Column: Carry the Spirit of Giving Into the New Year

The writer Oscar Wilde said, “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”  That is indeed the case with acts of volunteerism and charity.

Although it is during the holiday season that our thoughts often turn to how we can help our less fortunate neighbors, I am endlessly moved by the spirit of generosity and civic-mindedness that I see in our communities year-round.

Almost every day I interact with people in our communities who selflessly donate their time and money to support a myriad of worthy organizations and causes.  Almost all of these individuals do so quietly and without any official recognition, taking simple satisfaction from the impact that their actions have on improving life for others in our communities.  To me, each of these people is a local hero.

Here are just a few examples of the people I have had the privilege of meeting — and being inspired by — in recent months:

  • A chef at a shelter for homeless men and women who prepares thousands of nutritious meals each week on an incredibly tight budget, and who could instead be working as the head chef at a five star Boston restaurant;
  • A college student whose parents escaped from terrible hardship in El Salvador and now volunteers to help other immigrant children trying to learn English and become fully assimilated into American life;
  • A high school teacher who runs a project with her students to document and preserve local military history and to foster greater recognition and appreciation for our veterans;
  • A senior citizen who serves as a volunteer board member for one of our local public housing authorities and is a tireless activist for affordable housing and other services for seniors and people with disabilities;
  • A mother concerned about the well-being of high school seniors on their graduation night who is organizing an all-night event where graduates can celebrate with their friends in a fun, safe and substance-free environment;
  • A real estate developer who worked for years with local officials, government agencies, and a social service provider to transform a rooming house into a beautiful group home for 12 low-income adults with developmental disabilities; and,
  • A community activist who has been working for more than 20 years to turn an abandoned rail corridor into a greenway and bikeway that will beautify our communities and provide safe recreational opportunities for people of all ages.

Of course, each of these remarkable individuals cannot achieve their goals alone and they are working together with others who are equally as devoted to the well-being of our communities.

During the holiday season and year-round there are countless opportunities to volunteer in our communities — from donating food and stocking shelves at a food pantry to being a mentor for an at-risk youth to supporting efforts to end domestic violence.

Volunteering to serve in local government is another great way to make a difference.  Municipal government relies heavily on volunteers from the community who can offer their time and unique expertise on various boards and committees.  Often there are vacancies that need to be filled.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?”  If you want to discuss local volunteer or charitable opportunities, please feel free to contact my office at (617) 722-1206 or Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov and we would be happy to provide you with ideas and contact information for many worthy local organizations in our communities.

I wish you and your family a joyous holiday season and a very happy New Year.

Senator Jason Lewis Testifies Before Education Funding Commission

The Massachusetts Foundation Budget Review Commission recently held its first public hearing, and Senator Jason Lewis was pleased to deliver testimony to the Commission on behalf of the 5th Middlesex state senate district.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission will enable a careful and thorough examination of current educational needs and best practices, an important step toward achieving more adequate and equitable funding for our public schools through the Chapter 70 funding formula.  The Commission was created by a provision in the Fiscal Year 2015 Massachusetts state budget that was championed by Senator Lewis.

“With actual school spending outpacing the Foundation Budget, our schools are under enormous financial pressure,” noted Senator Lewis.  “It is imperative that we take the steps necessary to update the Chapter 70 Foundation Budget in order to achieve truly adequate and equitable funding for our public schools.  From new technology to extended learning time, there are necessities we must address to ensure that every student in the Commonwealth has the opportunity to thrive.  This Commission will provide an important opportunity to raise these urgent issues, and that is why I was proud to champion the Commission’s creation.”

The first hearing of the Foundation Budget Review Commission took place in Danvers on November 17.  The coming months will see additional hearings in different regions of the state, culminating with a March 9, 2015, hearing in Boston, at a location to be determined.

Senator Lewis’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below.  Please note that remarks were limited to three minutes per person and that Senator Lewis will be preparing extended testimony in written form for submission to the Foundation Budget Review Commission as it proceeds with its hearings over the coming months.

 

State Senator Jason Lewis’ Testimony before the
Massachusetts Foundation Budget Review Commission
As Prepared for Delivery – November 17, 2014

Senator Chang-Diaz, Representative Peisch, and Commission Members, I thank you for your service on this very important Foundation Budget Review Commission.  Like many of you, I have long advocated for the need to re-examine and update the Chapter 70 Foundation Budget, so I’m very pleased that this Commission has been formed and I appreciate the opportunity to offer my testimony today.

