LETTER: Local State House Delegation Discusses Pending Bills, Housing, Transportation & More

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Photo by Rita Colafella Susan Falkoff of Progressive Watertown moderated the discussion with Watertown’s State House delegation, from left, State Rep. Steve Owens, State Rep. John Lawn, and State Sen. Will Brownsberger.

Last Sunday, Progressive Watertown held its All Member Meeting at the Apartments at the Coolidge School. The event included a discussion and Q&A with State Senator and President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger, seven-term State Representative John Lawn and two-term State Representative Steve Owens. 

The discussion was moderated by Progressive Watertown co-chair Susan Falkoff, and the initial intention was to learn where the Progressive Mass priority bills are in the legislative pipeline. This was a substantive discussion in which housing, the Watertown Square re-design, MBTA issues, the Make Polluters Pay initiative, and transparency in government were among the topics covered.  The audience saw a delegation that  is very aligned and has a very good working relationship with one another. The two representatives had just finished working long and hard on the state budget. The budget is now with the Senate.

After introductions, the legislators were asked to talk briefly about an issue they are excited about working on. Representative Lawn, Chair of the Joint Committee on Healthcare Financing, has been consumed with protecting healthcare facilities in the wake of the Steward Healthcare scandal. Seven hospitals primarily serving Mass Health and Medicaid patients, St. Elizabeth being the largest, were bought by a doctor who sold the land to a REIT. Lawn’s goal is to stabilize the situation, work closely with the Governor to remediate it, and prevent such private equity purchases in the future. It is currently tied up in court as the owner, who will face serious criminal charges, is trying to sell the physician network to avoid declaring bankruptcy.

Representative Owens talked about his work on energy efficiency, particularly in promoting ground source heat pumps. There is a large Networking of Ground Source Heat Pumps project happening in Framingham, and smaller ones in Lowell and Boston. There’s a feasibility study occurring in Cambridge. Owens’ goal is to approve, permit and launch these projects. He will be participating in a program entitled The Future of Clean Heat: Beyond Gas on May 15th at 7 PM at the Atrium School. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about clean energy.

Senator Brownsberger talked about the serious challenges facing us with the climate, housing, traffic and transportation. He is concerned about meeting the 2050 goal to build energy efficient buildings and green housing.  He also said traffic was very problematic and that we need to electrify more vehicles to prevent its effects on the environment. The senator mentioned the astronomical cost of housing and the need to increase the labor supply through immigration in order to bring down labor costs. Brownsberger said the Brighton Public Housing Project near Market Street will cost $800,000 per unit to rebuild, partially due to labor costs.

Then the rifting off one another began.  Lawn is adding an amendment to the Housing Bond Bill to give veterans a preference in the inclusionary zoning process. He noted, many in public housing are over-housed, and we need more public housing because it is very effective and key to keeping costs down. He wants to build up more on currently acquired public housing land, by upzoning the land to include more units. He’s also concerned with traffic. Lawn thinks better transit and providing ways to downsize will help. He thought the Shuttle service was a good idea but it needed to be multi-connected to have impact. Walkability is important, he said. He supports mixed use housing and parking garages because they take up less land. He sees many buildings in the square that are underutilized. Owens who is Involved with the Willow Park re-development and a private-public project for Ridge Commons in Cambridge agreed.  Representative Owens wants to re-house his own in-laws to create a multi-generational living situation for his family, but cannot find anything in town that is affordable for them. Owens also added he is very familiar with the problem of business not having enough labor due to the housing crisis. He mentioned a chocolate company in Cambridge had shuttered because the owner could not find employees nearby. He also thinks transit will help curb sprawl which increases land cost.

Lawn has signed onto Owens’ Make Polluters Pay bill. However, he said more legislative coalitions would help to create a coalescing situation. Owens explained that the bill faced constitutional challenges and then corporate attorneys. They mentioned the Bottle Bill is part of the Omnibus Bill that is with the senate. The PFAS Bill arrived on Lawn’s desk two weeks ago and he needs to review it.

All three had positive feelings about the new General Manager of the MBTA. The GM has real management experience. Weekend shutdowns to remove slow zones are moving in the right direction. They think adding more Commercial Licensed Drivers will help a lot as will training up more drivers per batch. They agreed that this is the time to add funding because the MBTA can spend and absorb the money. According to them, we’re probably looking at a two year timeline for fixing the MBTA.

