Representative Dylan Fernandes and Senator Julian Cyr joined the standing-room-only crowd at the Hebrew Center on Sunday to consider immigration, healthcare, the future of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, and climate change. For three hours, the legislators discussed these matters with the community, at the invitation of We Stand Together (WST) and the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center Social Action Committee.
The meeting was first intended as WST’s weekly Sunday meeting at the West Tisbury library, but the discussion shifted to the Hebrew Center in anticipation of a large attendance. Meiroca Nunes and Rose Murray offered Portuguese translation.
The state and the Affordable Care Act
The two state legislators, both newcomers to State House politics, each elected for the first time in November last year, understood the issues, but in some cases could not clearly forecast what lies ahead. About the future of healthcare access in Massachusetts and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Irene Bright-Dumm, moderator of the discussion, wanted to know what anticipated changes and even possible repeal of the ACA would mean for state and Island residents, especially with regard to access to reproductive health care.
Mr. Fernandes and Mr. Cyr agreed that the biggest challenge to discussing the federal political climate and the ACA is that they don’t know what is going to happen. If the ACA is repealed, Mr. Cyr said, the state would face upwards of a $2 billion budget shortfall.
“If that happens, we need to have an honest conversation about revenue,” he said.
Mr. Fernandes was hopeful. “Massachusetts had a framework in place before Obamacare, so we’re in a slightly better position than most states,” he said. “We still rely extremely heavily on federal funding for Obamacare, and if the funds get drained, that will have a huge impact on healthcare in our state. The ACA has been terrific for Massachusetts, and we are taking steps to make sure things are covered here; that people who are 26 and under can stay on parents’ health insurance and that we still have free access to contraceptive services.”
Phyllis Vecchia worried that funding for Planned Parenthood has been cut by Governor Baker.
“Right now we have a wait-and-see approach,” Mr. Cyr said. “We want to make sure we’re taking care of people here in Massachusetts. If you are someone on the Cape and Islands who needs to utilize these [abortion] services, you have to go to either Attleboro or Boston, which is not convenient.”
Both legislators favored a single-payer system, as did an enthusiastic portion of the crowd. Mr. Cyr said he has filed a bill to require a state study of the cost of a single-payer system, compared with the current system.
“Massachusetts still has a significant problem when it comes to healthcare,” Mr. Cyr. said. “We’re doing a better job getting people into care, but the cost is too high. It’s inherently unaffordable for the state to keep doing what it’s doing.”
On the executive travel ban and immigration, Mr. Cyr and Mr. Fernandes both supported the Massachusetts Safe Communities Act, which would ensure that local police departments don’t collaborate with immigration agencies, and that due process is ensured for people detained for civil immigration violations; and the Fundamental Freedoms Act, which declares that Massachusetts will never use its data to create a federal registry based on heritage or religion.
Mr. Cyr stated that until recently, most towns and states were functioning as sanctuaries by not working together with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), since the decision was left up to police chiefs and local authorities.
“We have children in our schools who are worried that they will come home from school and their parents aren’t going to be there,” Mr. Cyr said. “There are minors in the childcare system, in the custody of the state, and they’re wondering whether they’re going to be safe here. We’re talking about children and families who are living here in our communities. This is not an abstract issue, it’s right here for us.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) expected report on the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station includes a list of 10 to 15 deficiencies, but Mr. Cyr said these deficiencies are unlikely to trigger a change in the plant’s status. Right now the plant is rated as “Column 4” by the NRC, which is the lowest rating at which a plant can safely operate.
“Once [Pilgrim] ceases producing power for the grid,” Mr. Cyr said, without suggesting a timetable for closure, “the decommissioning process can take over 60 years. How we decommission this plant is essential. We must have a safe and swift decommissioning process. The most important aspect is that the spent fuel pool from the facility needs to be moved into dry cask storage.”
State budget cuts and legislative pay raises
The simultaneous approval of budget cuts from Governor Charlie Baker and a bill to restructure pay for government officials was on many minds.
