opportunities, including a standing Tax Expenditure Review Commission to evaluate all tax expenditures and their fiscal impact. The budget also expands the room occupancy tax to short-term rentals and modifies the film tax credit to ensure the incentive benefits local communities, residents, and business.

A Conference Committee will now work out the differences between the Senate budget and the version passed by the House of Representatives in April. Fiscal Year 2018 begins on July 1, 2017.

Column: Lowering Healthcare Costs by Reducing Consumption of Sugary Drinks

There are plenty of foods and beverages that most of us consume that we know are unhealthy for us. So why should we single out sugary drinks?

The simple answer is that sugar-sweetened beverages are by far the largest source of added sugar in the American diet – more than desserts and candy combined. And, it is clear from many studies that there is a strong link between consuming these beverages and developing serious health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and poor dental health. Treating these preventable chronic illnesses is a major driver of the high and rising healthcare costs that are squeezing our family, business, and government budgets.

Enjoying a soda or lemonade used to be an occasional treat for most children and adults. But, today, these beverages are consumed in far greater quantities. The American Heart Association recommends that children consume no more than one 8-ounce sugary drink per week; however, 60 percent of Massachusetts children drink at least one sugary drink per day.

Sugary drinks, such as sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened iced teas, offer no nutritional value and are usually consumed in addition to, not in place of, solid calories, thus contributing significantly to weight gain. In Massachusetts, approximately one-third of children and adolescents and 60 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Meanwhile, the rate of Massachusetts residents that suffer from diabetes has more than doubled over the past 20 years, and it is estimated that 35 percent of the adult population is pre-diabetic. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, drinking just one or two sugary beverages daily increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 26 percent.

Healthcare costs to treat obesity-related conditions, diabetes, and heart disease easily exceed $500 billion annually in the United States. We all bear this burden through higher health insurance premiums and taxes that we pay.

To help address this public health crisis and reduce healthcare costs, we have introduced new legislation, An Act to promote healthy alternatives to sugary drinks. The goal is to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks by replacing it with water and other healthier beverage choices, particularly among children and teens. This will improve health and lower rates of preventable chronic diseases, which in turn will contribute to lower healthcare costs.

The legislation includes a number of proven strategies to reduce the marketing of sugary drinks to children. It also establishes a tiered sugary drink excise tax: beverages with less than 5 grams of added sugar per 12 fluid ounces will not be taxed; beverages with between 5 grams and 19 grams of added sugar per 12 fluid ounces will be taxed at a rate of 1-cent-per-ounce; and beverages with 20 or more grams of added sugar per 12 fluid ounces will be taxed at a rate of 2-cents-per-ounce. The revenue raised by this tax, estimated at $368 million annually, would be deposited in a newly established Children’s Health Promotion Fund. This money would be used to provide grants to municipalities and schools to install safe and convenient drinking water fountains in schools, parks, and playgrounds; promote nutrition programs in preschools and childcare facilities serving low-income communities; expand the state’s successful Mass in Motion program; and support other evidence-based methods for improving children’s health and wellness.

Early results from jurisdictions that have implemented excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages are promising. After Berkeley, California, implemented a 1-cent-per-ounce tax in 2015, consumption of sugary drinks fell by 21 percent and water consumption increased by 63 percent in certain neighborhoods compared to cities without the tax.

Opponents argue that such a tax would cost jobs. However, the evidence indicates that there is likely to be little net impact on jobs, since many people simply shift their purchases to lower-sugar beverages. Another concern raised is that this tax would be regressive, falling more heavily on lower-income people. While this is true of all so-called “sin” taxes, the disease burden caused by high consumption of sugary drinks falls overwhelmingly on poorer communities. Furthermore, most of the tax revenue would be invested in these same communities, leading to even greater health benefits.

Prevention is the key to reducing rates of costly, preventable chronic diseases that are driving up healthcare costs. Reducing the high consumption of sugary drinks is one effective prevention strategy we should be aggressively pursuing.

Senator Jason Lewis
Co-Chair, Joint Committee on Public Health

Dr. Claire McCarthy
Pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School

Senate Clean Energy Future Tour to Stop in Melrose on May 15

The Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, of which Senator Jason Lewis is a member, is pleased to announce that the Massachusetts Senate Clean Energy Future Tour – a new, statewide committee initiative on clean energy, climate change, and constituent engagement – will be making a stop in Melrose to hear from our region’s residents regarding their climate, energy, and environmental concerns.

