© 2019 All rights reserved. This is the official office website for MA State Senator Becca Rausch. Becca's campaign website is maintained separately.

Demystifying the State House

In an effort to demystify the State House, Senator Rausch’s staff write a segment in each newsletter about how the State House works, which we post as a blog here! If you ever have a question about how the State House works or have a suggested topic for us to cover in the next newsletter, please email Alana Westwater, Outreach Director, at Alana.Westwater@masenate.gov!
Chapter 6, A Glimpse into a Unique Community Meeting:
The Lifers Group at MCI-Norfolk -- October 2019

This month’s guest post is from legislative aide Evan Berry. Evan is the “utility player” of the office and works on legislation and policy, communications, outreach, and manages the Senator’s schedule.

 

The only way to truly understand the needs of a community is by meeting people where they're at: places like high school classrooms, places of worship, town meeting, or the neighborhood cafe. Alana and I have the pleasure of joining Senator Rausch for these in-district meetings to cover a range of topics, from community issues to new ideas for the state legislature. This informs the way Senator Rausch introduces and votes on legislation, as well as the way our office tracks the issues facing our district. This month, I had the tremendous privilege of participating in a unique community meeting: visiting the Lifer's Group at MCI-Norfolk, a prison in our district located near the Walpole line. This group, organized by men who have been sentenced to life without parole, meets periodically to share their experiences while incarcerated and to promote prison reform with advocacy organizations and elected officials statewide. 

 

Our meeting with the Lifer's Group was one of my most challenging and rewarding outreach experiences as a staffer. I joined Representatives Keefe, Miranda, and Holmes and leaders from advocacy organizations in a packed auditorium of around 200 prisoners, many of them sentenced to life without parole, to hear their experiences with the Massachusetts criminal justice system. The forum had a simple setup: five individuals shared stories about their lives before and after incarceration, legislators and State House staffers had the space to ask questions, and at the event's conclusion, anyone from the audience could join us at the front of the auditorium and speak with the visitors to the Lifer's Group. 

 

For context, Massachusetts has the second highest rate of people sentenced to life without parole in the nation. These men's stories had many similarities: poverty and lack of opportunity; early exposure to gang violence in their family or neighborhood; ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in a criminal charge; and the common denominator that rattled me the most: being sentenced to life without parole while in their teens and early 20s. Remember all the dumb things you did at that age? Imagine any single one of those decisions dictating the rest of your life.

 

However, other positive themes were overwhelmingly present as well: maintaining relationships with children and spouses outside MCI-Norfolk, mentorship of younger inmates, and a deep commitment to self-improvement and rehabilitation even with a life sentence. Some of these men are working towards university degrees, writing novels, and have competed against (and defeated) the Harvard Debate team while in jail. Despite the unique challenges of being incarcerated and the systematic dehumanization these individuals face, many are deeply committed to self-improvement, re-entry, atonement, and the promise of giving back to society.

 

An account that highlighted the injustice within our prison system came from an older inmate, Elijah (name changed to preserve privacy) , who has served over forty years behind bars. He has personally witnessed the tides of different state administrations and their impact on incarcerated individuals. Decades ago, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services oversaw the Department of Corrections (DoC), and Elijah had many more opportunities for reintegration and socialization, whether doing community service work for local hospitals or taking a cab back to Boston to visit his family for days at a time. However, with the racist, Willie Horton-era "tough on crime" policies and the restructuring of the executive branch, putting the DoC under the Office of Public Safety, Elijah personally saw these reintegration opportunities stripped away. He and other inmates discussed how recent policies have further isolated inmates from their families and communities such as limited lists of people who can visit inmates, capped at eight individuals; costly phone calls to and from prisons; a five-page limit on external correspondence (which is xeroxed then given to prisoners); and virtually no opportunities for lifers to leave prison grounds, even for the same individuals who were externally doing community service decades ago. The product of these policies is isolation from the outside world, making both rehabilitation and re-entry into society that much more difficult.

