Students back higher education money

BOSTON – Public university students from around the state descended on the Statehouse Wednesday in support of increased higher education funding in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“This is not just a debate about funding. This is a debate about whether working-class families are entitled to an affordable education without compromising the quality of our education due to insufficient state support,” said Melissa Edberg, a Worcester State University senior and chairwoman of the state’s Board of Higher Education student advisory council.

The event, led by the State University Council of Presidents, a committee of the commonwealth’s nine state university presidents, gave Massachusetts public university students the opportunity to lobby for increased financial support.

“For our governor: this year, your budget, not your rhetoric, is your ultimate message to the citizens who you represent,” Edberg said. “We want better resources and we want better academics.”

In his budget proposal, Gov. Charlie Baker allocated $1.2 billion for state universities, including $2.5 million for state university incentive grants. However, none of the proposed funds would go toward the mandatory faculty salary increases.

Because no collective bargaining funding was provided for state universities in the 2016 budget, this lack of funding would leave state universities with a deficit they must fill.

Beau Pirrone, 21, a senior at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design in Boston, attended the student event to push legislators to support an increase in the state internship incentive budget and the 2016 and 2017 collective bargaining funding.

“Education is so invaluable and so inaccessible to so many people,” said Pirrone, a South Hadley resident who has been self-supporting since graduating from high school. “Having an education system that can support people like me (and those who are) worse off than I am is incredibly important. Our generation is going to be the next workforce, the next leaders. We need to support them.”

Rep. Tom C. Sannicandro, D-Ashland, chairman of the joint committee on higher education, said in a prepared statement that investments in education are “vital to the future success and strength of our state” and “have kept Massachusetts ahead of the nation with a low unemployment rate, high percentage of its workforce holding college degrees, and high average salary.”

Sannicandro said that increasing scholarship opportunities and direct investment in state universities and working to increasing the graduation rate of those at-risk “will keep our economy strong and ensure the innovation economy continues to grow in Massachusetts now and into the future.”

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, whose district includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said convincing the Legislature to pass adequate funding for public higher education has been “a constant struggle.”

Funding “has gone down in the last thirty years dramatically,” Story said. “Now the chancellors have to spend time doing private fundraising, which they did not used to have to do. They could spend their time on running the university or the college.”

Story said the decrease results from the Legislature’s hesitation to raise taxes in a time when the state has also needed money for so many other things.

“Public higher education is the cornerstone of democracy,” she said. “We sometimes take it for granted, but it is extremely important. It is a place where someone who is smart, who doesn’t have a lot of resources (or) money can get a first-class education and then become a leading member of society based on the (public) education that they received.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 7.

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Mass. Senate approves 21 as new tobacco age

BOSTON — The state Senate voted Thursday to approve raising the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21.

In addition to joining Hawaii as the only other state with a 21-year-old minimum, the legislation would regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes and prohibit the sale of tobacco products at health care facilities, including pharmacies.

Smoking is “still the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Sen. Jason M. Lewis, D-Winchester, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 32-2, would apply to cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. It now moves on to the House.

Donald F. Humason Jr., R-Westfield, was one of the two senators who voted against the bill. His Second Hampden and Hampshire district includes Easthampton and Southampton.

Before Thursday’s vote, Lewis said age is a crucial factor in tobacco consumption because “people who use tobacco almost always start young.”

According to the most recent data by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately nine out of 10 smokers begin using tobacco by age 18. More than 3,800 people who are 18 or younger try their first cigarette every day, according to the CDC.

The change in the age minimum is effective because “it gets tobacco products out of high school social networks,” Lewis said.

Lewis showed his fellow senators examples of tobacco products sold in convenience stores, such as vanilla- and grape-flavored cigarillos and chewing tobacco pouches, with colorful packaging that he said could be “appealing to teenagers.”

He recalled the events of April 12, when three 11-year-old girls were hospitalized after consuming liquid nicotine meant for vapor cigarettes, which they mistook for candy.

Surgeon General’s report

In 2000, the CDC’s Surgeon General’s report on reducing tobacco use concluded that limiting easy access to tobacco products and better explaining the risks of tobacco and nicotine use are priorities for public health action.

“Tobacco use and nicotine addiction is the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in Massachusetts and the entire country,” Lewis said “It is clearly the No. 1 preventable health issue that we need to deal with.”

The bill would take effect January 1, 2017, and would exempt any person who is 18 on or before that date.

The bill would also make illegal the use of tobacco products by those under the age of 18, but would require that the punishment be only a notice of violation, rather than an offense noted on that person’s criminal record.

Senators debated an amendment that would exempt military personnel from the age minimum, but ultimately voted against it.

More than 130 cities in nine states, excluding Hawaii, have raised the age minimum to 21, according to Tobacco21.org, an advocacy website. In Massachusetts, over 100 communities have raised the age minimum above 18.

