Op-Eds

The Sales Tax Holiday

August 12, 2014

By Senator Richard J. Ross

As has become Massachusetts’ custom over the past 10 years, a tax holiday was declared for the 16th and 17th of August of this year.  During this weekend, the standard sales tax of 6.25% will be suspended for sales less than $2,500, alleviating added burdens to our hardworking taxpayers.

Since its inception in 2004, the holiday has been widely supported by both consumers and merchants. Despite the regular occurrence and statewide support of the tax free weekend, there was recently debate in the state legislature regarding when the sales tax holiday should take place. Many constituents reached out to my office directly expressing their confusion and concern. Business owners struggling to advertise, consumers trying to plan their budget, and although the question was eventually worked out in conference committee, it did cause doubt about when or even if the holiday would be held.

Implemented as part of a stimulus package designed to help grow the economy back in 2004, the holiday has been a yearly event ever since, with the exception of 2009. The holiday weekend gets people in stores and encourages them to make purchases they may have been holding off on, assisting local businesses during the summer months, and ultimately promoting economic growth in the Commonwealth.

The advantages of the holiday are not just limited to the one weekend.  Many stores offer sales where consumers can come in before the appointed weekend, make a purchase, and receive a discount equal to the sales tax.  Of course, the state still receives this sales tax, meaning everyone benefits from the tax free weekend even before it happens, whether it is the consumer, store owner, or the state.

As New Hampshire does not impose a sales tax, it is very tempting for consumers to often make the journey north rather than buy at home, impacting local businesses.  However, the sales tax holiday keeps consumers in Massachusetts and even attracts residents from neighboring states.  Of the five states that border Massachusetts, only Connecticut and New York have a regular sales tax holiday, and their holidays only apply to clothing.  Given the wider range of products to be purchased in state tax free, as well as the proximity of these five states, it is more than likely that a large number of the consumers on tax free weekend will have come from out of state.

Unfortunately, the delay in setting a specific date for the sales tax weekend has greatly undermined the purpose of the holiday.  Because stores have not had a specific weekend to promote, they have been forced to be unclear in advertisements, leading to uncertainty with consumers.  The ensuing confusion could result in many residents failing to properly take advantage of the holiday, undercutting its primary purpose.

One possible solution is to formally make the sales tax holiday an annual event, a proposal that I have supported over the past several years. Making the tax holiday an annual occurrence would allow stores to plan far ahead and prepare for the sale with proper advertising and enough employees to accommodate the huge influx of customers.  However, this measure has already been rejected by the House, making it unlikely to happen in the near future.  The other possible solution to this uncertainty would be to settle the date months in advance, providing stores the time they need to advertise and the public the notice they deserve to be able to plan accordingly.

For many in Massachusetts, the tax free weekend has become a standard custom.  It is an event that people look forward to and take advantage of every year.  By postponing the decision of which specific weekend to use for the holiday, the power and effectiveness of the holiday was potentially hurt, undermining the attempt to stimulate our economy. I strongly urge my colleagues in the legislature to take a closer look when this comes to a vote once again next year and reevaluate the impact this holiday has on our constituents. The time for debate is over; we owe it to our taxpayers.

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Addressing Autism Services

August 6, 2014

By Senator Richard J. Ross 

With the formal legislative session ending this past Thursday, I wanted to share with my constituents some of the things that I, along with my fellow members of the Governor’s Special Commission Relative to Autism, recently learned in developing a policy to address this all-too-common diagnosis. Each year, we learn more about Autism and the ways it impacts our families and society. Massachusetts has been a national leader in diagnosing and offering services to those on the Autism Spectrum, but recent legislation will help move us further than ever before.

This year, I had the privilege of attending an event that highlighted the excellent work being done in the Commonwealth. Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day at the State House, sponsored by Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts, brought together a number of leaders and members of the community to learn about the path to successful employment and to celebrate the impacts made in this area.

It was truly inspiring to hear directly from individuals affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder regarding the importance of employment, the supports available in the community, and the struggles and obstacles encountered on a daily basis. In hearing of their hardships, I am glad that we were able to address some of their concerns and hopefully put some of them at ease.

In 2010, when I was appointed to serve on the Governor’s Special Commission Relative to Autism, we were charged with evaluating the status of available services and supports, identifying areas in need of improvement, and making recommendations to better serve individuals living with Autism.

We found that families across the Commonwealth are struggling to access the supports and services they need to properly manage this disability. There was a critical need for a comprehensive approach, one that specifically supports individuals transitioning to adulthood at age 22.

Ensuring that municipalities and schools receive sufficient funding to provide the instruction and programs required for all students has always been a top priority of mine. Providing sufficient special education supports for students with Autism allows for a more cohesive school community, reduces stress on students’ families, and provides increased opportunities for students to succeed academically. We owe it to families, schools, and towns to see that the funding is distributed and spent wisely.

