This is the first in a series of interviews with the Berkshire delegation on legislative actions during this past session of the General Court.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The massive criminal justice reform bill stands out as a highlight of the legislative session for state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
The Legislature just wrapped up its formal session on Tuesday night, concluding deliberations on most major pieces of law until a new Legislature takes over in January -- though there are still informal sessions during which bills can be passed.
Farley-Bouvier, representing the 3rd Berkshire District that encompasses most of Pittsfield, highlighted the criminal justice reform bill as one of the top undertakings lawmakers completed in the last two years.
"That has wide-ranging implications for most of the commonwealth. Repealing mandatory minimums was a big accomplishment. We are not all the way there. I think getting rid of all mandatory minimums is what we should be doing because I really do believe in judicial discretion and we don't have that when we have mandatory minimums," Farley-Bouvier said.
She is particularly proud that the bill reforms how bail is set. She said people too often were being kept in jail before a trial just because they couldn't afford the bail. The bill now includes the ability to pay so that the state isn't housing people presumed innocent until a trial.
"We shouldn't keep people in jail pre-trial with money. You keep somebody in jail pre-trial based on dangerousness and flight risk. That has nothing to do with money," Farley-Bouvier said.
She said that will have some financial implications for the state as well because fewer people will be housed in correctional facilities, though bail bond companies may suffer a bit.
The bill also creates drug and veterans courts and encourages diversion programs to address issues a person faces without tarnishing his or her permanent record. She believes that is particularly important for youthful offenders who could later struggle with housing and jobs because of a criminal record.
"If we can take the dollars we are spending locking people up who don't need to be locked up and put that toward education, toward arts, toward investing in our infrastructure, then we are better as a whole community," Farley-Bouvier said. "Historically we have been spending way too much money on criminal justice."
The bill also includes making it easier for youthful offenders to expunge their record if they have no other problems in a certain period of time and limits the use of solitary confinement.
"Solitary confinement is overused and considered torture," Farley-Bouvier said.
She is the vice chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which she said played a central role in the passage of "the grand bargain." That bill raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour over a period of five years.
"Once we get to $15 an hour, we will have the same buying power as we had in 1968," Farley-Bouvier said, adding that it was in 1968 when buying power for a minimum wage worker was at its peak.
She later added, "the value of the minimum wage has been depressed artificially over a number of years and now we are trying to make corrections. Once this is fully implemented, we will have the most generous statewide minimum wage in the country."
The bill also raises the percentage of the minimum wage for tipped employees to 45 percent.
"I'm a big proponent of getting rid of a tip minimum wage totally. But we're making progress," Farley-Bouvier said.
The Pittsfield Democrat disagrees with the notion that tipping is an incentive for workers because others in customer service, such as a hardware store, aren't treated that way nor are other retailers given the option to pay workers less.
The bargain also changes when a tipped worker has to have wages match the minimum wage. Previously the worker had to be at least even with the minimum wage at the end of the pay period and this bill changes that to daily. She said that helps eliminate somebody working a large number of hours on very slow shifts and then make it all back at the end of the week.
"I really do think that is the most important change," Farley-Bouvier said.
Paid family and medical leave are also in that bill. It creates a trust fund employers pay into and when a worker needs time off for a health reason, the trust fund will pay for that leave. The company can then hire a temporary worker for that job until the employee is healthy enough to return to work, she said.
Farley-Bouvier added that a piece of that bill was "defense." She said the retail industry was pushing to lower the sales tax to 4 percent, which in turn would have lowered revenues to the state. She said the agreement reached on the bill included the association pulling that off the table.
Perhaps the most reported on legislation in the last two years was the implementation of recreational marijuana. Farley-Bouvier believes state lawmakers and the Cannabis Control Commission have done a good job in covering all aspects of implementation.
"When laws are developed through ballot questions, they are basically a one-sided law. It doesn't take into account all of the stakeholders," Farley-Bouvier said.
State officials have been criticized over the length of time it has taken to roll out the new industry. The original timeline called for licenses to be issued by January 2018 -- and stores could open then. But, lawmakers delayed that for six months. In July, businesses were again expected to be opening, but the Cannabis Control Commission hadn't issued any by that date.
