Senator Jason Lewis Receives Massachusetts School Library Association Award

Senator Jason Lewis was honored by the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) with the Joan C. Gallagher Legislator Award.  The MSLA noted Senator Lewis’ advocacy for school libraries in his testimony before the Chapter 70 Education Foundation Budget Review Commission.  The MSLA established the Joan C. Gallagher Award in remembrance of their friend and colleague, a champion for legislation to ensure that all students have equitable access to school library programs, professional staff and up-to-date resources.  According to the MSLA website, “the legislator recipient of this award demonstrates a commitment to advancing the role of the school library program and its staff in the educational process,” and also works to fund legislation that provides equity and up-to-date resources to students across the Commonwealth.

Boston Globe profile: A marijuana contingency plan for the Legislature

EXCERPT:

A lot of people suddenly want to know what Democratic Senator Jason Lewis thinks about marijuana.

“What I say is that I have had concerns in the past about liberalizing our marijuana policy,” said Lewis, the new chairman and sole member of the state Senate’s Special Committee on Marijuana. “I did oppose decriminalization in 2008, and I did oppose medical marijuana in 2012, when it was on the ballot. And the reason was simply because my concern is about protecting young people.”

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg asked Lewis to take on a months-long study of marijuana policies in reaction to a bill and a widely expected 2016 ballot measure seeking to legalize its recreational use. The committee will not address whether Massachusetts should legalize recreational use of marijuana. Instead, Lewis has been charged with examining the hundreds of judgments and decisions lawmakers may need to make if full legalization of marijuana is approved.

“Would it be a commercial market?” Lewis, of Winchester, asked. “Would it be a nonprofit market? Would it be a state-run monopoly like some states have for their liquor industry? What would the rules be in terms of licensing requirements? What kind of regulatory framework would we have in terms of what types of products are allowed?”

Senate members from nearly every legislative committee are expected to be called upon as Lewis delves into aspects of marijuana policy. The loosely knit group will also explore what stymied the implementation of medical marijuana after it was passed by a ballot measure in 2012.

The job was not one he asked for, Lewis said. But the Democrat, who represents the 5th Middlesex District, credits Rosenberg with being proactive. Colleagues say Lewis, who was also named this year as chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, was the right choice to take on what is expected to be a highly-scrutinized task.

Full profile available at: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/04/02/democrat-develops-marijuana-contingency-plan-for-legislature/nKfNcwhrGYJMgwYzuOYGdL/story.html

Column: Public Health Priorities

Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

I am eager to put those values into action in my new role as Senate Chairman of the Public Health Committee in the Massachusetts Legislature.  Specifically, there are three key priorities on which I will be focusing.

The first key priority is working to address the opioid crisis and related addiction and mental health issues.  No community is immune to this terrible scourge.  Although significant steps have been taken at the state and community-level to improve prevention and treatment, the behavioral healthcare system in Massachusetts continues to be fragmented and under-funded.  Too often, addiction is still treated as a criminal justice problem rather than a healthcare problem.  We need to consider all possible strategies to strengthen education and prevention, and improve the accessibility and affordability of treatment options.

Fortunately, there are several positive signs for the year ahead.  I commend the Governor for convening his Opioid Addiction Working Group, and I look forward to the Working Group’s list of policy recommendations, expected to be released this May.  I also commend Attorney General Maura Healey for her early focus on opiate and prescription drug abuse, including attention to drug addiction among pregnant mothers-to-be.  Additionally, legislative leadership has made it clear that combatting substance abuse and addiction will be a top priority for the current legislative session.

The second key priority is working to address tobacco use and nicotine addiction, especially among our young people.  Although cigarette smoking has been on the decline among both young people and adults, the tobacco industry is aggressively marketing a wide range of new products, including fruit flavored cigars, smokeless tobacco, and e-cigarettes.  For the first time, the rate of high school students’ use of other tobacco products has exceeded even the rate of cigarette smoking.  These products are getting a new generation addicted to nicotine and can cause a variety of harmful health impacts.