In fact, for the FY15 Budget, the Senate and House of Representatives passed a preliminary agreement declaring the amount of local aid and education funding that the cities and towns of the Commonwealth would receive. My colleagues in the Senate Republican Caucus and I fought to pass an amendment funding the Special Education Circuit Breaker so that at least 75%  of costs are reimbursed. While this amendment unfortunately did not pass, the need for more complete funding of this program is paramount.

Frequently at issue in the call for more services is the better allocation of state resources through legislative action. I am proud to say that on July 31st, during the last day of the formal legislative session, the bill relative to assisting individuals with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities was enacted by the House and Senate concurrently.

This piece of legislation makes major strides in assisting those on the Autism Spectrum and assigns a commission to oversee the implementation of services centering on Autism.  These services will range from behavior analysis screenings for low-income families with MassHealth to those ensuring that all teachers have training, and all residential and day-care services attain licensing, in order for them to further understand and cooperate with the needs of those with Autism.

Another leap forward is the research going into structuring job-seeking and training programs made specifically for those with Autism. As these children grow it is important that these services grow with them to assist in adult issues.  That is why this bill addresses the “Achieving a Better Life Experience account,” or ABLE account, which will provide assistance in organizing private savings and qualified disability expense accounts.

Of course, this is only a piece of the puzzle. The need for change extends beyond our schools and into our communities and state government. From education to health care to community involvement, the opportunity to learn and grow is ever-present. As more are aware of this disorder, and diagnoses increase, it is our duty to continue studying and improving the services and opportunities available for individuals and families living with Autism.

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Reforming Drug Treatment Policy in the Commonwealth

July 18, 2014

By Senator Richard J. Ross

Rising rates of substance abuse in Massachusetts, especially the abuse of opiates, have led many of my constituents to express their growing concern. Young people, ages 15-25, are suffering the most from this epidemic and it is time we take action.

Since January, I have been a member of a Senate Special Committee to Study the Application of Section 35 and Drug and Addiction Treatment Options in the Commonwealth. This Special Committee is dedicated to reviewing and revising Section 35 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which permits courts to involuntarily commit someone whose drug or alcohol abuse puts themselves, or others, at risk for up to 90 days and specifies a person can either be sent to a specialized treatment facility or to prison in the event that the facilities are at capacity.

My Senate colleagues and I have listened to professionals in the Departments of Correction, Mental and Public Health, and discussed plans to more effectively combat substance abuse in the Commonwealth.

The Special Committee identified several issues as a product of Section 35. The foremost issue being the mixing of civilly committed individuals with criminals, and in many cases charging civilly committed persons with minor crimes for them to be eligible to receive treatment. Section 35 has also led to overuse and backlogging of the court system. Treatment facilities are over-crowded, fail to provide optimal care to patients, and have a severe lack of transparency and available data on patients after treatment.

To that end, the Special Committee introduced An Act to Increase Opportunities for Long-Term Substance Abuse Recovery to remedy the flaws of Section 35. I was proud to see this legislation pass unanimously in the Senate. It specifically focuses on minimizing the backlog in the court system by finding more appropriate placement for those in need of treatment for substance abuse. These important goals are served through increasing access to vital services through community-based institutions, allowing for the monitoring and regulating of certain high risk drugs, and obtaining data and information on the status of this epidemic in the Commonwealth.

Already, Massachusetts has Office of School Board Health Centers (SBHCs) and Drug-Free Community (DFC) Support Programs in place. While these measures are essential to keeping our community, and especially our children, aware of the dangers of drug abuse, we can do more. This is why we are proposing funding and expanding social institutions within the Commonwealth to better inform our community and relieve some of the pressure from the court system.

Having programs specifically target the age demographic 18-25, is our first goal. These years are a critical transition point when people are most vulnerable to substance abuse; they require the greatest focus and attention of our resources. Discouraging abuse through education, as well as helping those already suffering, by increasing awareness of the options and treatments available to them, is paramount.

Because committed persons are often imprisoned in order to receive the treatment they need, the Special Committee proposes that if a person is committed under Section 35 that the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, rather than the judge who committed the patient, should be the one to assign a person to the appropriate facility that will best suit their personal needs in a timely fashion. This action may reduce the stigma on those who are placed in these facilities while trying to access the care they need. Additionally, more accurate and uniform documentation and data collection on committed persons is needed and may be obtained through this course of action. This is the only way we will be able to evaluate our efforts and funding and conclude whether we are providing the best services to the most amount of people.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious safety, legal and quality of life issue we are facing, and this proposal focuses on breaking the barriers to care, not creating new ones. The Senate Special Committee proposes more effective substance abuse prevention through education, improvement in the quality of treatment and facilities available to committed individuals, and a more rigorous system of data collection and evaluation to ensure a brighter and cleaner future for the Commonwealth.

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