Mass. House Passes Hands-Free Bill 155-2; Police to Issue Warnings Instead of Fines Until Start of 2020

State representatives invoked the memories of people killed in distracted driving crashes on Wednesday before voting 155-2 to pass a bill banning motorists from using handheld cellphones and electronic devices behind the wheel, the State House News Service reports. Reps. Peter Durant and David DeCoste voted against the bill. Massachusetts in 2010 banned drivers from texting and emailing while driving, but stopped short of a full ban on hand-held use to make phone calls. Since 2010, many drivers have continued to text while driving or read emails or even surf the internet, leaving everyone vulnerable to preventable crashes.

Senate Poised to Ban Hand-Held Phone Use by Drivers

The Senate next Thursday plans to take up legislation banning the hand-held use of cell phones while driving as part of legislation targeting distracted driving. The State House News Service reports a Senate committee on Thursday morning released a distracted driving bill that would prohibit anyone operating a vehicle from viewing video content and touching or holding a mobile electronic device, except to perform a single tap or swipe to activate or deactivate hands-free mode or a navigation device. Fines for violating the ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving would start at $100 for a first offense, and escalate to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense. Subsequent violations would be considered surchargeable offenses for the purpose of calculating insurance costs. The legislation, if it were to clear both branches and be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, would make Massachusetts the seventeenth state to ban hand-held cell phone use behind the wheel.

Behavioral Health Conditions More Common Among Massachusetts Millennials, Says New Study

Older millennials in Massachusetts are more likely than their peers across the country to have behavioral health conditions, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report. Six of the top 10 conditions affecting millennials are behavioral health conditions—depression, hyperactivity, psychotic conditions and substance use disorders, the report said, and millennials aged 34 to 36 in Massachusetts experience more behavioral health conditions than the national average, with only seven states faring worse. “The fact that behavioral health conditions among Massachusetts millennials are above the national average may relate to the state of behavioral health care in Massachusetts,” Bruce Nash, chief physician executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, said in a statement obtained by the State House News Service. “We have more behavioral health professionals per capita than any other state. This larger care network means more diagnoses of these conditions.

House Ways and Means Budget Proposes Largest Chapter 70 Aid in a Decade

The House Ways and Means budget proposes the largest increase in Chapter 70 local school aid in a decade, according to a Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents memo. The fiscal 2020 budget funds Chapter 70 at $5.125 billion, a 4.5 percent increase over this fiscal year and $17.7 million more than Gov. Charlie Baker included in his budget, according to the memo from Tom Scott and Roger Hatch of the superintendents’ association. The State House News Service says Rep. Alyson Sullivan, a first-term Abington Republican, filed an amendment that would boost the Chapter 70 total by $100 million. House leadership’s budget includes a minimum aid increase of $30 per pupil. According to MASS, 182 of 318 operating school districts receive the minimum, with 136 receiving foundation aid in excess of that amount.

Residents Relying on Energy Assistance to Receive Extra $50 to $260 After Baker Relents

After facing criticism for withholding a significant portion of approved low-income heating aid until next year, the Baker administration has made an additional $8 million available this spring. But even that change did not satisfy advocates who continue to demand that no money be held back. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is administered locally by Community Action of Haverhill. Gov. Charlie Baker initially planned to release $11 million of the $30 million allocated by the legislature for low-income home energy assistance this fiscal year, saving the remainder for fiscal year 2020. On Friday, his administration indicated it now intends to make $19 million available this year.

Coach Company Reconsiders Boston Commuter Bus; Drops Newburyport

Area commuters may not have to scramble to find a new way to get to and from work in Boston after all. About two weeks after the Coach Company, which garages buses in Plaistow, N.H., said it will end its bus runs between the North Shore and Boston on April 19, the company announced it will keep most of those trips going. For about 40 years, Coach Company has shuttled residents from Boxford, Georgetown, Newburyport, Peabody and Topsfield in and out of Boston for work. Last month, the company said it would stop providing that service due to slumping ridership, a sharp rise in insurance costs and the lack of a state subsidy. On Wednesday, Coach Company owner Benton Smith announced that his company will continue to make trips in and out of Boston from Boxford, Georgetown, Peabody and Topsfield, but cannot keep its Newburyport service going due to specific issues there.

Plaistow’s Coach Company to End Daily Boston Commuter Trips This Month

Some commuters are scrambling to find a new way to get to work in Boston after a company that has provided commuter bus service for decades announced that it will make its last trip later this month. When commuters from Boxford, Georgetown, Newburyport, Peabody and Topsfield got on the Coach Company bus that typically shuttles them between downtown Boston and the North Shore in late March, they were greeted by a notice informing them that the company “will be exiting the Boston commuter bus service effective April 19.”

The company, which has a corporate office in Merrimac and a garage in Plaistow, N.H., said its decision was based on finances and the lack of a subsidy from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “We had always been subsidized by the State to help operate the commuter service but, in the Duval [sic] Patrick era, we and all the other commuter transportation providers had our subsidy cut,” the company wrote in its note to riders. “We did what we could to try and make it work but unfortunately we have reached the point where we can no longer afford to operate the commuter service.”

In a brief interview with the News Service, Coach Company owner Benton Smith said two other factors led to the decision to stop Boston commuter service: increases in the company’s insurance costs and dwindling ridership. He said the cost of insuring the company’s commuter buses recently doubled due to a change in which the company’s buses are now considered to be garaged in Boston rather than New Hampshire because of the commuter runs.

UMass President Hints at Possible 2.5 Percent Tuition Hike

University of Massachusetts officials on Wednesday advanced a 1.5 percent tuition hike for medical school students, and shined a bit more light on what in-state undergraduates across the other four campuses might expect to pay next year. At a hearing in Fall River last week, UMass senior vice president of administration and finance Lisa Calise told lawmakers that if they include the university's full $568.3 million funding request in next year’s budget, UMass would be able to freeze tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate students. UMass President Marty Meehan reiterated that point Wednesday at a meeting of the Board of Trustees’ Administration and Finance Committee and added, “If not, our fiscal 2020 budget assumes a 2.5 percent increase for in-state undergraduate tuition.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, in his fiscal 2020 spending plan, recommended funding UMass at $558 million, which Meehan said fully funds the state’s share of collective bargaining costs. He said he hopes the House and Senate follow Baker’s lead in that area. Meehan said UMass officials are monitoring the state budget process and working with campuses including Lowell on developing the university’s fiscal 2020 budget, which will come before the UMass Board of Trustees in June.