State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier in her office earlier this year.
Eidtor's Note: This is the first in series of Q&As with the Berkshire delegation that will run each Sunday for the next four weeks.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — With the legislative session now complete, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier says the Legislature accomplished a lot but she's already looking forward to the next one.
This was Farley-Bouvier's first full, two-year session. She won the special election in 2011 and finished the final months of former Rep. Christopher Speranzo's term. The Pittsfield Democrat is running unopposed for a second full term.
In this term, she found herself heavily active in her committee assignments while the House ushered in new legislation aimed at gun violence, medical marijuana and embarked on conforming with federal Affordable Care Act requirements.
iBerkshires.com recently sat down with Farley-Bouvier to discuss what has been an eventful two years on Beacon Hill and what to expect once the next session starts.
Q: What are some of the highlights from the last legislative session?
Answer: I think a bill that garnered the most attention over the last session is the gun violence reduction bill.
I want to set the scene a little bit. I was at a new legislator orientation in December of 2012. I had come in mid-session so I joined the freshman class in their orientation. Just as we were checking out of the hotel there were reports on CNN about something happening at an elementary school. The first reports came in that there was a shooting and a teacher got shot in the foot or something and that was as much as we knew. We were obviously concerned as we were saying bye to each other and it was in those hours when we were all driving home in different directions that we learned the true horrors of what was going on. That really set the tone as we started formal session just a few weeks later in January. In the public domain, in everywhere, everyone was talking about how we were going to control gun violence.
In other states, in New York, Connecticut, Colorado — where there was another big tragedy that same year — legislation was passed pretty quickly and in New York, in particular, there was a lot of push back to that because people felt things happened too fast and without input.
Massachusetts took a different tactic and the speaker put together a commission with mental health professionals, people who are gun-owner advocates, law professionals, district attorneys, media experts, people that could really come together. They made a set of recommendations. At the same time, the chair of the public safety committee was holding statewide public meetings on this
. Thousands of people had an opportunity for input on this bill. They were well publicized and well attended. So, we did a very responsible job in getting the information we needed to write this bill.
This bill contains good resources for public schools to address mental illness. It includes provisions where we will become part of the national database on gun violence and mental health. This database, if it is not used well then it is not useful. If people are not contributing the information then it is not useful and Massachusetts had not been doing a good job in the past of doing that and this will allow them to do that.
One provision in this bill was contentious. That was the one where the issuing authority for a long gun license, who is the police chief, would have discretion over somebody getting a long gun permit. Current law says that they 'shall' issue the permit.
At first it came out that they would have discretion and there was a lot of push back to that. The House compromised in that 'yes they can have discretion. However, they have to put a reason for denial in writing and it has to meet certain criteria.' The reason that is good is because the applicant who is denied has a basis to appeal it as opposed to 'he or she said, I can't have it.'
The Senate in their version dropped that provision, which was problematic. There is a House version of a bill and a Senate version of the bill and it came together in a conference committee report. The conference committee compromised in that 'yes, the police chief could have discretion. It has to be in writing and you have to go to court in order to deny it.'
To be frank, I am not that happy with the compromise and the reason is, I feel it just added a level of bureaucracy and an unwieldiness to the process. I feel it would be better for those who were denied to go to court. However, I pride myself in that this is Massachusetts state government and not the federal government, where legislators can't get along at all. There are so many things in this bill that I support that it was worth it to me to support the final version of the bill. I think we now need to keep an eye on this over the next several months and years to see what is working and what is not working. If we need to tweak it as time goes on, I think we can do that.
The final version of the bill was supported by both gun-violence reduction advocates and gun-owner advocates and that is a remarkable thing.
Q: What are some of the other bills that were passed this session which you feel are important?
A: One thing that is important to Berkshire County and something I am very proud of is that we passed ... is the environmental bond bill.
This is a bill that will improve across the state infrastructure for our parks and lands. Within that bill is money to build a new turf field at Berkshire Community College.