From the passage of the landmark Education Reform Act in 1993 until 2000, the Foundation Budget quite closely reflected actual changes in educational resource needs and expenses.  However, in the years since 2000, the Foundation Budget has risen an average of 3.4% per year, while actual net school spending has grown at an average of 4.1% per year.  As a result, the average school district in Massachusetts now spends approximately 120% of Foundation Budget.

The fact that the Foundation Budget no longer accurately reflects actual educational needs has put virtually every school district under enormous financial pressure, and has contributed to a widening of the gap between higher-income and lower-income districts, exactly the opposite of what we set out to achieve with the Education Reform Act.

The situation we find ourselves in is the result of a number of factors that have been identified in numerous reports over the past several years.  The two largest drivers of actual costs that have 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.

Two other cost categories that were envisioned in the original Foundation Budget but have not kept pace with actual changes in educational needs and best practices are technology and extended learning time.  Consider that the Internet barely existed when the Foundation Budget was first established, and that the role of technology in our society and our schools is far greater today than it was in 1993.  Similarly, we now understand much better the importance of additional time — through longer school days or longer school years — to provide the academic and enrichment opportunities for students from high poverty neighborhoods that are vital to closing persistent achievement gaps.  I have seen the impact first-hand through two schools in my district, the Ferryway and Salemwood K-8 schools in Malden.  These two schools have made significant progress with grant funding through the state’s modest ELT initiative, but this funding source is both inadequate and likely unsustainable.  To remedy this, I believe that this funding needs to be part of the Foundation Budget.

Finally, I want to briefly mention three other significant areas that I believe deserve serious consideration as to how they should be treated in the Foundation Budget: first, library media services that are an essential component of a 21st Century education; second, full-day kindergarten which should in my opinion be available to all families at no additional cost; and, third, wraparound services or integrated student supports that are increasingly viewed as an essential complement to academic supports for at-risk children.  These services range from school-based medical and dental care to behavioral health and mental health to social work and family crisis response.

Massachusetts was once the pioneer in education reform and establishing a Foundation Budget-based school funding formula.  I hope with the help of this Commission we will once again lead the nation in ensuring that our school finance system enables every school and every student to thrive and be successful.

Column: Supporting Our Veterans

With Veterans Day occurring this week and with the holiday season approaching, we should keep in mind and give thanks to the troops who are serving our country today and the veterans who have served in the past.  These are the self-sacrificing men and women who, along with the sacrifices of their families, have made possible the freedom and opportunity that we enjoy.

It feels very appropriate to me that Veterans Day comes shortly after Election Day.  It is a reminder that the freedoms we put into practice in our democratic process are protected year-round by brave, selfless patriots.

There are roughly 375,000 veterans living in Massachusetts today.  Since September 11, 2001, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents have returned home from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 142 soldiers from Massachusetts have been killed in action.  Those that have served make noble efforts to avoid recognition and to quietly and humbly go about their lives.

With a new generation of veterans returning home, we must remain steadfast in our efforts to support their reintegration into our communities.  As George Washington said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”

The need to support our veterans remains great.  One in every three homeless individuals in the Commonwealth is a veteran.  It is estimated that one in three Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from significant Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the invisible wounds of war.  We owe it to our heroic veterans to do all we can for them as they return home.

Massachusetts has long been a national leader in the quality and comprehensiveness of the veterans services that we provide on a state and local level.  Our support goes above and beyond federal VA benefits, and includes education benefits, housing and employment assistance, healthcare, and financial assistance when needed.

I’m very proud to have supported the “Veterans’ Allowances, Labor, Outreach, and Recognition” (VALOR II) bill that became law earlier this year.  VALOR II ensures that Massachusetts remains the number one state in the country in providing services, benefits, and resources for our veterans and their families.

Some highlights of the bill include: requiring the Division of Professional Licensure to waive application fees for members of the armed forces; establishing a Veterans’ Home Modification Program through Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission for injured returning veterans and their families; codifying and streamlining the property tax exemption for paraplegic veterans and their spouses; increasing penalties for the disturbance of military funerals or services; reducing burdens on students enrolled in postsecondary institutions who are called to active duty; and, taking steps to further crack down on veteran charity fraud.

There are many ways we can all honor the sacrifices made by our troops and veterans and show our gratitude.  Hire a veteran in your business.  Send a care package to soldiers overseas.  Volunteer at a VA soup kitchen this holiday season.  Get involved with Helping Our Troops (www.HelpingOurTroopsMA.org), a wonderful local organization founded by two Stoneham veterans, Frank Geary and Walter Kopek.

