From State House News Service
ON THE AGENDA
- Petty, hundreds of state leaders call to extend Mosaic-linked health fund
- Officials scramble as Pike tolling transition begins, without website
- Mass. Taxpayers Foundation sees red in recreational pot revenue projections
- Do charter schools fail students with disabilities? Question 2 debate rages
TOP OF THE HILL
Petty among nine mayors leading call to extend state health fund that was connected to Mosaic Cultural Complex
Worcester’s Joseph M. Petty is among the mayors of nine Massachusetts cities leading more than 200 civic and health officials, including state Sen. Harriette M. Chandler, who urged lawmakers last week to reauthorize a state trust fund aimed at preventing chronic health conditions like diabetes, asthma and hypertension.
The Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund was established as part of a 2012 health care cost containment law, and its funding is slated to expire in June 2017. That’s months away, but work on the fiscal 2018 budget will be under way throughout the fall, leading up to the release of Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal in January.
The original funding, $60 million over four years, came from an assessment on health insurers and large hospital systems.
“This program is changing the way we think about wellness. We need to realize that health is not simply the absence of illness,” Petty told the Sun in an email late Friday. “This program is about taking healthcare out of the traditional clinical setting and changing behavior patterns in our most vulnerable populations. Through the work of our community partners we are trying to care for the well-being of the entire person not just addressing individual symptoms as they arise.”
In a letter delivered to legislative leaders Oct. 27, the representatives of municipalities, health associations, nonprofits and other organizations described the fund as an “essential complement to ongoing health care transformation efforts,” and say those efforts cannot be successful without focusing on the underlying causes of poor health.
The fund supports services available to nearly 1 million Massachusetts residents through nine community partnerships, according to the letter.
Worcester’s regional community partnership, which was awarded $6 million, has included a dozen organizations at various levels of the work, including the city and Fallon Health, but also grassroots groups such as Mosaic Cultural Complex, which ran into controversy [Worcester Sun exclusive] amid organizational difficulties in administering its responsibilities related to the grant.
Mosaic was told by the city last December to cease its work, aimed mainly at helping to prevent high blood pressure and heart disease in black men, after an October 2015 city audit uncovered “no fraud” but months of unpaid wages for many of Mosaic’s employees.
Mayors Martin Walsh of Boston, Alex Marsh of Holyoke, Judith Kennedy of Lynn, Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, Richard Alcombright of North Adams, Linda Tyer of Pittsfield, Thomas Koch of Quincy and Robert Hedlund of Weymouth all signed the letter with Petty, as did other local officials from Adams, Cambridge, Fall River, Hudson, Marlborough, Northborough, Stockbridge, and Barnstable and Berkshire counties.
The four lawmakers who chair the Public Health Committee and Health Care Financing Committee all expressed support for the fund in a statement released by the Massachusetts Public Health Association.
Health Care Financing Committee Senate Chairman James Welch, who serves on the board that oversees the trust fund, said he has been “impressed with the progress and impact” and is “eager to explore opportunities with my colleagues to keep this important work moving forward.”
— Katie Lannan
Mass Pike tolling transition begins, without website, as officials urge caution and patience
A difficult week in Massachusetts transportation, marked by a chaotic evacuation of a smoke-filled Orange Line train, finished with a burst of concern over the state’s long-planned and historic conversion to an all-electronic tolling system.
Electronic tolling was set to begin at 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28.
State officials announced Thursday they would authorize a six-month grace period for drivers who have not yet obtained free transponders, which are issued by the state and communicate with electronic gantries over the roadways to determine where drivers are getting on and off tolled roads and charge them accordingly.
Officials also said there would be a “weekend shutdown of the website and customer service hotline.” The website was to be unavailable until 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1.
MassDOT officials said the website shutdown is necessary to “migrate approximately 1.7 million customer accounts from the current E-ZPassMA system into the new and updated system, and ensure customers are billed the correct gantry rate,” and that the site could not have been shut down any sooner because the new system is being activated this weekend.
“It’s been a lot of work to get to this point,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said during a press conference in Boston Friday afternoon.
Eventually, Pollack said, the switch to the new tolling system will deliver more convenience for motorists and conditions featuring less congestion, more safety and speedier travel. “Be patient with us,” Pollack said, predicting traffic as tollbooths are taken down over the next month and concerns from people who have not yet obtained toll transponders.
To ensure the safety of workers, Pollack urged drivers to exercise caution while traveling near tollbooth demolition work zones.
Officials urged drivers to avoid the turnpike or use the MBTA if possible, and State Police officials even suggested drivers make sure they have a full tank of gas and fully charged cellphones when they get on the turnpike.
“Keep the tank full. Keep your cellphones charged. If we run into problems, these will be helpful,” State Police Col. Richard McKeon said.
Highway Administrator Thomas Tinlin said 27,894 transponders had been issued by Friday last week. Since Aug. 22, 186,750 transponders had been issued, compared to 48,549 in the same period during 2015, he said.
Under the grace period rules, any driver without a transponder will receive a pay by plate invoice in the mail. The vehicle owner may pay the invoice, or apply to receive a free transponder and receive a credit for the difference between the pay by plate rate and the E-ZPass MA rate. After paying pay by plate bills in full, customers will be credited the difference on their new account.