Those funds will go a long way in getting that project jump started and we're hoping that we can see some more progress in the next year. Berkshire County is the only county in Massachusetts without a turf field for community use.
We had an important gas leak bill that was passed. A colleague of mine from Marblehead has been working on this for many years to address gas leaks in Massachusetts. There are thousands of gas leaks happening all of the time. It is a huge safety issue. About 18 months ago there was an explosion in Springfield and that came from a gas leak.
Now, all gas leaks will be categorized as 1,2 or 3 and the ones that are most serious need to be addressed right away and there needs to be plans to fix the others. What's important to remember is how much is costs the ratepayers to have these gas leaks. It is the ratepayers that are paying for this gas that is leaking. Then there is the cost to the environment. In many municipalities, the gas line is right with the tree line. The trees are dying and the municipalities are having to replace the trees. It is also, obviously, a health issue.
Q: What committees were you on? And what were you able to accomplish?
A: I was on four committees — the committee on children, families and persons with disabilities; the committee on health care finance; the committee on consumer protection; and the global warming committee.
My most active committee was the committee on children, families and persons with disabilities. As you know, the Department of Children and Families has been under an awful lot of scrutiny over the last year
. To really dig into that issue and see what we can do to improve the lives of children in Massachusetts has been a big challenge and has been really eye opening for me. But there is a lot of satisfaction in trying to solve problems.
The way to improve the lives of children is to support families and help make families stronger. A way to do that is to improve the working conditions of the social workers. Social workers have far, far, far, too high of caseloads. The agreed upon — between the social workers and the administration — target caseload is 15 to 1. That is one social worker to 15 families. That, then turns into many children and for each child there is a parent, sometimes step parents, there are teachers and physiologists, therapists, lawyers. We call all of those people around the child collaterals and they can have hundreds of collaterals that one social worker is dealing with.
Last September and December, when things started to get very, very concerning at the department, social workers were reporting 19, 20, sometimes 21 cases per social worker when the goal was 15. The Legislature gave the department significantly more money to reduce those caseloads and they have been hiring and hiring and hiring social workers, getting them training and starting to work.
With that, caseloads have risen to 23, 24, 25. Someone reported to me that they had 29 cases. With all of the resources we are giving them, the caseloads are increasing. That is happening for a few reasons. One is that after the tragic disappearance and death of Jeremiah Oliver, the department is being extremely careful in making sure kids are screened in and not let go because they don't want to make any mistakes. They are being hypervigilant about that. So the social workers have to pick up more and more cases. With the pressure on them so much, social workers are leaving. Mid-career social workers, the ones who have the most experience in the field, are saying they aren't doing this anymore. We're having to replace those mid-career social workers and you can't replace that kind of experience.
In the health care financing committee, something we've been spending a lot of time on is our health-care exchange. That is part of the Affordable Care Act, that each state will set up their own exchange.
I would say that with most people in Massachusetts with the affordable health care act was like 'oh, we already do this. this will be no problem for us.' But when it came time for us to set up our own exchange as we needed to do for the Affordable Care Act, Massachusetts failed. Massachusetts failed badly. Information was lost, there was confusion about setting up people's accounts, there was confusion communicating with insurance companies, and the whole website failed.
So there were many hearings about that process. That process has since been getting an enormous amount of scrutiny. Every six weeks we are having oversight hearings with that department to see how they are progressing. They now feel comfortable in year two, which is coming up, on the exchange that they are ready and it will work much smoother. They did sever ties with the vendor they initially contracted with because the vendor was unable to produce what they were contracted to do.
Q: Were you able to accomplish everything you hoped for this session?
A: Not even close.
My major piece of legislation
is the safe driving act and we accomplished in some ways more than I expected. We were able to build a coalition that involved over 60 organizations including some insurance companies from all over the state. And we were able to get a lot of the legislators educated about the safe driving act and get their support. They committed to support it. These kind of things take a long time.