As we appreciate our families and good fortune this holiday season, let’s remember the words of John F. Kennedy who said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

I welcome your feedback on how we can better support our veterans.  Please visit my website at www.SenatorJasonLewis.com to share your thoughts, or contact my State House office anytime at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or at (617) 722-1206.

Column: Supporting Our Senior Citizens

Since 1930, the life expectancy for the average American has gone up from about 60 years to approaching 80 years.  As our life expectancies grow higher, we must do all we can to ensure that our senior citizens remain integrated in the fabric of our community.  From housing to healthcare to transportation and more, we have a responsibility to make sure that all aspects of civic life continue to be accessible for and inclusive of our senior citizens.

During my time in the Legislature, supporting our seniors has been a high priority for me, especially when it comes to our annual state budget.  I’m pleased that our Fiscal Year 2015 state budget successfully reflected this value.  We achieved many successes in strengthening resources for seniors in this year’s budget.

For instance, during this past legislative session, the “formula grant” for our Councils on Aging was increased from $7 per elder per year to $8 per elder per year.  What this led to was an increase in funding for the Councils on Aging from $9.4 million in FY13 to $10.5 million last year to over $11.6 million this year.  Another major achievement this past legislative session was the elimination of wait lists for home care thanks to additional funding committed to our home care programs.  Additionally, $750,000 in the FY15 budget was designated specifically to protect the Meals on Wheels program.

Beyond the budget, we also passed important legislation pertaining to unique needs of senior citizens.  This year, we passed legislation to create an Alzheimer’s and related dementias Acute Care Advisory Committee to craft strategies to address dementia-capable care in all acute care settings.  We also passed legislation clarifying and strengthening protections surrounding the process for determining jurisdiction in cases of adult guardianship and protective proceedings.

Still, there are key legislative initiatives that did not get passed during the 2013-2014 legislative session that I will be advocating for next year.  For example, the “spouse as caregiver” bill unanimously passed the Senate but unfortunately did not make it to the Governor’s desk.  That bill would simply allow spouses to join the already-existing list of family members who can currently be paid to be a Personal Care Attendant or Adult Foster Care provider.  Another important piece of legislation is the “Personal Needs Allowance” bill to modestly increase the allowance provided to nursing/rest home residents to cover costs not covered by MassHealth, allowing those senior citizens to live with greater independence and dignity.

As in years past, to alleviate some of the unique burdens that property taxes can create for seniors in particular, we have the senior “Circuit Breaker” tax credit in Massachusetts, which allows seniors to claim a tax credit of up to $1,030 (the maximum last year) if their property tax and water & sewer bills exceed 10% of their income.  Seniors who rent can count 25% of their rent as real estate tax payments.

Keeping our seniors safe in our communities is another critically important goal.  To offer further protections for our senior citizens, the Legislature committed funds in the FY15 budget to establish a financial abuse specialist team that will assist elder protective service workers.  This follows recommendations drafted by the Elder Protective Services Commission to aggressively address neglect, abuse, and financial exploitation of our senior citizens.

This is especially urgent as the Middlesex Sheriff’s office has noted a number of telephone scams targeting senior citizens this year.  The most frequent scam involves callers fraudulently claiming to be collecting money allegedly owed to the IRS.  If you or someone you know receives a fraudulent call of this nature, you are encouraged to alert your local police station as well as the Investigations Unit of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office at 978-932-3220.

Another invaluable resource for our senior citizens, in addition to your community’s local Council on Aging and/or senior center, is Mystic Valley Elder Services (for residents of Malden, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, and Wakefield), or Minuteman Senior Services (for residents of Winchester), both of whom provide information, guidance, and services geared toward allowing seniors to continue living with greater independence and dignity.  If you are a senior citizen in the 5th Middlesex district with any questions about available services, feel free to contact Mystic Valley Elder Services at 781-324-7705 or Minuteman Senior Services at 781-272-7177 (depending on your community), or contact my State House office anytime at 617-722-1206.

Melrose Awarded $500,000 Development Grant Through State MassWorks Program

The Melrose state legislative delegation of Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Paul Brodeur are pleased to announce that the City of Melrose has been awarded a $500,000 grant through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development’s MassWorks program.

The $500,000 grant is committed to the Essex Street revitalization project, which will create safer access for pedestrians between businesses and downtown bus routes to the Cedar Park commuter rail station. In addition, the infrastructure improvements will support the new Senior Housing Development at 116-158 Essex Street. Funding from the $500,000 MassWorks award will also be used to resurface Essex Street and Willow Street. Both streets will receive new sidewalks, improved handicap accessibility, trees, and lighting. Willow Street will also be widened.