 

Visiting the Lifer's Group reinforced the critical need for government officials to meet community members where they are at. Since the very first US Census, prisoners have been counted where they are incarcerated, not in the communities from which they came. This means they are constituents of Senator Rausch even if these inmates do not have the right to vote yet, and it is our office's duty to represent them.  

 

As elected officials tackle structural issues in criminal justice reform, poverty, and education, it is absolutely critical that they look to the experiences and insights of incarcerated constituents for advice. It was an incredibly humbling to join the MCI-Norfolk Lifer's Group for their meeting, and our office looks forward to continuing this partnership in the future.

Chapter 5.1, Internships part 2! -- July 2019

Today's post includes two guest entries by summer interns in Senator Rausch's office: Jason, a high school fellow, and Margie, a policy intern, who are both from Needham, MA.

 

Margie:

Hello! My name is Margie Cullen, and I am a rising senior at Georgetown University. Originally from Needham, MA, I was happy to join Senator Rausch’s team for the summer as the press intern. Majoring in government and minoring in journalism, this position seemed perfect for me. In the State House, I was able to try my hand at several tasks, from drafting social media posts to writing fact sheets and testimony.

 

Senator Rausch is a strong advocate of transparency, and that was made clear to me in many of my tasks. Not only does she always stand for roll calls, but she tries to make her actions clear through a variety of social media. A fun part of my job including drafting both Facebook and Twitter posts for her to post, which could be anything from explaining an important piece of legislation she sponsored to a GIF promoting her diaper drive. She also wants her website to reflect this transparency, with updated press coverage, press releases, and a record of all her votes. A new project I was in charge of was adapting various social media posts into “Becca’s Blog” where she could detail her daily life in the State House and make those posts available to those without Facebook or Twitter.

 

My favorite tasks during my eight weeks with the team were writing fact sheets, testimony, and talking points. These all mainly revolve around bills: fact sheets explain a bill in an easy to understand form, written testimony is a letter from the Senator to the committee, arguing for or against a bill, and talking points form the basis of speeches, which Senator Rausch revises and delivers herself. Some topics I wrote about include height and weight discrimination, diaper changing facilities, and ranked choice voting. Diving into these different forms of writing allowed me to explore the Senator’s legislation in many different ways. These projects taught me a lot about the process of government as well as different issues in the Commonwealth.

 

Besides the work itself, I would say one of the most important parts of any job is who you work with, and Senator Rausch’s team is a great one. They are young, friendly, and smart, and put so much heart into the job every day. I consider myself very lucky to have worked in such a great environment, and I wish them and Senator Rausch all the best in what is hopefully a long tenure of office!

Jason:

 Hi everyone! My name is Jason Nahigian and I am a rising senior at Needham High School. This was my first time in the State House, so I had no idea what to expect going in. What I found in Senator Rausch’s office was an environment that promotes learning and is dedicated to its constituents. 

One of my first jobs at the office was logging emails from constituents. I was struck by the sheer number of people who come to Senator Rausch with important issues, every one of them getting an individualized response. Through these emails, I was able to learn about issues important to Senator Rausch’s district (which is the district I live in) and the beginnings of the Massachusetts legislative process.

One day, I was tasked with helping people who wanted to testify before the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, a committee that Senator Rausch chairs. In that hearing, the bill that was up for discussion pertained to the town of Nahant. I was shocked by the number of people who came to testify: the town had bussed people to the State House and the hearing ended going an hour over its scheduled time. These citizens were so passionate that I even helped sign in someone who had not previously planned to testify, but while watching the hearing felt the need to do her part for the bill. This hearing, and every day at the State House, highlighted to me that while many people look to the federal government, the state government is just as critical. Constituents often look to their state legislators for help, and my experience showed me that they were heard.

These anecdotes are just a small part of what I learned at the State House, and I found I was further intrigued by the world of politics. As well, the fun yet productive environment of the office was something that I hope any future job I may have embodies. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Senator Rausch’s office and hope to do something similar in the future!