Tobacco use continues to be the leading preventable cause of death and disability in Massachusetts and is responsible for billions of dollars in healthcare costs.  We must take steps to strengthen our tobacco laws, following the lead of many of our cities and towns who have already restricted the availability, sale, packaging, and marketing of new tobacco products to help protect minors.

The third key priority is building on the accomplishments of our prevention & wellness efforts.  In 2012, we enacted landmark legislation aimed at improving the quality of care while containing the unsustainable rise in healthcare costs.  This legislation is expected to save the Commonwealth $200 billion over the next fifteen years.  A key component of this effort is a paradigm shift in our healthcare system — moving away from our current sick care system to a well care system; from a system geared primarily toward treating illness to one geared toward keeping people healthy and preventing chronic illness.

As part of that landmark legislation in 2012, we created a first-in-the-nation Prevention and Wellness Trust.  This Trust now serves as a conduit for high-impact, competitive grants to communities across the Commonwealth to implement proven interventions that address the most prevalent, most preventable, and most costly health conditions facing Massachusetts residents.  I look forward to building on the success of the Prevention and Wellness Trust, as we seek to continue this fundamental paradigm shift in our healthcare system from our current sick care system to a well care system.

I look forward to my work leading the Public Health committee and the positive impact we can have on the well-being of our families and communities.  I welcome your input and feedback.

Senator Jason Lewis Chairs Senate Session for the First Time

On Monday, March 30, for the first time since being sworn in as a member of the Massachusetts Senate, Senator Jason Lewis served as chair of a session of the Senate.  Senator Lewis was proud to hold the gavel and call the Senate session to order on behalf of the constituents of the 5th Middlesex district, which includes the Cities of Malden and Melrose and the Towns of Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, and precincts 1, 2, 3, and 8 of Winchester.

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Fox 25 Boston interview: Hefty price tag for MBTA emails prompts call for records reform

Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

EXCERPT:

Earlier this winter, MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott was on the defensive as she explained the MBTA shut down.

FOX25 asked for emails to and from Scott, and to and from another top MBTA employee on that day and the four days leading up to it.

The response? The MBTA said FOX25 could have the emails, for a price of over $15,000.

“It’s shocking that it would be $15,000 for some emails. You should be able to get those records electronically. It shouldn’t cost anything. Or a very, very modest amount,” said State Senator Jason Lewis.

Lewis is sponsoring a bill to reform the state’s public records law. Among other things, it would require state agencies to provide records electronically, charge fees that reflect actual costs, and force them to pay attorney’s fees when they unlawfully block access to public information.

“Information about our government needs to be readily accessible to journalists, watchdog groups and other citizens., so government can be held accountable,” Senator Lewis said.

Full piece available at http://www.myfoxboston.com/story/28534413/hefty-price-tag-for-mbta-emails-prompts-call-for-records-reform

Column: Massachusetts, future Sunshine State?

It’s time for Massachusetts to seize the title of “Sunshine State” from Florida.

No, we’ll never be able to compete with the citrus kings of the south for year-round beach weather.   And while we’d all welcome more sunlight this time of year, we’re talking about a different kind of sunshine.

March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, the yearly nationwide celebration of access to public information.  As lawmakers, we believe that government belongs to the people.  We want to ensure that when people have questions about how our laws and policies are being implemented, they can get honest and direct answers.  To keep our democracy healthy, it’s essential that journalists, activists, and average citizens can find out how — and how well — our government is working.  That’s why we’ve filed state legislation, the “Act to improve access to public records,” to increase government transparency and accountability by updating the Massachusetts public records law.

Under the leadership of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and former Senate President Therese Murray, in 2009 the Massachusetts Legislature passed significant reforms of ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws.  This improvement in the public records statutes is the next logical step in the reform process.

