Correction Officers Push for Right to Carry Firearms

Massachusetts correction officers are appealing to lawmakers to pass legislation they say will help them protect themselves and their families from threats associated with their jobs. According to the State House News Service, Norwell Republican Rep. David DeCoste’s bill would include state and county corrections officers in Massachusetts under the provisions of the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act. The federal law allows qualifying active and retired law enforcement officers to carry a concealed firearm in any jurisdiction regardless of state or local laws, with certain exceptions. “I know all of you, my colleague from Salem, my colleague from Fall River, with law enforcement experience, understand that over the course of a 30-year career, many of these men and women make enemies,” DeCoste told the Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, referring to retired police officers Rep. Paul Tucker and Rep. Alan Silvia. “It is a good idea to allow them at least the option to carry a firearm after they’ve retired and while they’re on duty, in order to protect themselves.”

Kevin Flanagan, the legislative representative for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, told the committee his union’s approximately 4,000 members have an “extremely difficult job.” He said one officer was “violently attacked and sliced in the head several times” at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center Tuesday and is recovering well after receiving stitches.

Vargas, Campbell, Minicucci Endorse Markey for 2020 Sentate Re-Election Bid

As U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III continues his now-public debate over whether to challenge for U.S. Sen. Edward Markey’s seat in 2020, a majority of the state Legislature— including local state Reps. Andy Vargas, Linda Dean Campbell and Christina Minicucci—are backing the incumbent. Markey announced endorsements from 116 Democratic state lawmakers on Tuesday, one day after Kennedy confirmed he’s been exploring a primary challenge and filed the fundraising paperwork necessary to launch one. “I am humbled to have the support of so many friends and colleagues across Massachusetts for re-election, and I pledge to fight for them and all communities in the Commonwealth every day,” Markey said in a statement. “The people of Massachusetts have always been at the forefront of the challenges of our time—universal health care, same-sex marriage, earned sick time, equal rights—and I want to continue leading those fights in the United States Senate.”

The list of supporters for Markey includes both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, among others.

Fentanyl Presence Growing as Opioid Deaths Decline Slightly

While opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts declined for the second year in a row, prevalence of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has continued to climb to the point where it is now present in almost every death that’s screened for drugs. According to the State House News Service, the latest Massachusetts overdose data, released Wednesday, showed fentanyl was present in 92 percent of opioid deaths where a toxicology screen occurred in the first quarter of 2019, up from 89 percent in 2018. The new statistics landed White House officials highlighted their efforts to go after fentanyl traffickers. Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel highlighted the data at a Public Health Council meeting, where she said “too many people” are still dying from opioid overdoses, but that there are “signs of progress” in fighting the epidemic. There were 938 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths—or more than five a day—in the first half of 2019, a figure the Department of Public Health said represents a decline of more than 10 percent from the 1,050 deaths logged in the first half of 2018.

Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts Health Plan Announce Merger

Two of the state’s largest health insurers last week announced plans to merge into a new, combined organization that Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan said would serve nearly 2.4 million members in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The new organization has not yet been named, and company officials have not said where it will be based—Harvard Pilgrim is headquartered in Wellesley and Tufts in Watertown. The deal is subject to various state and federal approvals, and the two companies will remain independent during the approval process. According to the State House News Service, the deal amounts to a significant consolidation in the Massachusetts health care insurance market, with two of the largest insurers joining forces and creating a single, larger rival to the state's biggest insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Policyholders and consumers will be on the lookout for impacts on them, and the agreement will be also be vetted by government regulators.

DiZoglio, Vargas Among Legislators Taking 4-Day Kayak Trip to Raise Merrimack River Awareness

A new panel—whose funding has already been secured through a budget earmark—would be created to study the health of the Merrimack River and given guidelines to govern its work under a bill the Senate passed Monday. The bill, based on legislation originally filed by Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen, establishes a Merrimack River District Commission made up of state officials and members of regional and environmental groups, and an advisory panel of local officials to work with it. There are several state agencies, environmental advocacy groups, and local entities working to keep the 117-mile river clean and addressing issues related to contamination and pollutants, DiZoglio said, but there has “never really been a formalized group of experts coming together consistently for the purpose of agreeing to basic facts surrounding the health and wellness of the Merrimack River.”

“We really need everybody to come to the same table, and we really need our legislators to be at that table as well, and our local officials,” DiZoglio said. The Merrimack River flows from Franklin, N.H., into Massachusetts, through the cities of Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill and nearby towns before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean in Newburyport. It provides drinking water to about 500,000 people in Lowell, Methuen, Andover, Tewksbury and Lawrence, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and its watershed covers 5,010 square miles across 200 communities, with almost 2.6 million people.

Tuition Rising for Fifth Straight Year at UMass

University of Massachusetts trustees on Friday approved a 2.5 percent tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students, as members of the board cautioned of “clouds on the horizon” in enrollment and revenue trends. The vote, held about a month before the start of fall classes, was postponed this year as UMass officials waited to see how the late state budget would handle their $558 million appropriation and the tuition rates paid by nearly 50,000 undergraduates. Senate-backed language calling for a tuition freeze this fall, which the school said would lead to cuts affecting students, was dropped in favor of a new requirement that university officials meet with lawmakers to discuss financial and enrollment information. The State House News Service reports that with room, board, and mandatory fees factored in, the average increase for an in-state undergraduate student across the Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell campuses works out to $887, for a total cost of $29,058. UMass President Marty Meehan said tuition increases at UMass have averaged three percent over the past 10 years, while state universities and community colleges have hiked their rates by an average of six percent.

DiZoglio Pushes for Audit to Gauge Prevalence of NDAs

More than a year after the House overhauled its sexual harassment policies to limit the use of non-disclosure agreements, two legislators requested that Auditor Suzanne Bump examine the prevalence of such legal agreements across state government. Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, and Rep. Alyson Sullivan, an Abington Republican, called on Bump to produce a report looking at how many non-disclosure agreements exist statewide by branch and agency of government and how much public money has been spent implementing those agreements. The pair have asked that the review go back at least five years. “We know they're still being used at the State House, but how prevalent are these publicly funded non-disclosure agreements statewide. These are the questions we have, and we want answers.

Mellow Fellows Attorney Slams Impact Fees, Says Host Community Agreements ‘Not Even Close to Working’

The new attorney hired by the Haverhill trio known as the Mellow Fellows was in Boston Monday to testify on Beacon Hill asking lawmakers to allow the Cannabis Control Commission the explicit authority to regulate the Host Community Agreements marijuana shops must sign before opening up shop. Retained by Phil Brown, Tim Riley and Charles Emery, Jim Smith of Boston’s Smith, Costello and Crawford, spoke before the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy Monday to argue against the community impact fee that businesses must pay to the cities where they do business. In Haverhill, for example, retailers have thus far agreed to pay three percent of gross proceeds for a period of five years when inking HCAs with Mayor James J. Fiorentini. “Simply stated, they don’t work. It is not working; it isn’t even close to working.