Chapter 5, Internships -- June 2019

Today's post includes two guest entries by summer interns in Senator Rausch's office: Hunter, a high school fellow from Wrentham, MA, and Alicia, a policy intern from Sherborn, MA.

 

Alicia:

Hi everyone! I’m Alicia, one of Senator Rausch’s policy interns this summer. I am from Sherborn, graduated from Dover-Sherborn High School, and now attend McGill University. Over the past six weeks, I’ve learned so much about how the State House operates. 

One of the most exciting aspects of the legislative process are the House and Senate budget debates. I learned that during the Senate budget debate, the Senate votes on amendments to the budget in order to appropriate money to different governmental departments, statewide programs, and local projects. During the Senate Budget Week in May, I was in charge of tracking the progress of all the budget amendments. This was a really interesting job because it gave me an inside look at a critical aspect of the legislative process. Often, the Senate will either vote to either adopt or reject a budget amendment as filed, but in some cases it can be more complicated. A Senator might redraft an amendment if they’ve come to a compromise with their colleagues, or withdraw an amendment if they’ve been convinced that the budget process is not the right time for that particular project or new policy.

Another one of my jobs is to answer the office phone; in fact, if you’ve called the office recently, you might have spoken to me! During a call, I record information about the constituent calling and the reason for their call. Once the call is over, I relay that information to Senator Rausch and other staffers. I’ve really enjoyed talking to constituents about the issues that are most important to them. 

A big part of what’s made my experience at the State House so enriching and exciting has been working with Senator Rausch and her staff. Senator Rausch’s office is particularly concerned with increasing the transparency of the State House and the legislative process, and I’ve learned that one of the most important things elected officials and their staff can do is make themselves accessible to their constituents. As such, keep the phone calls, emails, and in-person meetings coming! My favorite aspect of working in this office has been the fact that there is such an open dialogue between Senator Rausch and her constituents.   

Hunter:

Hello everyone! I am thrilled to have this opportunity to write a little bit about my experiences interning for Senator Rausch in the State House. My name is Hunter; I am from Wrentham and I recently graduated from King Philip High School. I will be attending UMass Amherst next year to major in history. When I am not busy with my studies, I enjoy writing short stories and poems, watching history documentaries, and reading history texts and literature. These fields are key towards furthering understanding of life and bettering humanity. My life is not all consumed by these intellectual pursuits; I enjoy spending time with friends trying our best to find things to do around our small suburban town! 

One word characterizes my experience interning best: education. Every moment within the storied walls of the Massachusetts State House is a new lesson learned: how a legislator’s office is organized, new and varied information from the many legislative hearings throughout the day, and crucial office skills. At first, it was overwhelming to be in this fast-paced work environment, not to mention the fact that the State House is a maze of staircases and hallways, but thanks to Senator Rausch’s ever-helpful staff I found my footing. 

One of the first hearings I attended was a public hearing before the Public Health Committee. An extraordinary realization struck me as a host of witnesses came up to testify on topics from midwives (Senator Rausch’s bill!) to fluoride. No matter who you are, no matter what your education or qualifications are, you can address a panel of your legislators and make your voice be heard on particular pieces of legislation. The State House is the people’s building and that is the most important lesson I learned by far. Senator Rausch embodies those principles of involvement and open governance and that became evident the more I worked in the office. This internship was an amazing experience and I am grateful I had the opportunity to work in the office! 

Chapter 4, Local Earmarks in the Budget -- May 2019

Chapter 4 is a Guest Entry written by Gretchen Van Ness, Legislative Director and General Counsel.

 

What an earmark is and how it comes about is one of the enduring mysteries of the Massachusetts budget process. Here’s a quick tutorial that we hope answers some of your questions!