Which brings us back to Florida, dubbed the Sunshine State not only for its beaches but for its robust Sunshine Law.   Florida’s Sunshine Law is the state’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act.  Like the Massachusetts public records law, Florida’s law gives the public a broad right to access government information upon request.

The difference?  In Florida that right to public records is enforceable, whereas in Massachusetts it’s theoretical.

Under current Massachusetts law, there are myriad ways government agencies keep public records hidden from public view.  For one, agencies routinely exceed a 10-day limit for responding to requests, sometimes dragging their heels for months or even years.  Some simply never respond.  The punch line “How about never?is never good for you?” too often describes the government’s response to public records requests.   What’s more, most government agencies either don’t assign specific personnel to handle public requests, or don’t publicly identify those folks.  As a result, citizens seeking information from the government simply hit a brick wall.

Even when they do respond, too often agencies charge outrageous fees—to the tune of many thousands of dollars—for compiling, redacting, and copying records, most of which could be provided electronically at little-to-no cost to the government.  Unless your name is Gates, Buffett, or Trump, astronomical charges for public records usually mean that the information will never see the light of day.

Our bill would fix the Massachusetts public records law.  It would ensure that every state agency names a point person to facilitate freedom of information requests.  It would limit the fees agencies can charge for public records.  And it would further reduce costs by promoting the delivery of electronic records instead of paper.

These simple improvements to modernize the public records process would save time and money and help to restore public trust in government.

Most important, our bill would provide an incentive for government agencies to respond openly to information requests instead of reflexively shielding records from the public.  Today, Massachusetts agencies are able to get away with simply refusing to follow the law.  So while some agencies deserve credit for answering public records requests, others hide behind our weak statute and keep the public in the dark.  In Florida, by contrast, if a court finds that an agency unlawfully denies a person access to public records, the agency will have to pay the requester’s attorney fees.  That’s a powerful motivator to follow the law in the first place.

The absence of enforcement makes Massachusetts a major outlier.  Forty-six states and the federal government empower or require courts to award attorney fees in various circumstances when records are unlawfully withheld?but not Massachusetts.

No wonder Massachusetts got a failing grade on a 50-state comparison of transparency laws!  That’s also why organizations across the political spectrum?from the Pioneer Institute to the League of Women Voters?find common ground in urging reform.  Robust access to public records is not a threat or a nuisance; it’s the bedrock of our democracy.

It’s time to let the sunshine in by fixing our broken public records law.  A week of actual sunshine in the Commonwealth seems like wishful thinking this time of year, but smart reforms to increase government openness are within reach and will help Massachusetts shine all year round.

Senator Jason Lewis, 5th Middlesex district
Senator Jamie Eldridge, Middlesex & Worcester district
Representative Peter Kocot, 1st Hampshire district

Senator Jason Lewis to Kick Off “Community Conversations” Discussion Series with Forum on Boston 2024 Olympics Proposal

Keeping up his commitment to engage residents of the 5th Middlesex district in a variety of substantive ways, Senator Jason Lewis is very excited to unveil a new series of issue discussions that will be held in all six communities of the district over the coming year, entitled “Community Conversations.”  These events will feature a different issue being discussed at each stop, with an opportunity for residents to have questions answered by experts on the given topic.

The first Community Conversation will take place next month in Malden, and it will include a presentation from Richard Davey, CEO of Boston 2024, discussing what would be involved in a Boston-hosted Olympic Games and what impact it would have on our communities north of Boston.  The Community Conversation, which is being put on in coordination with the Office of Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, will be an opportunity for area residents to learn more about proposed plans for a Boston-based Olympic Games, have questions answered, and raise any concerns.

The event – Community Conversation: The Boston 2024 Olympics Proposal – will take place on Tuesday, April 7, at 6:30pm.  It will take place at the Malden Senior Center, 7 Washington Street, Malden.  Residents from all communities of the district are encouraged to attend.