Mr. Cyr called it bad timing for an otherwise sound policy. In 2014, an independent commission reviewed Massachusetts’s compensation for government positions, and their findings inspired the bill, he said.
The compensation reform eliminates a per diem pay structure, which required legislators to self-report the number of days he or she spends at the State House. The bill uses existing funding for legislator salaries and establishes a base pay rate of $62,000 for government officials. It also prescribes that high-ranking government officials may not hold other jobs or receive other compensation from sources outside government.
Gov. Baker’s budget cuts amount to a $1.2 million loss for the Cape and Islands in opioid treatment, HIV care, and tourism funding.
“In the public’s eye, [the budget cuts and pay raises] have been combined,” Mr. Cyr said. “On the face of this it looks awful; the governor makes cuts and legislators pad their wallets. When I saw [this bill], I looked at it from a policy perspective, which is what I hope you folks elected me to do. It’s something I know I’m going to get a bad hit for, but hopefully I can explain to people.”
“You make really good points about why it was necessary,” Doug Raskin said, “and I walked into the room ready to fight about it, and I’m less ready now. But why was this done in such a way that we all found out about it later? There were no public hearings; it was rushed through. It doesn’t look right, and it makes everyone question everything else. I have to believe that you were aware of how that would look to your constituency.”
Ryan Searle, an attorney from Edgartown, was not mollified. “I feel personally insulted by both of your answers here,” she said. “I think you’re insulting our intelligence. You’re talking to people with a $27,000 annual gross income and $250,000 in student loan debt. I am one of the two lowest-paid employees in that system, and your pay raise has given the two highest-ranking officials in Edgartown more money, to increase the pay gap astronomically. When you’re talking to year-round Martha’s Vineyard residents, we work our tails off, we don’t make a lot of money. You said earlier today that government works at a slow pace, however that was not the case when you rushed the bill through a few weeks ago.”
Mr. Cyr said he hopes the pay raises will allow the state to compete with the private sector, and encouraged people like Ms. Searle to stay within a government agency when she is looking for the next tier of employment.
“We need to make sure we’re not having a brain drain due to lack of compensation from our public service,” Mr. Fernandes said. “We need to make sure we have a government that looks like us. For the first time in our country’s history, there are more millionaires than not millionaires representing us in government. We need to attract people who look like us, people who are renting because they can’t afford to live in the district.
“I got a few emails saying I got a 40 percent raise. Because I live so far away from the state house and because my per diem was high, this effect was completely negligible. I am not getting a raise. It promotes greater transparency. It doesn’t change our salary, that’s changed based on inflation; we can’t change that.”
Recent initiatives by the legislators
Mr. Fernandes described bills he has filed to study ocean acidification (HD.2519), and to establish a committee to study substance abuse treatment (HD.2386).
Mr. Fernandes has also filed bills to increase implicit-bias training for police officers (HD.1963); to regulate the recovery of employee wages due to overpayment (HD.3580); to reiterate Massachusetts’ commitment to the Paris climate agreements (HD.3089), and has sponsored a bill filed by Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad to empower communities to choose where they get their energy (HD.74). The last two initiatives were co-sponsored by Mr. Cyr.
Mr. Fernandes also said he will file a home-rule petition on behalf of Nantucket to charge a transaction fee of 0.5 percent on real estate sales valued at more than $2 million. The revenue would go toward a housing trust to create more affordable housing on Nantucket. Loud applause greeted this initiative.
Mr. Cyr reviewed some of the 27 bills he has filed. His top priorities are creating affordable and middle-income housing and addressing the opioid epidemic. Mr. Cyr said he also filed legislation to meet the needs of seniors and the aging population. He said he supports first-time-homeowner savings accounts for young people, pointing to the cycle of high rents and no savings toward ownership as an impediment to future economic well-being.
“By young people, I mean 55 and younger,” he added.