 

The annual state budget is hundreds of pages long and allocates billions of dollars through thousands of line items. Line items represent recurring expenses and are the mechanism for funding everything from governmental departments, such as Public Safety and Public Health, to programs such as Councils on Aging and the Massachusetts Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. In addition to recurring line items, every budget contains local earmarks, which are generally one-time allocations to specific programs or organizations. Local earmarks are a way for legislators to provide often critical support for organizations in their districts that do not have the resources to apply to foundations for grants or lobby on Beacon Hill, as well as vital infrastructure and other municipal management funding. Every legislator may propose local earmarks in the form of amendments to the budget bill.

 

Senator Rausch was proud to introduce local earmarks amendments that touched every region in the district and severa legislative priorities. Some of these earmarks were requested; others were developed by the Senator’s staff after outreach in the district. During debate on the Senate budget, Senator Rausch had the opportunity to speak in support of the local earmarks amendments she introduced.

 

As a result, the Senate approved funding for equipping a Maker Space at North Attleboro High School and an anti-vaping program at Franklin High School. The Senate approved funding for municipal IT improvements for both Plainville and Millis. Senator Rausch’s amendment providing for a sustainability coordinator to be shared by Sherborn and Holliston was adopted, along with her amendments to help fund the renovation of Hunnewell Fields in Natick and playgrounds in Wayland. In addition, the Senate adopted Senator Rausch’s amendment to help the Plainville Fire Department purchase emergency extrication tools, and it approved her amendment providing funding for the Veteran’s Oral History Project at the Morse Institute Library in Natick. She also secured funding for streetscape improvements in Needham and traffic improvements in Wellesley, and she teamed up with Senator Feeney to get funding for Attleboro to address homelessness and support public safety.

 

The Senate budget now goes to a committee where it will be reconciled with the final budget adopted in the House, and the reconciled budget will go to the Governor. Stay tuned!

Chapter 3, The Work of an Outreach Director -- May 2019

An integral piece of understanding how the state house works is knowing the structure of legislators’ offices. While similarities exist among all the various Senate offices, the division of labor in each office is unique. In addition to Senator Rausch, we are an office of five: Chief of Staff, Caroline Sherrard; General Counsel/Legislative Director, Gretchen VanNess; Legislative Aides, Evan Berry and Caitlin Rougeau; and me (I’m the Outreach Director). In the next few posts of this blog, we will each explain what we do!
 
As Outreach Director, my job is all about helping people. I am in charge of maintaining relationships with leaders in all twelve municipalities and managing connections with residents (constituents) throughout our district.
 
One part of constituent services is personalized casework. I open a “constituent case” whenever someone who lives in Senator Rausch’s district contacts the office looking for help. Most often, people need assistance navigating a process with a state or local agency. Once I have all of the information I need, I will contact state departments, local agencies, and other resources to see if we can help resolve the issue. Essentially, we serve as a high-functioning intermediary — we do our best to connect with the right people in the various offices and help our constituents make their way, hopefully resulting in a positive resolution of whatever the issue may be.

For example, if a person’s SNAP benefits were reduced, we can talk to the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) to determine if the reduction was an error or if it was accurate, and then advise the constituent about filing an appeal. The appeal is necessary because the decision about benefits level rests with DTA.

In addition to helping people out, casework helps us keep Senator Rausch informed of issues affecting her constituents. If multiple people report similar problems, it might mean an issue needs to be fixed at the policy level, in which case we might have our legislative team research the issue and maybe file legislation! For example, we’ve noticed that it is difficult and complicated to know about all of the possible benefits one is entitled to at various income levels or circumstances. That’s why Senator Rausch co-sponsored legislation to create a common application to apply for all state-administered programs such as Medicaid and SNAP benefits.
 
The other constituent contact I manage is advocacy. A constituent will call, email, send a letter, or come into the office to advocate for or against legislation and budget items. For example, in late March and early April we received many constituent advocacy contacts supporting S.24/H.1478, An Act to end child marriage in Massachusetts, of which Senator Rausch is a proud co-sponsor. I logged each message to ensure everyone received a response from the Senator. Logging the advocacy messages also allows our team to be in touch in the future if related matters arise. I repeat this procedure for every constituent advocacy contact we receive so Senator Rausch knows how you feel and so our team can follow up with research and legislative action!
 