“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 State House,” said Senator Lewis.  “I am excited for the ‘Community Conversations’ series as it will offer another meaningful opportunity to engage in substantive dialogue with residents across the district.  Further, I am pleased to kick off this series with a discussion about a possible Boston Olympics, as members of the community have a number of questions and concerns that need to be addressed.”

“I thank Senator Lewis for holding his first Community Conversation here in Malden,” said Mayor Gary Christenson. “I am looking forward to this informational session and to learning about the possibilities of a Boston hosted Olympic Games as well as the impact on our community.”

Constituents can also mark their calendars because the second Community Conversation is coming up and will offer a terrific opportunity to learn more about the Massachusetts State Budget.  Noah Berger, President of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, will offer an informative presentation highlighting the important priorities that are funded by our tax dollars.  That event – Community Conversation: The Massachusetts State Budget – will take place on Tuesday, May 5, at 6:30pm.  It will take place at the GAR Room, Melrose Memorial Hall, 590 Main Street, Melrose.

Additional Community Conversations in Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, and Winchester will be announced in the weeks and months ahead!

Senator Jason Lewis and Rep. Michael Day to Take Part in “Gov On the T” Day at Winchester Center

With both legislators working to ensure that our public transportation systems are fully functional and offer satisfactory service for our region’s commuters, Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Michael Day will take part in the first annual “Gov On the T” Day at the Winchester Center commuter rail stop.

The “Gov On the T” Day effort, the website for which is www.GovtOnTheT.org, was implemented to draw attention to the need to properly address service failures with the MBTA.  Participating state legislators will take public transportation into Boston on March 19, the last day of winter, and will listen to concerns directly from commuters.

Senator Lewis and Representative Day will take the 312 train on the Lowell Line departing from Winchester Center at 8:52am and arriving at North Station at 9:10am.  Additionally, the legislators will arrive at the Winchester Center station at 8:15am to speak with commuters, and they encourage commuters to bring their questions and concerns regarding public transit or any other issue of concern.

“I share the frustration many of our neighbors feel about the service failures by the MBTA,” said Senator Lewis.  “Many in our region rely on MBTA commuter rail, subway, and bus service to get to work, to school, and around our communities. Chronic problems in our public transit systems harm our economic well-being, our public safety, our environment, and our quality of life.  I commend the organizers of ‘Gov On the T’ Day for creatively drawing more attention to this issue, and I pledge to continue working with my legislative colleagues on solutions that will address short-term needs and long-term necessities.”

“The reliability and performance of our public transportation system is essential to Stoneham and Winchester, and it failed us during last month’s snowstorms,” said Representative Day.  “I hope this event draws more public attention to the systemic problems the MBTA faces, which won’t go away once the snow melts.  I will be working with leaders in the State House and in the Administration towards solutions to these problems, and I encourage commuters and others to continue to share their stories and proposed solutions with me.”

Earlier this month, Senator Lewis, Representative Day, and several legislators representing communities north of Boston submitted a letter to the MBTA and Keolis Commuter Services calling attention to the inadequate commuter rail service along the Haverhill and Lowell lines.  The letter can be found online at: http://senatorjasonlewis.com/2015/03/02/north-of-boston-legislators-submit-letter-to-mbta-keolis-on-inadequate-commuter-rail-service/.

Senator Jason Lewis Files Legislation to Strengthen Local Economic Development

With bolstering local economic growth being a top priority for the term ahead, Senator Jason Lewis filed important economic development legislation that will facilitate identifying opportunities for growth and development in our communities, enhancing our local economies.

