PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier says the Massachusetts Legislature has been shifting further left since 2016.
And that's meant the Progressive Caucus' numbers are growing. She is currently the co-chair of that group and has watched its ranks well.
"In this past session and in the election of 2016, the swing has certainly gone to the left as far as people being elected in Massachusetts. Our membership has grown exponentially. We are now up to 60 members of the Progressive Caucus out of 160. That's quite a bit. We are certainly the largest caucus in the House," Farley-Bouvier said.
As the new session has just begun, Farley-Bouvier said there 25 new members of the House of Representatives, 22 of whom are Democrats. Sixteen of them have joined the caucus.
"People are coming in with a great deal of professional expertise in things like energy, planning, civil rights. It is really impressive the level of expertise people are coming in with and that infusion is only going to be a good thing for the house," Farley-Bouvier said.
Her fellow co-chair was defeated in the election and the caucus plans to hold its own leadership election. But for now, Farley-Bouvier has had her hands full as the group narrows its focus for this term.
"There is a lot of work involved in that. The political viewpoints of the members of the Progressive Caucus are very diverse and the approaches individuals want to take tend to be diverse. How we manage to keep the caucus together and to have the best impact that we can on any legislation going forward is both a challenge and an opportunity," said the 3rd District representative.
So far, the caucus has shown significant interest in a bill to implement the so-called Fair Share amendment, implementing the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations for school funding, and a health care cost containment bill that fell short of passing in the last session.
"I think there is going to be a big movement on energy. There is always something on energy but the reports that came out late last year showed that this big problem we thought we had around climate change is actually a lot worse than we thought it was," Farley-Bouvier said.
She said the biggest contributor to climate change remains vehicle exhaust. She expects this term to have a focus on providing the infrastructure for such things as electric vehicle charging stations.
The move toward electric vehicles, however, also poses a threat to the state's revenues to repair roads. Currently, the primary source of funding for transportation programs comes from the gas tax. Farley-Bouvier plans to re-file a bill that would create a pilot program for a vehicle-miles-traveled tax. Such a tax would replace the gas tax and charge operators on the miles they drive, rather than per gallon of gas used.
"This is going to happen at some point. We cannot fund transportation with more and more electric cars on the road. I think we should have more electric cars on the road but our major source of revenue to pay for transportation is the gas tax. With higher and higher gas mileage, which we want, and people literally spending zero money on the gas tax with an electric car, how are we going to pay for the roads? It is just not sustainable. Something has to change," Farley-Bouvier said.
Her bill would create a volunteer pilot to figure out exactly how such a program would work. It's a bill she had filed in the past that hasn't made it through the process.
Another bill the Pittsfield Democrat is looking to refile related to driving is one that allows drivers to get a license regardless of their immigration status.
"This bill would require all drivers irrespective of their immigration status to have licenses. This bill we have filed in the past. We didn't file it last session because at the time the real ID provision was being implemented," Farley-Bouvier said.
The state moved to the "Real IDs" that create two levels of licenses. A standard license restricts people from using it to fly or enter certain federal buildings. Farley-Bouvier said with that new system it is easy to create a license for those who are undocumented.
"The idea is to separate the idea that driving has anything to do with immigration status. Immigration status is an important matter and it should be dealt with by the proper authorities. But in the meantime while we are figuring out this whole mess of immigration and immigration laws, everybody on the road should be well trained, know the laws of the commonwealth, and be paying the fees the rest of us pay," Farley-Bouvier said.
The drive behind the bill is safety and fairness, Farley-Bouvier said. She said it would get more drivers insured just in case there is an accident and get more drivers paying the required fees to operate a vehicle in Massachusetts.
Farley-Bouvier is also filing several bills related to child welfare. She has previously served multiple times on the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities and has bills relating to the Department of Children and Families.
First, she is looking to pass a "foster parents bill of rights" rule to provide foster parents with more control of their children.
"We think it is extremely important for foster parents to be treated as a respected member of the professional team when it comes to children who are in crisis or removed from their homes. But, I think at this point there is a long way to go to have them be treated that way. The foster parents bill of rights will put into statute and a culture change at DCF," Farley-Bouvier said.
Farley-Bouvier said foster parents often can't make decisions or are under intense scrutiny by the department. She believes foster parents should be able to make more decisions on their own and be provided with more information regarding the child's well-being.
She is also looking to have reviews of cases, which are required every six months, be handled by someone other than DCF. She said right now the reviews are done by a DCF reviewer, the caseworker, and a volunteer from the community. She'd like to have the Office of the Child Advocate take over the review process.
"What we find is the department mostly agrees with itself. We need to take that function and bring it outside of DCF," Farley-Bouvier said.
She said DCF and the OCA both listened to the concerns and requested time to work on a plan. But Farley-Bouvier wants to keep the issue on the front-burner by filing the bill again.
Farley-Bouvier is also keeping the pressure on a campus sexual assault bill she has filed twice before. Last year a bill to increase training on campuses and access to services nearly reached a consensus and she hopes to see it passed soon.
"A top bill of mine is the campus sexual assault bill. That is a bill that has to evolve given our federal situation and what I consider extremely harmful proposed regulations by Betsy DeVos. It is important that we do not put our colleges into a situation where they have to choose between following federal law or state law. So we need to do whatever we can to protect students in Massachusetts despite what is happening in the federal government," Farley-Bouvier said.
A particular provision in the bill is to have "confidential advisors" working for the college. Those employees would have privileged and their records could not be subpoenaed. Farley-Bouvier said such jobs exist in other organizations but not on campuses.
"We are very close to having language everybody agrees on. This is a bill that almost passed last session. One of the real challenges to this bill is the every changing federal situation. We agree the battles happening around this issue with Title IX and the new regulations are battles that need to be fought out in the courts and we absolutely expect that they will be," Farley-Bouvier said.
"We don't want to take that battle to the floor of the house, that's not the place to adjudicate that or to come to a consensus. We will hold off on that part of the law until those are settled."
She is also looking to bring together a study group to take a close look at varsity sports to see where there could be better protection against concussions.
"I think we need to work a lot harder at preventing concussions. This bill will look at varsity sports and see what we can do to prevent concussions in varsity sports by perhaps looking at the rules," Farley-Bouvier said.
"A classic example is in varsity sports do we need to have the kickoff in football? An awful lot of concussions happen during the kickoff and how important is the kickoff?"
The group consisting of scientists and athletic directors would look closely at the rules for all sports and determine if there are changes that could reduce head injuries. Farley-Bouvier added that girls soccer is another area with a lot of concussions and much of that is related to heading the ball. She said those small, repetitive, blows to the head also contribute to brain injury.
"Nobody really looks at what is happening with the small injuries," Farley-Bouvier said.
She is also looking to refile a bill to eliminate the difference between the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage.
Most of those bills had been filed in the past and have worked their way through the legislative process. But a new bill Farley-Bouvier is looking to file this year would be aimed to halt surprise out of network health care bills.
She said at times somebody can be referred to a medical provider, receive the service, and then later find out that the provider is out of their health care network. The new bill would require the provider to inform the patient up front whether or not the provider is in the client's network.
The bills are due to be filed at the end of the workday on Friday. None of the legislators have received committee assignments yet and Farley-Bouvier said she has an open mind about what roles she'll have. She said she'd be fine serving on whatever committees the speaker feels she would be the best fit.