Needham, the first in the country to raise the age minimum to 21, saw a 48 percent reduction in the smoking rate, Lewis said.

Amherst, Southampton, South Hadley, Leverett and Greenfield are among the communities in western Massachusetts that already have raised the minimum age to 21.

Lewis said these communities have shown that changing the age minimum “does in fact reduce use consumption and smoking rates.” He said the bill would give communities throughout Massachusetts “a level playing field,” by creating uniform statewide regulations.

Retailers concerned

But others are concerned about the impact of this bill on state commerce. Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the group opposes the bill, which “requires you to stand up and draw a line in the sand.”

Raising the minimum age, Hurst said, would cause convenience stores in cities and towns close to the state border to lose business to neighboring states — something that was not of concern in the island state of Hawaii.

“It can hurt particularly small sellers, whether it be convenience stores or others that are going to have less traffic because a number of consumers are not going to come through their front door anymore,” Hurst said. “That certainly becomes a larger issue.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 29, 2016.

Children’s Trust honors Ellen Story

Children’s Trust honors Ellen Story

BOSTON – Surrounded by hundreds of shoes lined up at the Grand Staircase in the Statehouse, state Rep. Ellen Story told an audience assembled to honor her that as a child “I didn’t know from (shoe) brands.”

“Kids now, when they buy shoes … it matters,” Story told those gathered for Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“We have some of the finest shoes available that we are going to be giving to kids who … will not feel stigmatized in their school because they do not have on the most expensive, fancy shoes,” she said.

Story and Senate Minority Leader Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, received the Children’s Trust “Valuing Our Children” award for their work on children’s issues amid 772 pairs of shoes placed to symbolize the number of confirmed child abuse and neglect cases in Massachusetts each week.

“Take a good look at those shoes behind me,” said Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Children’s Trust. “They all represent families. The numbers are staggering.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that Massachusetts had the highest rate of child abuse and neglect nationwide in 2014. At the end of September 2014, 31,863 children were reportedly neglected or abused—a number that jumped 57 percent from the previous year.

Bartley said more than 138,000 mandated reports were filed with the Department of Children and Families by professionals, such as teachers or pediatricians, who work with children and are required by law to report when they have reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected.

While 40,000 of the more 138,000 families were screened and received Department of Children and Families services, the remaining families were “left alone to fend for themselves.”

“We can do better,” Bartley said.

In her 11 terms in office, Story — a wife, mother and a grandmother — has worked on issues facing children and families, including postpartum depression and child-abuse prevention. She is chairwoman of the special legislative commission on postpartum depression.

Story, who spent 17 years with the Family Planning Council of Western Massachusetts before taking office, has announced that this is her last term and that she will not seek re-election after 24 years in office.

In a prepared statement, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, D-Winthrop, called Story “a leading voice on issues affecting our youngest citizens,” who “has improved the lives of children throughout the commonwealth.”

The event was attended by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; James Rooney, chairman of the Children’s Trust Board of Directors; several Children’s Trust board members; and a number of sponsors.

All shoes were donated by BCNY International, Clarks Americas, Crocs, Khombu and New Balance in partnership with Two Ten Footwear Foundation. They will be given to families in Children’s Trust programs.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 8, 2016.

Reaction to public records law reform

BOSTON – Statewide advocacy groups say legislators considering a final version of a new Massachusetts Public Records Law must focus on limiting costs to both the public and the government, setting reasonable time requirements and enforcing the law.

The current law “does not send a clear signal to agencies and municipalities that there is a consequence to violating the law,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And it doesn’t send a clear signal to requestors that they will be supported in their efforts to enforce the law.”

Separate House and Senate bills that would change the public records law are being reconciled in conference committee.

Wolfe, who testified Wednesday before the committee, spoke about the issue of enforcement. He said that requiring government agencies that either delay or refuse altogether to provide records to pay the legal fees for those suing successfully to obtain them would “incentivize compliance.”

“The most important thing is to enable people to enforce the law and to ensure that there are real consequences for when there are violations,” he said at the hearing. “A really important principle is that enforcement shouldn’t be optional.”

The House and Senate bills offer different remedies when records requests are wrongfully denied or handled. The Senate calls for reimbursing all legal fees “reasonably” incurred if it is determined that the agency improperly handled the request. The House would require that complaints be referred to a superior court to determine whether the request was wrongfully denied.

Massachusetts, Wyoming and South Dakota are the only states that do not reimburse attorney’s fees to those who were wrongfully denied public records, Wolfe said.

He was joined Wednesday in testifying before the conference committee by Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, and Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publisher’s Association.

The trio likened the issues to a three-legged stool. “Making progress in each area (cost, timeliness and enforcement) is critically important, or the reform will not stand,” Wilmot said.