The Melrose tour stop will take place on Monday, May 15, at 6pm, in the GAR Room of Melrose Memorial Hall, 590 Main Street.  It is free and open to the public.

Set to begin on May 8, the Massachusetts Senate Clean Energy Future Tour will consist of nine public hearings in various communities across the Commonwealth, from the Berkshires to the Cape, to hear the thoughts and suggestions of constituents and stakeholders on clean energy and climate change issues. In these public hearings, committee members will hear the questions and suggestions of residents regarding clean energy and climate action in a forum-based fashion. This input will aid legislators in crafting policy and implementing the proper legislation for Massachusetts.

“Massachusetts must continue to move towards a green energy future to build a sustainable environment, grow jobs and reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. “The Clean Energy Future Tour will allow the Committee to hear the thoughts and desires directly from our residents on how we achieve our energy goals.”

“The communities in our region have taken great strides at the municipal level to advance energy efficiency,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “This tour stop will be an invaluable opportunity for community members to discuss local best practices on energy and environmental issues, as well as share concerns regarding the impact of climate change and related issues.  My Senate colleagues are eager to hear the stories that our local communities have to tell.”

Clean energy now employs 105,212 workers across the Commonwealth, an increase of 75 percent, or 45,000 jobs, since 2010, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s annual Clean Energy Industry Report.  Clean energy employment in Massachusetts grew 6 percent between 2015 and 2016.  The clean energy sector has become an important part of the overall Massachusetts economy, contributing $11.8 billion in economic activity in 2015.  Over the last six years, Massachusetts has taken first place, among our 50 states, in the energy efficiency sector.  And in the U.S. as a whole, clean energy jobs outnumber coal and gas jobs 5 to 1.

Real-time scheduling information, including dates, locations, and times of the hearings, can be found on the tour’s website at malegislature.gov/cleanenergyfuture.

Residents can also use social media to voice their thoughts and are encouraged to tweet their energy and climate ideas to the committee at @MACleanFuture and/or use the hashtag #MACleanFuture.

Senate Kids First Working Group Releases “Kids First” Strategic Blueprint

Members of the Senate Kids First working group, including Senator Jason Lewis, released Kids First: A Vision for a Stronger Commonwealth, a strategic blueprint for investing in children and their families to build pathways to successful, productive, and healthy adulthood.

For the last fifteen years, Massachusetts has seen roughly 40% of its third graders overall – and 6 out of 10 low-income third graders – not reading at grade level, highlighting the shortcomings of our early education efforts and the steep challenges of future efforts to close the achievement gap.  Kids First proposes the goal of reducing by at least half the number of third-graders who are not reading proficiently by 2027.

To dramatically increase third grade reading proficiency rates and support the whole child, the Senate’s Kids First initiative has established four broad areas within which to focus specific strategies: Access, Quality, Readiness, and Integration.  These four pillars provide the foundation on which all policy recommendations in Kids First are centered.

“We can help hundreds of thousands of children stay in school, stay out of jail, and lead productive and successful lives, or we can continue to pay the price of neglecting them.  Investing in our children is one of the best returns around, and improving third grade reading proficiency is the place to start,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.  “I’m very proud of the Kids First working group.”

“I am proud of the comprehensive vision put forth in the Kids First blueprint,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “In it, the Senate makes a vital commitment to the fundamental integration of services in critical areas including mental health and social-emotional learning.  The social-emotional learning component of Kids First is essential to strengthening the critical thinking, communication, and interpersonal skills of our young people.  Kids First will serve as an invaluable guide, and it was a privilege to serve on the working group.”

Senate President Rosenberg created the Kids First initiative to propose a series of recommendations that seek to build strong and resilient kids in the Commonwealth.  Together, Senate President Rosenberg and Kids First initiative chair Senator Sal DiDomenico of Everett convened a cross-jurisdictional working group of senators to look comprehensively at a wide array of policy areas that relate to supporting children.  The Kids First working group invited experts in diverse fields including early childhood development, health, education, housing, and nutrition, among others, to share their knowledge through questionnaires, meetings, and presentations.