The safe driving act, to remind you, is a law that would say that everyone is required to have a drivers license despite your immigration status. We want everybody who is on the road to be trained, licensed and insured. We want everyone to pay their fair share of the road costs. In order for you to drive, you pay a fee to get your licenses, you pay a fee to register you car, you mighty have paid for driving school. But there are a great number of people who are driving that haven't had to pay these fees. We have learned from the Registry of Motor Vehicles that we are leaving $15 million a year on the table because of those uncollected fees. I am sure each one of your readers can come up with something to do with $15 million.
I think it is an issue of safety and I think it is an issue of fairness. That bill did not get out of committee this session. But, we will be filing again next session and, as I said before, these things take time. But this is long-run type of game.
Q: What is the status of the state's finances?
TFB: The state has the AA bond rating, which is the highest of any state. We are fourth in the nation as where we are with our rainy day fund. The other three states, Alaska, Texas and Ohio are considered oil states and so it would be expected that they would be in good financial status there.
I think we are doing very well and we are extremely careful with out money. At the same time we are careful with the taxpayer's money, cities and towns and school districts have gotten more money that they have in history. The Legislature as a body of individuals have said that when it comes to where we spend out money, we want to give as much as possible to our cities and towns to make decision on how the money should be spent. In 2014, compared to 2007, there are much fewer earmarks. It is not about legislators deciding where our money should go. It is about empowering our cities and towns and school districts to decide where the money should go. That is the overall philosophy.
Q: What are we looking at for next session?
TFB: Certainly, a priority for me is to re-file my safe driving bill. It is a really important bill.
Something else that we were not able to get across the finish line this year was the GMO labeling bill. We worked very. very hard at the end of the session to do that. We have 144 legislator in support of the bill and we were not able to get it past the finish line.
That was a big disappointment for me but we are going to regroup, learn our lessons and apply them to the next session.
There will be continued work with the Department of Children and Families to strengthen that department. There will be continued oversight but also supporting them.
An issue that is new for me this coming session will be the issue of sexual violence on campus. I think that is something we have to look at. The federal government has started to look at it and there is even federal legislation filed. But, I don't have a lot of hope that something is going to get passed in Congress because so little is getting passed in Congress. I think we need to take care of our students at the state level. Both private and public colleges need to be held accountable to make sure they are providing a safe environment for all students.
Q: What is the status on some of the big issues the state is going through such as medical marijuana and broadband?
Medical marijuana, right now, in Berkshire County we've had a couple of stops and starts. The initial applicants, none from Berkshire County were approved. There was another application from Greenwa
y and though it passed local approval was stopped at the state level for a financial reason, a banking reason. It is pretty complicated because banks are regulated federally and it is against federal law to have medical marijuana. So banks are saying 'we can't do business with you because this is what your business is' so it is really tied up in this complicated thing.
I am hoping there will be some resolution on that. For me, I've made it very clear in the beginning that I am not advocating for any one business but am advocating for equal access to treatment for my constituents. And, if there is going to be an economic benefit to this it should happen in Berkshire County. I don't want just some retail business, some storefront dispensary, making sales. I also want the other economic development of being able to grow and package. I want those jobs here too. That's what I've been advocating for in the last several months and I will continue to do so.
I will say the Greenway model does seem like it would do well in Berkshire County. But, I will leave it up to the department to do the very thorough screenings that they have been.
Broadband continues. We are very close to having the middle mile completed in Western Massachusetts. In the new IT bond bill there is money for some last-mile connections. So, when it comes to Pittsfield specifically, we obviously have more broadband here than the smaller towns. My role is two-fold — one, I am looking to make sure people in economically challenged areas have good access to broadband. I am very interested in doing what we can to getting fiber to premise and we can do that here in Pittsfield. Also, I am part of a team that covers Berkshire County so I want to make sure broadband gets all of the rural areas.