She commended aspects in both bills, but said she believes the Senate bill “is stronger in most areas” and is more comprehensible.

While the Senate bill would allow communities and state agencies to charge a maximum of $25 per hour to fill record requests, the House bill’s limit would apply only to state agencies.

Wilmot said another issue with the cost of enforcement is redaction, or the withholding of certain information from what is otherwise a public document.

“Redaction is a big issue. That’s how most charges for public records get racked up. It isn’t copying charges, it isn’t search charges,” she said.

Instead, Wilmot said the charges most often result from lawyers’ fees incurred to ensure that sensitive information is redacted.

The Senate bill stipulates that if information is being withheld under a law such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the amount can be charged; however, the person making the request cannot be charged for information that is withheld which is disputed because it is not clearly covered by law.

The state’s current public records law, established in 1973, requires that agencies respond to public requests for information within 10 days and charge only the cost of reproducing the requested records.

The new bills propose an extension to the amount of time that an agency has to complete a request, though each bill establishes different lengths of time. The House bill sets deadlines of up to 75 days, while the Senate bill calls for up to 60 days.

Ambrogi said both bills still gives custodians of records more time than they would have in other states. Vermont requires records be provided, in three days – with a possible extension of no more than 10 days, he said.

“Most public records requests are not complicated or difficult. There’s just no reason (these records) can’t be quickly provided,” he said. “If a record is provided in a timely way, then all the other issues go away. Then we’re not talking about appeals, we’re not talking about whether there should be attorneys’ fees in court or anything else.”

Ambrogi suggested the conference committee’s bill allow 15 days to produce the records, with a maximum extension of 15 days. Should a public official feel the need for more time, the request for an extension should then be made to the office of the secretary of state.

“The government works for the citizens and these records are the citizens’ records,” he said. “Providing public records is not an ancillary job, it’s a part of the government.”

The conference committee plans to meet again in the coming weeks, though a date has not yet been set.

This article was originally published on April 2, 2016.

Students back higher education money

BOSTON – Public university students from around the state descended on the Statehouse Wednesday in support of increased higher education funding in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“This is not just a debate about funding. This is a debate about whether working-class families are entitled to an affordable education without compromising the quality of our education due to insufficient state support,” said Melissa Edberg, a Worcester State University senior and chairwoman of the state’s Board of Higher Education student advisory council.

The event, led by the State University Council of Presidents, a committee of the commonwealth’s nine state university presidents, gave Massachusetts public university students the opportunity to lobby for increased financial support.

“For our governor: this year, your budget, not your rhetoric, is your ultimate message to the citizens who you represent,” Edberg said. “We want better resources and we want better academics.”

In his budget proposal, Gov. Charlie Baker allocated $1.2 billion for state universities, including $2.5 million for state university incentive grants. However, none of the proposed funds would go toward the mandatory faculty salary increases.

Because no collective bargaining funding was provided for state universities in the 2016 budget, this lack of funding would leave state universities with a deficit they must fill.

Beau Pirrone, 21, a senior at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design in Boston, attended the student event to push legislators to support an increase in the state internship incentive budget and the 2016 and 2017 collective bargaining funding.

“Education is so invaluable and so inaccessible to so many people,” said Pirrone, a South Hadley resident who has been self-supporting since graduating from high school. “Having an education system that can support people like me (and those who are) worse off than I am is incredibly important. Our generation is going to be the next workforce, the next leaders. We need to support them.”

Rep. Tom C. Sannicandro, D-Ashland, chairman of the joint committee on higher education, said in a prepared statement that investments in education are “vital to the future success and strength of our state” and “have kept Massachusetts ahead of the nation with a low unemployment rate, high percentage of its workforce holding college degrees, and high average salary.”

Sannicandro said that increasing scholarship opportunities and direct investment in state universities and working to increasing the graduation rate of those at-risk “will keep our economy strong and ensure the innovation economy continues to grow in Massachusetts now and into the future.”

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, whose district includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said convincing the Legislature to pass adequate funding for public higher education has been “a constant struggle.”

Funding “has gone down in the last thirty years dramatically,” Story said. “Now the chancellors have to spend time doing private fundraising, which they did not used to have to do. They could spend their time on running the university or the college.”

Story said the decrease results from the Legislature’s hesitation to raise taxes in a time when the state has also needed money for so many other things.

“Public higher education is the cornerstone of democracy,” she said. “We sometimes take it for granted, but it is extremely important. It is a place where someone who is smart, who doesn’t have a lot of resources (or) money can get a first-class education and then become a leading member of society based on the (public) education that they received.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 7,2016.

Privacy concerns surface over records law

BOSTON — State legislators wrestling to reconcile House and Senate bills seeking to reform the state’s public records laws Wednesday faced the task of balancing the need for access against concerns about divulging sensitive or private information.