“I’m very pleased to see Melrose receive this funding to enhance its infrastructure and pedestrian safety,” said Senator Lewis. “Investing in safer roads and sidewalks benefits our neighborhood businesses and brings our community closer together.”

“This funding will make our neighborhoods safer,” said Representative Brodeur. “Investing in infrastructure pays off, and I think the City of Melrose is a fine example of that. With this grant, we will continue to invest in our community and make it better.”

The MassWorks Infrastructure Program provides a one-stop shop for municipalities and other eligible public entities seeking public infrastructure funding to support economic development and job creation. The program is administered by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, in cooperation with the Department of Transportation and Executive Office for Administration & Finance.

State Senator Jason Lewis and Wakefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen on Main Street Small Business Walk

State Senator Jason Lewis was recently joined by Wakefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen on a “Main Street Business Walk” to meet some of Wakefield’s entrepreneurs and small businesspeople, and to hear directly from them the challenges that their businesses face and how state & local government can continue to be a productive partner for them.  Senator Lewis heard positive and thoughtful feedback from the owners of these popular small businesses, and thanks them for their time and valuable insight.

Among the members of the Wakefield business community with whom Senator Lewis and Executive Director Cohen spoke were:

  • Ralph Caira of The Italian Kitchen of Wakefield, who shared some of the challenges that his small business faces;
  • Doug Hart of Hart’s Hardware, whose family has been in the business for over fifty years;
  • Dr. Angela Karogiannis of Wakefield Custom Dental, with whom Senator Lewis discussed health policy;
  • Cheryl Mazzarella of Eastern Bank’s Wakefield branch, who shared insights on neighborhood mortgages and small business loans; and,
  • members of the team at The Farmland.

ItalianKitchen
(left to right) Ralph Caira, owner of The Italian Kitchen of Wakefield, and State Senator Jason Lewis

HartsHardware
(left to right) State Senator Jason Lewis, Doug Hart of Hart’s Hardware, and Wakefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen

WakefieldCustomDental
(left to right) State Senator Jason Lewis, Dr. Angela Karogiannis of Wakefield Custom Dental, and Wakefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen

EasternBankWakefield
(left to right) Wakefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen, State Senator Jason Lewis, and Eastern Bank Assistant Vice President Cheryl Mazzarella

TheFarmland
State Senator Jason Lewis, a member of The Farmland team, Wakefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen

Senator Jason Lewis Reads to Children at the Malden Public Library

Senator Jason Lewis recently joined several of his youngest constituents at the Malden Public Library for the library’s weekly story time.  Senator Lewis and the kids read “Lulu the Big Little Chick” by Paulette Bogan, “Amelia Bedelia’s First Apple Pie” by Herman Parish and Lynne Avril, and “Construction” by Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock.  Senator Lewis enjoyed the books as much as the kids did!

MaldenLibrary1

MaldenLibrary2

Column: Combatting the Opioid Abuse Crisis

Opioid abuse and addiction in the Commonwealth has reached crisis level, and we need to take aggressive steps to prevent and treat addiction.  With no community and no family immune to the reach of this epidemic, it is critically important that we engage all members of our community to be informed and take action.

That is why I have convened a forum that I hope will be a helpful step toward increasing our community’s engagement on this critical issue.  With organizational partners the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse and the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition, we will be holding a regional dialogue on opioid abuse.  Residents of the 5th Middlesex district and neighboring communities are encouraged to attend and to share their thoughts and feedback.

The presentation will take place on Thursday, October 23, from 7:00pm to 9:00pm, at the Hawkes Field House at Reading Memorial High School, 62 Oakland Road, Reading.  If you are planning to attend, please RSVP to the Director of the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse, Erica McNamara, MPH, at emcnamara@ci.reading.ma.us.

Youth, parents, educators, first responders, healthcare professionals, faith leaders, law enforcement, business professionals, prevention advocates, treatment professionals, individuals in recovery and their family members, community leaders and elected officials, and any member of the public interested in substance abuse prevention should attend.

As Penelope Funaiole, the Mystic Valley Opioid Abuse Prevention Coordinator, noted, “To fully tackle this crisis, it is critical to have as many voices at the table as possible.  This is a dynamic disease, and it will take dynamic strategies and approaches to make change in our communities.”

To advance dynamic strategies for combatting this crisis at the state level, earlier this year, our Legislature passed important legislation to increase opportunities for long-term substance abuse recovery in the Commonwealth by supporting a continuum of care and removing barriers that stand in the way of effective treatment.