Another aspect of my job is spending time in the district and organizing our “Fourth Fridays” office hours. Senator Rausch is just one person, and although she would love the ability to be in multiple places at once (it’s the superpower she really wishes she had), we haven’t quite figured out how to make that happen. So, in order to expand her reach and increase her presence in the district, Legislative Aide Caitlin and I will attend events in her stead and accompany the Senator to events. Please introduce yourself when you see us in the district!
 
Join us next time for our first contribution to our special guest writer series!

Chapter 2, Committees -- April 2019

 

In my last post, I described the bill filing process from its start to the bill filing deadline. Today I pick up where I left off, with committee assignments. Both bills and legislators get assigned to committees. Generally speaking, a bill needs a favorable vote from a majority of the committee members in order for the bill to move to the next step in the legislative process. Here’s how it works.

 

In Massachusetts, once a bill is filed, its next stop is with a committee. The committee structure is set out in the Joint Rules for joint committees (committees with both House and Senate members), and the House and Senate Rules for each chamber’s own standing committees. Every committee, whether a Joint, Senate, or House Committee, focuses on a particular topic, such as education, transportation, or public health. (You might have noticed a shift this session from the “Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy” to the “Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy” – that’s a change Senator Rausch secured through her service on the Senate Temporary Committee on Rules.)

 

Each timely filed bill is assigned to a committee by the House or Senate Clerk. In other words, the House and Senate clerks act as the Hogwarts Sorting Hat for bills. The House clerk determines the committee destination for House bills, and the Senate clerk determines the same for Senate bills.

 

As the clerks determine the committee destinations for each bill, the Speaker of the House and Senate President decide which legislators lead and sit on which committees. For example, Senate President Spilka appointed Senator Rausch as the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government and the Senate Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs. Senator Rausch also serves as a member of five additional committees. Joint Committees have co-chairs (one Senator and one Representative) while Senate and House Committees have a single chair. The Chairs propose Committee rules, determine the schedule of hearings for the bills pending before the Committee, run the hearings, and recommend a specific action on each bill to the other committee members. The full committee then votes on those recommendations.

 

The vast majority of timely filed bills are placed on the calendar for a public hearing before a committee. Anyone who supports or opposes a particular bill can testify during the public hearing, before the committee members who will later vote on the bill. This allows the public to get involved and committee members to grasp both sides of the argument.  Hearings generally happen at the State House, and people sign up to testify when they arrive at the hearing room. With the committee season now in full swing, the State House is buzzing! Check out the packed hearings schedule.

 

After a bill has a hearing, the Chairs make a recommendation as to what should happen with the bill – ought to pass, ought to pass with amendments or revisions by the committee, ought not to pass, etc. – and then the committee votes on the bill. Committee votes happen either during executive session (by general voice vote or by roll call, when each committee member says their vote aloud) or via remote poll (when the committee members cast their vote using technology, such as a Google form or an email response). Sometimes, the committee votes on a bill in an executive session right after the hearing. The bills to ban conversion therapy for minors and lift the cap on kids were both passed out of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities in a public vote during executive session that happened immediately after the hearing on those bills. In other cases, a vote might happen by an email “poll” of the members weeks or months after the hearing.

 

When you think about it, committees have a ton of control over the bills that pass through them, and particularly the committee chairs. The committees can pass a bill as is, completely rewrite it, make smaller revisions, combine a bill with one or more other bills into a single omnibus package, send a bill out to pasture – I mean, to study – which is how a bill “dies in committee,” or reject it outright. Committee leadership and membership is really important.