Credit cards and checks, but not cash, will be accepted to seed new transponder accounts at the following service center locations. (Transponders obtained over the weekend may not be activated until up to five days later, officials say):
- Auburn, 27 Midstate Drive
- Charlton, Service Plaza on I-90 (Massachusetts Turnpike), Eastbound (temporary signup location)
- Natick, Service Plaza on I-90 (Massachusetts Turnpike), Eastbound at Mile Marker 117
- East Boston, 145 Havre Street
- Lee, Service Plaza on I-90 (Massachusetts Turnpike), Eastbound, between Exits 1 and 2
- Ludlow, Service Plaza on I-90, (the Massachusetts Turnpike), Eastbound (temporary sign-up location)
- Ludlow, Service Plaza on I-90, (the Massachusetts Turnpike), Westbound
- Saugus, 1201 Broadway, Route 1 South
- Framingham, Service Plaza on I-90 (Massachusetts Turnpike), Westbound (temporary signup location)
— Michael P. Norton
IN THE NEWS
Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation sees red in recreational pot revenue projections
Predicting marijuana users will grow their own plants and take other steps to avoid taxes, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation late last week added its voice to those opposing Question 4, which legalizes adult use and retail sale of marijuana.
In a position paper signed by MTF President Eileen McAnneny, she concludes, “People have a lot to consider as they vote on Question 4, but believing this is a significant new revenue source for the state is not one of them. Question 4 is a bad deal for taxpayers that could leave us subsidizing the marijuana industry and that’s why the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation is opposing it.”
McAnneny called the initiative petition’s home-grow provision, which allows every adult to grow six plants, “the most generous in the nation” and questioned why marijuana users would opt to buy retail and pay a 10 percent tax. An exemption from taxation for medical marijuana will also incent people to use that system as a means of accessing marijuana to avoid taxation, according to the nonpartisan advocacy group.
The foundation disputed the question sponsor’s claims that its passage will generate $100 million in new tax revenues, or more than enough to cover regulatory costs. Even if $100 million were generated, the foundation says, “it is indisputable that expenses will outpace revenues in the short-term.”
MTF also predicted indirect costs associated with addiction services, emergency room visits, and “drugged driving.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which supports Question 4, released a map last week showing the locations in Boston of police incidents and arrests for marijuana, concluding that it confirms that “while all races of people smoke and sell marijuana at similar rates, marijuana enforcement is disproportionately concentrated in communities of color.”
— Michael P. Norton
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Do charter schools fail students with disabilities? Question 2 debate rages
BOSTON — With a new poll showing voters deadlocked over the ballot question to expand charter schools in Massachusetts, the opposing campaigns went to war last week over a report compiled by a parent of students with disabilities that challenged charter schools’ preparedness and philosophy toward educating children with special needs.
Mansfield parent Michael Robinson, a data analyst who said he has done contract work for the Executive Office of Education, compiled the survey that was released through the “No on 2” campaign, arguing that charter schools, in large measure, are failing students with disabilities and sapping resources from district schools that are better equipped to provide many children with the additional services they need.
One of Robinson’s findings included the fact that 19 charter schools, or 25 percent of all charters, reported to the state having no full-time special education teachers on staff, compared to just 3 percent of public school district.
Within hours of the report’s release, the “Yes on 2” campaign challenged the basis of the report after calling several of the schools highlighted and finding a significant presence of licensed special education teachers on staff.
“The special interests opposing Question 2 have hit a new low: They’re using a homegrown report from someone with zero research credentials that is riddled with inaccuracies, and using it to advance their cynical, political agenda and demean the hard work of educators. This report should be taken seriously by no one,” said Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the “Yes on 2” campaign.
O’Connor pointed instead to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that found students with severe needs or beginning English proficiency “perform significantly better in charters than traditional public schools.”
Robinson’s report was based on school data published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The arguments surrounding special education and charter schools are familiar ones.
For years, charter school expansion opponents have argued that charters cherry-pick students to improve their performance scores, leaving district public schools the task of educating more challenging students. While charter schools actually select students based on a blind lottery and new laws have improved the recruitment and enrollment of students with disabilities or language needs at charter schools, opponents of the ballot question say a gap remains.
The dust-up coincided with the release of new Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll results showing Question 2 in a tie at 49 percent, with 9 percent of likely voters undecided less than two weeks before election day.
The “No on 2” campaign held an event on the steps outside the State House Oct. 27 to highlight the report that found that charter schools employ fewer special education teachers per student with disabilities, enroll fewer students with disabilities, and have higher rates of discipline for students with special needs than district public schools.
Robinson, a parent of three children with disabilities who called himself “a disgruntled parent with graphs,” said he and his wife were often “made aware of the strain our daughter placed on the school.”
He also described “tactics of exclusion” used with his son that separated him from his classmates, resulted in suspensions for minor infractions, and led to frequent suggestions that he return to his district school.
“Our state has a moral and practical obligation to provide children with a disability an equal education,” Robinson said.
Using data publicly available from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Robinson said he found that district schools employ one special education teacher for every 22 students with disabilities, compared to one teacher for every 36 students at charters. The report also stated 16 of the 21 schools with the lowest enrollment of students with disabilities are charter schools.
Robinson said 10 of 12 schools with the highest attrition rate of students with disabilities are charters, and charter schools discipline students with disabilities at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.