An Act to Promote Economic Development would create a program to provide funding or other opportunities, such as technical assistance, to municipalities or regions that maximize opportunities for economic development planning and growth by meeting a series of criteria. These criteria would include a self-assessment of economic potential and the identification of unique strengths and assets. This bill would borrow the conceptual structure of the Green Communities program, which provides funding opportunities for municipalities that reduce and improve the use of energy, and would be administered through the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

An Act to Market Prioritized Development Sites would require the Massachusetts Office of Business Development to create and maintain a statewide searchable database of developable land and vacant sites, with listings submitted at no cost by local officials. This database would create a more comprehensive online marketing portal than currently exists for all locally prioritized sites across the state, giving each city and town the equal opportunity to submit prioritized development sites for inclusion.

“A vitally important role for state government is to be a supportive partner for municipal governments as they take proactive steps to strengthen their local economies and create jobs,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “These two bills would enhance the ability of our cities and towns to take advantage of all opportunities to economically grow and thrive through increased resources and more comprehensive planning.”

The two bills were developed in consultation with the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that develops and pursues municipal policies to meet the present and future needs of Massachusetts’ cities and towns.

“These two pieces of legislation represent commonsense approaches that will make it easier for cities and towns to plan for, identify, and execute on opportunities to pursue economic growth,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, MMA Executive Director.  “I commend Senator Lewis for demonstrating leadership in the area of local economic development, and we look forward to working with him to pass this legislation and strengthen our communities’ local economies.”

Column: Strengthening Public Education for All Our Children

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”  That is a profound guiding notion as we seek ways to strengthen public education for all our children.

Massachusetts students perform very well when compared to students in other states and even other countries.  But these impressive results mask the constant struggle that our schools face to find adequate resources to meet growing demands and new challenges.

One of my top priorities since I first began serving in the state legislature has been to review and update the Chapter 70 school funding formula, which was originally created as part of the Commonwealth’s landmark 1993 education reform law.  The formula was supposed to ensure that every school district has the necessary resources to provide its students with a high quality education, but it is clear today that the formula does not (and, in some cases, never did) provide adequate and equitable funding to all districts.

Last year I was very pleased that legislation I filed to create a Chapter 70 Foundation Budget Review Commission was enacted by the legislature and signed by Governor Patrick.  The work of this special Commission will enable a careful and thorough examination of current educational needs and best practices, a vital first step toward achieving more adequate and equitable funding for all our public schools.  The Commission is due to issue its findings and recommendations in June and has been holding public hearings around the state to solicit input from parents, teachers, school administrators, community leaders, and other stakeholders.

I attended and testified at the hearing that was held in Danvers in November.  I stressed the fact that the Chapter 70 foundation budget no longer accurately reflects actual educational needs, putting school districts across the Commonwealth under enormous financial pressure.

The two largest drivers of actual costs that have far exceeded assumptions in the foundation budget are health insurance and special education.  We know that both of these cost drivers are largely beyond the control of our school departments or cities and towns.

Another cost category that was envisioned in the original foundation budget but has not kept pace with actual changes in educational needs and best practices is technology.  Consider that the Internet barely existed when the Chapter 70 formula was first established, and that the role of technology in our society and our schools is far greater today than it was in 1993.

An important issue that I emphasized in my testimony is the benefit of extended learning time (ELT).  We now understand much better than we did in 1993 the importance of additional time — through longer school days and/or longer school years — to provide academic and enrichment opportunities that can help close persistent achievement gaps.  I believe that ELT funding needs to be part of the foundation budget for those school districts that would like to implement it.

Finally, I spoke to the Commission about the need for greater access to affordable pre-school and the need for full-day kindergarten, which should be available to all families at no additional cost.  Research has shown us the exponential benefits of engaging our youngest learners.  This is an investment that pays great dividends over time.

Massachusetts was once the pioneer in education reform.  I hope that the work of the Foundation Budget Review Commission will help us once again lead the nation in ensuring that every school and every student can thrive and be successful.

You can learn more about school funding and the work of the Foundation Budget Review Commission at www.mma.org/foundation.  Please contact my office at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or (617) 722-1206 if you would like to share your thoughts on this topic or provide input directly to the Commission.