“Building strong and resilient children should, and must, be our Commonwealth’s number one priority, and achieving this goal requires our devotion to this commitment at every step of a child’s educational, social, and economic upbringing” said Senator Sal DiDomenico, chair of the Senate’s Kids First initiative. “I am proud of the strategic vision and values laid out by the Senate in Kids First, and I am confident that this document will provide our Commonwealth with a critical road map of steps we must take to make serious, significant, and sustained investments in our children’s futures.”

“If we are serious about closing the persistent achievement gap, we know that we must start earlier and consider opportunities to connect health, education, and housing,” said Amy O’Leary, Director of Early Education for All.

After collecting extensive input, the Senate working group crafted a vision statement of strategic priorities, including budget and policy recommendations, selected to re-orient Massachusetts towards a 21st century education system and to begin prioritizing long-term, smart, and strategic investments in children and their families that will provide a pathway to healthy, productive adulthood.  While this initiative is broad in scope, from pre-natal to college/career, the focus and content of this Senate vision statement is on the critical years of birth through age 9.

The plan laid out in Kids First is not meant as a blueprint for omnibus legislation or any piece of legislation in particular.  Rather, it is offered as a statement of the Senate’s vision for children and a statement of budgetary priorities in the years to come.  A link to the blueprint can be found online at https://malegislature.gov/cc/reports/kidsfirstblueprint.pdf.

Column: Improving Access to Quality Healthcare

Massachusetts is home to more than 32,000 primary care and specialist physicians, and many highly regarded hospitals and other healthcare providers. Nevertheless, many residents report difficulties accessing the care they need.

According to a recent survey by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, among adults who had insurance for the entire previous year, 47% said they had experienced difficulty seeing a doctor. This was because they could not find a provider who accepted their insurance or was accepting new patients, or because they could not get an appointment as soon as needed. The severity of the problem varies by region in the state, and is particularly acute for primary care doctors.

This situation is likely to worsen in the years ahead since, according to the Association for American Medical College’s Center for Workforce Studies, the United States is expected to face a shortage of more than 130,000 physicians by 2025 and a deficit of 918,000 registered nurses by 2030.

One of the strategies we should be pursuing to close this gap and improve access to quality healthcare for all residents of the Commonwealth is to take better advantage of foreign-trained medical professionals. An estimated 12,000 Massachusetts residents are foreign-trained doctors, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists, or other healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, more than 20% of these practitioners are unemployed or working in lower-skilled jobs that do not take full advantage of their talents and expertise. They face a number of barriers to working in their chosen professions in Massachusetts, including shortages of residency placements, limited access to information about licensure, complex and costly licensing requirements, and minimal hands-on clinical experience.

Marrying this pool of unused talent with a population in need of better access to services would help us to better meet our healthcare needs and expand opportunity at the same time. Research shows that foreign-trained clinicians are more likely to work in underserved areas; and, when they do, they can significantly improve health outcomes. Minority physicians and physicians of color also serve a disproportionate share of underserved populations, including patients with limited English skills. Research also suggests that greater diversity in the healthcare workforce, particularly better racial and cultural concordance, can improve clinical outcomes.

I first became aware of this issue as a result of conversations with a constituent who lives in Malden. Dr. Afsaneh Moradi came to Massachusetts in 2011 from Iran, where she had graduated from medical school and practiced as a primary care physician. She subsequently passed all three steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Unfortunately, although graduates of U.S. medical schools gain residency placements nine out of ten times, international medical school graduates who have successfully passed the USMLE are only placed at a rate of roughly five out of ten. Despite having graduated in the top 1% of her class and having already practiced medicine for seven years in her home country, as well as committing a lot of her time to volunteering and unpaid observerships, Dr. Moradi is still waiting to land a residency slot. Her life-saving talent remains under-utilized and her potential patients remain lacking for adequate access to quality healthcare.

To help address this problem I have filed An Act to Increase Access to Health Care in Underserved Areas of Massachusetts. This legislation would create an inter-agency commission to identify barriers to practice for foreign-trained medical professionals and ways to overcome these barriers, with the goal of directing their services especially to rural and underserved areas with the greatest need. The commission would identify state or national licensing regulations that pose unnecessary barriers to practice; recommend possible changes to state licensing requirements; and, develop guidelines for full or conditional licensing of foreign-trained health professionals.

For Dr. Moradi and others stuck in a similar situation, and for the many Massachusetts residents who need better access to care, I’m hopeful this bill will become law.