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Berkshire Legislators Evaluate Baker’s Latest Budget Proposal

A columned building with a golden dome is lit with lights
Kevin Rutherford, CC BY-SA 4.0
The Massachusetts State House in Boston.

State lawmakers in Berkshire County are reacting to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal.

The Republican’s $45.5 billion state spending plan released Wednesday is getting a mixed reception from the entirely Democratic delegation from the westernmost region of Massachusetts.

“I really want to be sure that we raise the revenue that’s necessary to be able to meet the needs of the commonwealth – and I don’t believe he has that same vision," said 3rd Berkshire District State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who represents much of the Berkshires’ largest community, Pittsfield. “In order to meet our needs, we are going to have to both do a significant draw from the rainy day fund – somewhere between $1.5 billion, maybe up to $1.7 billion of the $3.5 billion available this year – and then we’re also going to have to raise progressive revenue. We need to be able to tap into the revenue that’s on the table, really, from people that have made money during this pandemic – whether that be capital gains tax or from those who have invested their money overseas.”

With the end of the state’s eviction moratorium looming, Farley-Bouvier says one of her chief concerns is a much-discussed topic in the community: housing.

“We have a tsunami of evictions that are about to start this Saturday," she told WAMC. "We need to make sure that there’s money to fill that rental gap that has been created so that we can protect both the tenants and the landlords. We need to have services to be able to help with both mediation and legal services for them.”

As the COVID-19 crisis continues with no end in sight, supporting public education, childcare and nursing homes are also high on her list.

“Massachusetts is the worst state for the percentage of people who died in nursing homes, and we need to make sure that does not happen again this coming winter,” said Farley-Bouvier.

1st Berkshire District State Representative John Barrett thinks even less of Baker’s proposal.

“Well, I really haven’t looked at it, but like every other budget that is submitted by the governor, it’s usually dead on arrival and the legislature will develop their own budget and of course the senate will follow with doing their budget,” he told WAMC.

Local aid and support for human service agencies rank high on Barrett’s list of priorities.

“You know, I’ve been in this business a long time," said the state representative. "This is perhaps going to be one of the most difficult periods that we’ve experienced for the next 12 to 15 months, and that includes the recession that we had back in 2008 and 2009 and that period – so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Other members of the delegation are more receptive.

“I was pleased to see that the priority is to keep business going as usual as much as possible in Massachusetts and to really try to make sure that those that are in need right now are going to get as much assistance as possible that they can get," said 2nd Berkshire District State Representative Paul Mark. His major concern lies in keeping public education well-funded at a time when individual schools and colleges can’t raise revenues through traditional means.

“It’s really important to make sure that students in education, but in higher education too, are getting the education they deserve, are getting the same standard of education that they signed up for and that they need, and that the schools are able to pivot and make sure that they’re still able to carry out functions and keep people on the payroll that need to be there,” said Mark.

“This comes after months of temporary budgets," said State Senator Adam Hinds of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district. "We’re one of only a handful of states that have not finalized our annual budget. And honestly, we waited precisely so that we could see what the revenues looked like, the levels they were coming in at month over month and how the economy was responding to the virus.”

Hinds is the chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue and sits on the Senate Ways and Means committee.

“Last week, we had an economic roundtable that said really our budget shortfall is in the $3.6 billion to $5.2 billion range," he told WAMC. "I think originally we were thinking it would be maybe a billion dollars more than that.”

Hinds says he’s keeping an eye on the half-billion dollars of cuts to state agencies in Baker’s proposal, but adds that raising revenues will be more important for fiscal year 2022. He says the budget is as close as it is to the original budget submitted earlier in the year before the pandemic due to support from the federal government.

“The conversation now has shifted to not how much or if we get anything from the federal government, it’s more who wins on November 3rd – and that could have serious implications for our state budget,” said Hinds.

The final member of the Berkshire delegation says the budget contains crucial protections for the region.

“He’s pretty much level funded the Mass Cultural Council, which will help our nonprofits in the cultural sector – which is driving the economy of the Berkshires," said Smitty Pignatelli of the 4th Berkshire District. “Unemployment and MassHealth are some of the bigger issues. We protected local aid and the education funding, we did that a couple of months ago so that’s solid and I think towns are going to be stabilized. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and with the revenue picture, while it’s getting better, there’s still a very deep hole we have to fill. We have to make sure we understand what’s going on.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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