 

By the way, you might have noticed that most of the bills now have two numbers. This is also related to committees! Every bill gets a “docket number” upon filing. During the co-sponsorship period in January, you may have emailed or called our office and asked Senator Rausch to cosponsor “SD. XXX”, the SD stood for “Senate Docket.” But, once the clerks do their Hogwarts-sorting-hat function, the bills get “bill numbers,” represented by a single “H” for House bills or “S” for Senate bills, followed by the number. Basically, the clerks assign bill numbers according to subject matter (each committee) and then according to filer (each Senator or Representative). For example, the bulk of the Senate bills pending before the Joint Committee on Election Laws range from S.382 to S.428, and Senator Rausch’s five elections-related bills are numbered S.419 to S.423. Same thing for the Joint Committee on Public Health – its Senate bills are numbered S.1205 to S.1356, and Senator Rausch’s four bills pending before the Public Health Committee are S.1332 to S.1335. If a bill has a bill number, it’s been assigned to a committee. We’ll use the bills numbers for the rest of the session.

 

If a bill is given favorable report from the committee it is reported out to either the House or the Senate for the next step in the process. Got a favorite bill? You can track it yourself on the Legislative website! Check out the Senator’s how-to instructions for tracking bills (and committees and legislators) via MyLegislature.

 

For more information, check out the full listings of the Joint Committees, the Senate Committees, and the House Committees on the Legislature’s website.

Chapter 1, The Magic of Bill Filing -- February 2019

 

Our first month in the State House was wild. We had two weeks to settle in, learn how to do our new jobs, navigate a very confusing building, meet new people, and turn all of the great ideas that Senator Rausch proposed or heard about during the campaign into legislation. Now that I have safely and successfully made it through bill writing I am able to reflect upon what I learned. Here is a simplified version of the process.
  
The first step to writing a bill, after someone has the initial idea, is research. Researching includes looking at similar proposals from other states, speaking with legislators working on a similar subject, meeting with advocacy groups, and learning about the topic to inform your own ideas. During the research process, you often learn that another legislator has come up with a great idea on that topic. When that's the case, you can cosponsor another Senator's bill. For example, Senator Rausch is very excited about fixing the outdated school funding formula, and therefore cosponsored Senator Chang-Diaz’s Education PROMISE Act. Alternatively, a lawmaker might cosponsor a bill that they think is really great, and still write their own because they have even more ideas. That's why Senator Rausch is a strong supporter of the ROE Act, filed by Senator Chandler, to update laws about abortion in Massachusetts. Senator Rausch also has ideas that go beyond the text of that bill, so she filed the Pregnant Persons Health Act, to vest in pregnant people the right to an abortion and create further protections for all pregnant people in Massachusetts.

If you do your research and you’re confident you’ve got a new idea, you get started writing your bill! Now it's time to play a game of hide-and-seek with the Massachusetts General Laws to find all of the relevant areas of law that touch your topic. You then compare the current law and figure out how to change it so that the new law will do what you want! You can add or delete sections, substitute words, add new definitions, or repeal entire chapters in order to make the changes in law you desire. This might sound simple, but it is important to do this part slowly and carefully, so you don't miss anything or cause any unintended consequences. For example, our bill to allow any voter to request an absentee ballot needs to replace the word "application" with the word "request" in over 20 different places.

After writing the language, it's time to proofread! Our general counsel and legislative director, Gretchen, looks over the language, and we collaborate with other staff, advocacy groups, or legislators who also care about the issue.

Finally we're at the last and maybe most daunting step of them all: relying on technology to work while submitting your bill to the clerk's office.

Great! Now you know what it's like to write one bill. Now just repeat 20-40 times in two weeks and you've mastered bill filing! 

By 5:00 PM on the Friday of our second week of work, we had over two dozen bills drafted, edited, finalized, and filed into the legislative database. You can see everything Senator Rausch filed on her legislative page and summaries on our own website. The bill drafting madness calms down, but only for the weekend… Monday rolls around and the chaos ensues again with advocates, legislators, and constituents asking you to cosponsor bills for the next two weeks! There’s never a dull moment!

-- Alana