During a question on the legislative process, Lawn said bills move to study and disappear or sometimes get folded into larger massive bills. The Housing Bond Bill is an example. He explained that given time constraints and different committee assignments, sometimes it is better for different bills to merge into one. Lawn reminded the audience that the legislation can provide the funding for studies and projects. They just need to ask. The state delegation can also work with the federal delegation to get things done. The only point of contention between the legislators and audience was The Sunshine Act, an act to record votes from committee meetings. The act was not supported by any of the three. Brownsberger said they were not subject to public records law because all related information is public via website and recordings. He also added the size of body was a factor. Owens said the website could be improved so that it is easier to follow, but all information was there.

For more info go https://malegislature.gov/

Rita Colafella
56 Cuba St.

10 thoughts on “LETTER: Local State House Delegation Discusses Pending Bills, Housing, Transportation & More

  1. The MBTA is for all practical purposes broke and has been for years. It is insolvent. If it was a real business, it would have filed for bankruptcy by now. For the long term future, the MBTA will be in the RED and by large numbers. bankruptcy

    • Literally none of this is true. Like many government agencies and programs, the T has unfunded operational and infrastructure needs. It needs improvements for sure. It is not broke or bankrupt. Facts continue to matter.

      • Paul,
        Thanks for setting me straight. You are again correct, let government pour more into it and get it working the right way. Government will get it all fixed up nice and dandy.

  2. The projected MBTA budget deficit for the next fiscal year is $182 million. The MBTA CFO Mary Ann O’Hara’s projects that could grow to $859 million by 2029. The MBTA itself says it would need approximately 24.5 Billion dollars to bring the system into a state of good repair through projects like replacing or rehabilitating tracks, facilities, power equipment, trains and other parts of the Boston-area transit system.
    More details:

  3. Thank you for this substantive letter. I really appreciate the hard work from our local representatives, senators, as well as a thank you to Progressive Watertown for hosting the All Member Meeting. It seems like everyone involved is working very hard on the issues facing Watertown. I was especially encouraged with all the hard work from Representative’s Lawn and Owens. I agree that we should make Polluter’s pay – especially since it effects the fish that I, and many others, enjoy catching in the stocked ponds and lakes in the Commonwealth.

  4. Hi Rita,

    Thank you for this very complete review of the meeting. I was there, and this synopsis is very well done.

    I do have one thing to add. The remark stuck in my brain, because of its level of candor. Senator Brownsberger prefaced his remark about developing and using more electric vehicles with a comment that went something like this (I’m paraphrasing):

    We’re never going to be Europe, as far as transportation goes. Our built environment is too sprawling as compared with European countries. The best that we can do is to improve public transit as well as improving autos to be more environmentally friendly. But because of the nature of our built environment, we will not be able to depend upon public transit exclusively.

  5. You’re welcome Linda. Thanks for the detail. Senator Brownsberger did a presentation for Progressive Watertown a couple of years of ago about transportation and the environment after standing out on Mt Auburn St for months to monitor the new bus lane. His conclusion was that public transportation is one piece of the puzzle as is electrification of vehicles (cars, buses, shuttles, etc.) as are other modes of getting around (biking, walkability, etc) . He may still have that PowerPoint with the pie chart. William.Brownsberger@masenate.gov

  6. I was very happy to learn about Make Polluters Pay! Thank you Rep Owens!

    I want to clarify another topic Representative Owens briefly discussed. I think people in the audience heard him reference “heat pumps” and may not have heard “ground source heat pumps.” Maybe I’m wrong, but the distinction is important. Ground source heat pumps utilize pipes filled with refrigerants that are buried underground where the earth is a constant temperature whether it’s summer or winter. That represents a cost savings in heating and cooling because the system only needs to heat from a constant temperature of about 50-55 degrees in this area of the U.S. and, likewise in summer the cooler liquids are transferrred to the system for air conditioning.

    Obviously, installing a network of underground pipes requires space and retrofitting is expensive. Some years ago fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg rehabbed a building in New York’s Meat Packing District that included ground source heat pumps. She was way ahead of us! Have a look.

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