Among many valuable provisions, the new law both increased access to care and improved the standard of care by removing the potential obstacle of prior authorization from one’s health insurance company for substance abuse treatment if the treatment provider is certified or licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Additionally, the law also removed prior authorization for Acute Treatment Services (detoxification) for all MassHealth Managed Care Entities and required coverage of up to fourteen days of Clinical Stabilization Services.  The law also removed prior authorization for Acute Treatment Services and Clinical Stabilization Services for commercial insurers, as well, and required coverage for a total of up to fourteen days.  In short, potential obstacles or barriers to receiving urgently needed services were eliminated.

To further enhance access to substance abuse treatment, the law also required that the medical necessity of substance abuse treatment be determined by the treating clinician in consultation with patient, and that all insurance carriers would reimburse for substance abuse treatment services delivered by a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor.  This provision helped move the decision-making process from insurance companies to medical professionals and their patients.

In addition, the law directed the Center for Health Information and Analysis to review the accessibility of substance abuse treatment and adequacy of insurance coverage, and tasked the Health Policy Commission with recommending policies to ensure access and coverage for substance abuse treatment throughout the Commonwealth, as well as review denial rates for substance abuse treatment coverage by commercial insurers.  These measures will provide policymakers with invaluable information to achieve a level of treatment service provision that is more broadly accessible and truly adequate to meet our communities’ needs.

These steps will prove extremely valuable in not only expanding access to needed substance abuse treatment services but also in expediting the delivery of those services, as time is often of the essence when connecting someone in urgent need of recovery services with those critical, often life-saving services.

Between the efforts we are able to implement through government action; the leadership that municipal officials, substance abuse recovery experts, healthcare providers, and our schools are able to provide; and, the constructive dialogue in which we are able to engage at the local level, I remain hopeful that we have the necessary tools to combat this tragic crisis.  I hope you can join us at the regional forum on October 23 to hear the information discussed and to add your voice to the chorus working toward preventing future substance abuse and addiction in our communities.

Senator Jason Lewis Secures Five New Liquor Licenses for Stoneham

State Senator Jason Lewis announced that a home rule petition for the Town of Stoneham authorizing five new liquor and malt beverage licenses was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick this past week.

“I am very pleased to have been able to work with Governor Patrick to secure passage of these licenses for Stoneham,” said Senator Lewis.  “These licenses will help support and encourage further economic development in Stoneham.”

“This measure will generate more business opportunity in Stoneham,” noted Edward Doherty, President of the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce, and Executive Vice President of StonehamBank.  “Senator Lewis has been an effective advocate for Stoneham, and we appreciate him making Stoneham’s local economy a priority.”

“Thanks to Senator Lewis’ diligence, this important economic development priority for Stoneham was addressed,” said Thomas Boussy, Chairman of the Stoneham Board of Selectmen.  “It has been no small feat for Senator Lewis to pull double-duty on behalf of Stoneham while the Representative seat has been vacant; so, I’m especially appreciative to Senator Lewis’ commitment to getting results for Stoneham’s families and businesses.”

Senator Lewis helped shepherd this home rule legislation through the Massachusetts House of Representatives earlier this year, while still a Representative.  After joining the Massachusetts Senate following his special election victory in April, he was able to then shepherd the bill through the Senate, prior to working with the Governor’s office to secure Governor Patrick’s support of the new law.

The bill – H3786: An Act authorizing the town of Stoneham to grant 5 additional licenses for the sale of all alcoholic beverages to be drunk on the premises – will now be known as Chapter 348 of the Acts of 2014.

Senator Jason Lewis to Hold Forums on Ballot Questions

Later this month, Senator Jason Lewis will hold a series of informational forums on the ballot questions that voters will be considering on Election Day.  Residents of the 5th Middlesex district are encouraged to attend and bring their questions.

At each forum, Senator Lewis will provide some background on each question, describe what a yes versus a no vote means, and answer questions.

The schedule for the forums is as follows:

Tuesday, October 21, 1:30-2:30pm
Milano Senior Center, 201 West Foster Street, Melrose

Friday, October 24, 2:00-3:00pm
Stoneham Senior Center, 136 Elm Street, Stoneham

Tuesday, October 28, 6:30-7:30pm
Burbank YMCA, 36 Arthur B. Lord Drive, Reading

If anybody is unable to attend, but would like information on the ballot questions, they are encouraged to contact Senator Lewis’ office at 617-722-1206 or visit the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s web page on the ballot questions at http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/ele14/pip14idx.htm.