Farley-Bouvier isn't concerned about the extra time.
"It is way better to do this right than to do it fast," Farley-Bouvier said. "When you do something new like this, it is easy for unintended consequences to happen."
She said the legislation also encourages smaller businesses instead of catering to big, out-of-town companies. But she still has concerns over laboratories. The products are supposed to be independently tested before being sold but few labs are ready to open.
"There is a gap in the chain. You have to have the labs. Labs weren't ready to come online. It is not like the commission was saying we'll hold off on licensing labs, they just weren't ripe. That is something we will have to keep a close eye on," Farley-Bouvier said.
Financially, the state had finished with a surplus, some of which was put in the budget toward increasing school aid. She said Gov. Charlie Baker has released plans for a supplemental budget, but she doesn't entirely agree with his plans.
"He is concentrating those dollars on school security. There is a real push and pull on this one. Of course, we are concerned about security in schools but if we are investing in more security officers, metal detectors, and things like that then we are not investing in art and music and lowering class size. I would rather be investing in extended day programs. What are the things we do to really build schools and make them better as opposed to having to lock them down," Farley-Bouvier said.
Other highlights include the passage of an extreme risk protective order law. Farley-Bouvier said that had come with controversy. It allows a court to deny an individual access to firearms in some circumstances.
"If there is somebody in your life, in your family, that you have significant worries about having access to weapons, you are able to go to the police who can help you go through a judicial process to be able to restrict that person from weapons," she said.
In the same vein, lawmakers also banned bump stocks and trigger cranks. The pushed for gun control had all come following mass shootings elsewhere in the country.
The Legislature has also reached a compromise on Airbnb. The law now places a 5.7 percent tax on the short-term housing rentals and allows municipalities to add an additional surcharge. The bill also requires additional inspections.
"Somebody going into an accommodation that has a public platform, it turns into some type of public space. There should be some level of safety that we can expect and this allows for that to happen," Farley-Bouvier said.
She also highlighted the automatic voter registration law, which switches registration from essentially an opt-in program to an opt-out program.
"Any time somebody is interfacing with the commonwealth they will be automatically registered to vote unless the person says 'I don't want to be registered to vote,'" Farley-Bouvier said. "We want to make voting accessible to people."
Farley-Bouvier said the state was able to continue work on addressing the opioid crisis as well with another bill increasing resources for treatment. She said the focus for her now is to make sure the state programs are brought to the Berkshires as well and she said she is seeking money to help expand the work being done at the George Crane Memorial Center.
A number of smaller bills Farley-Bouvier felt were important as well. Those include a pregnant workers fairness act, bills to increase access to contraception, increased confidentiality in health care, and getting rid of archaic and seldom followed laws such as one that limits birth control to only married women.
The state also raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 -- a move that comes after individual towns throughout the state had already done so -- and a bill to increase civics education in the classrooms.
Farley-Bouvier is also supportive of lifting the cap on children for welfare recipients. In the 1990s, lawmakers passed a bill halting any additional payments to a family on welfare for having another child.
"That was a policy put in in the '90s and people thought this was a really good way to prevent poor people from having more babies and that this was fraud and people were having more babies just to get more money. It doesn't make a lot of sense to get $100. It is a completely failed policy that has not prevented poor people from getting pregnant," Farley-Bouvier said.
Farley-Bouvier, however, said that work isn't completed. The Legislature is currently at odds with Baker over welfare policies and a final agreement hasn't been reached. Farley-Bouvier said particularly she disagrees with Baker's plan to include disability payments as part of a welfare disbursement.
"We're putting the poor against the disabled poor. That is not good policy," Farley-Bouvier said.
Lawmakers have also continued to fight with Baker over a proposal to move a certain group of workers on MassHealth to another health care option. Farley-Bouvier said that just increases what is called "the cliff effect" whereas more people will find not working and staying on assistance programs makes more financial sense for a household.
"We need to make it worth it to work. When you are living on the edge like that, it is a very fine line," Farley-Bouvier said.
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