But another issue, the quick distribution of public records, may have a solution resting in a type of Internet-based computing using the cloud.

Testifying before a conference committee led by state Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, and Sen. Joan B. Lovely, D-Salem, state Comptroller Thomas Shack said his office is moving toward a cloud-based system to make public records available electronically.

“It’s really designed to create efficiency … to allow folks the opportunity to gather data that they can then utilize in ways that they see fit,” Shack said.

He added that the cloud-based system would provide online access to commonly sought public records without the need to file a formal request.

But the issue of privacy vs. the public’s right to know was a more complex problem for the conference committee tasked with unifying the House and Senate bills. This was the committee’s second meeting.

“When you look at this bill, it’s a battleground in terms of the concepts of transparency and personal privacy,” Kocot said.

Representatives from the offices of the state comptroller, attorney general and secretary of state testified, offering their views on the line between preserving privacy and public information.

“There is this tension between wanting lots of public records out there, and the public will say, ‘We really would like that,’” said Richard Johnston, chief legal counsel for Attorney General Maura Healey. “But when it comes down to specific individuals, they may not be so keen to have their private information out there.”

Johnston emphasized the need for agencies to thoroughly examine public records being requested to ensure they do not disclose confidential material or information that could undermine a continuing investigation or jeopardize safety of an individual or facility.

A spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office said the issue of transparency versus privacy is something that would be addressed in the provisions of the law.

The state’s current public records law, established in 1973, requires that agencies respond to public requests for information within 10 days and charge only the cost of reproducing the requested records.

The House and Senate bills would require each state and local agency to designate someone to be responsible for handling public requests, but would not require that new employees be hired to handle the job.

Both bills also address potential legal action when records requests are wrongfully denied or handled. The Senate bill calls for reimbursing all legal fees “reasonably” incurred if it is determined that the agency improperly handled the request.

The House bill would require that complaints be referred to a superior court to determine whether the request was wrongfully denied.

The bills propose an extension to the amount of time that an agency has to complete a request, though each bill establishes different lengths of time. The House bill sets deadlines of up to 75 days, while the Senate bill calls for up to 60 days.

The meeting was also attended by representatives from the Massachusetts chapters of the ACLU, Common Cause and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, who are expected to testify at a later time.

The conference committee plans to meet for a third time in the coming weeks, though a date has not yet been set.

Stephanie Pagones writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on March 24, 2016.

Higher ed bill would add millions, freeze tuition, fees

BOSTON — State legislators will be asked to consider a bill that would add millions to the higher education system and freeze tuition and fees in an effort to broaden educational opportunities.

“We need to make sure that these students first have the opportunity to get into higher education and then that they graduate from higher education,” said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

Sannicandro said the committee took the suggestions of a commission on higher education made up of industry leaders, state legislators, representatives of private colleges and universities, as well as a separate task force on student debt.

The bill would require that a fixed budget of $95 million per year for five years – approximately $475 million (excluding inflation and collective bargaining increases) – be taken from the discretionary fund and directed at the community colleges, state universities and University of Massachusetts system.

The bill would impose a freeze on tuition and fees for students over a fixed period of time and invest $42 million into the MASSGrant program, which provides need-based financial aid to students in Massachusetts.

Sannicandro said the changes are needed to support Massachusetts’ “technical, brain-powered economy” and changing demographics which means that some people are not able to take advantage of the state’s higher education opportunities, especially those who are “chronically underrepresented” racially, ethnically and socioeconomically.

“We don’t have any coal or oil or really any other natural resources, but we’ve got plenty of brainpower and we need to continue to feed that,” he said.

Sannicandro said because businesses are demanding a more educated and “credentialed” workforce, the bill would require the state to match any private contributions made to its community college internship incentive program.

“We know that businesses really are demanding a more educated workforce,” he said.

Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, said while the bill has garnered sponsors, it is asking for a large amount of money at a time when “we have a limited amount of money.”

But Story, who supports the bill, said better funding for higher education is “desperately” needed.

“Students are leaving college with massive amounts of student debt, and are having to work a couple of jobs in addition to taking a full-time load,” Story said. “If we want an educated workforce in the commonwealth, and we certainly do, we need to make it easier for people to get a college degree.”

She was echoed by Natalie Higgins, executive director of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, a higher education advocacy group, who said the freeze on tuition and fees would help students who often are just barely able to afford their educations.

“What’s frustrating for me is seeing the tuition and fees going up every year and seeing students who are just making it work and who are forced to go part-time,” she said.

But the proposal faces a hard road. Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which would allocate $539 million to the UMass system, 1.4 percent more than its current budget of $532 million, has been criticized by Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, for its “woefully inadequate” funding.

This article was originally published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette on March 5, 2016.