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Berkshire Lawmakers Outline 2016 Priorities

This is a picture of the inside of the Massachusetts State House
Jim Levulis

While Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has outlined his priorities in the State of the Commonwealth address and the administration’s budget proposal in the past week, western Massachusetts lawmakers are also figuring what issues to tackle in the legislative session.2016 is an election year for members of the Massachusetts Legislature. Nearly all lawmakers representing the westernmost part of the state are seeking another term. One of the exceptions is Ben Downing, who has decided to retire after 10 years in the Senate. Still, the Democrat says framing the state’s clean energy goals in the face of a proposed natural gas pipeline will be one of his main focuses for the rest of the year.

“Solar net metering and the broader comprehensive energy bill I think is incredibly important,” Downing said. “Not just to keep the good work that we’ve been doing on solar going forward, obviously this is all about combating climate change, it’s also about, in my opinion, making the case to federal regulators that there is a little need as possible for additional natural gas. I am not one who has said that we might not need some, based on certain assessments. ISO [-New England] and the pipeline supporters would say that we do. The Attorney General’s analysis would say that we don’t. But I think if you don’t support Kinder Morgan, which I’m opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, there is a degree of responsibility that falls to you to say ‘Well, what’s your alternative?’”

Downing says further expanding broadband internet to western Massachusetts is also on his short list. Pittsfield Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier considered a run for Downing’s seat, but decided to seek a third full term in the House instead. The Democrat says she is spending a lot of time on a transgender rights bill regarding public accommodations like bathrooms.

“We know that a transwoman, someone who was born male but now identifies as female, who goes into a women’s [bath]room, there have zero incidents of safety issues such as assault or harassment,” Farley-Bouvier said. “There have been hundreds of incidents of a transwoman using the men’s room which is what people who oppose this bill feel that person should have to use. So it is absolutely a public safety matter.”

Like many community leaders, Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox says he wants to continue raising awareness of the rising rate of opioid abuse statewide.

“Ranging in all ages from teenagers to 60 and 70-year-olds,” Pignatelli said. “We’re feeling it in the Berkshires. This is something that is not going to go away. We need to be focused on education, prevention and treatment. We shouldn’t be going to one more funeral.”

Pignatelli says he is considering running for Downing’s Senate seat, but if not, will seek an eighth term in the House.

While no longer a member of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, Representative Paul Mark of Peru says the subject is still near the top of priorities as the Democrat seeks his fourth term.

“I’m filing this week a resolution calling on the State House and Congress to do everything they can to get us to a place where we have debt-free college,” Mark said. “It’s not free college; I’m talking about debt-free college. Where people can go to college and work and find ways to get out of college without crushing student loan debt. My wife pays $750 every single month. It’s insane. It’s more than our mortgage. Its money we’re not investing in the local economy or saving for retirement. It affects every decision down to whether we should have kids or not.”

Representative Gailanne Cariddi of North Adams is running for her fourth term as well. The Democrat plans to continue working on housing and education but has filed legislation seeking to place restrictions on telemarketing calls.

“A telefundraiser would have to disclose, when asked, how much of the funds that they’re asking be given would actually go to the charity,” Cariddi explained. “Right now a fundraising telemarketing company can register with the Attorney General’s office and say only one, two or five percent of their proceeds are actually going to go to the charity that they’re calling on behalf of. Even though they can tell someone today that 100 percent of the money is going to the charity.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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