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Hinds discusses special committee report on inequality in Mass., possible LG run, redistricting and more

Adam Hinds
Jim Levulis

Western Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds is the chair of the Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency. On Tuesday, the committee released a sweeping report on entrenched inequalities in the state, highlighting racial, economic and regional disparities heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report proposes $1 billion of policy recommendations that could be paid for with American Rescue Plan Act federal funding. The Democrat spoke with WAMC about the report, November’s deadline for redistricting in Massachusetts following the 2020 Census, State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s call for rural infrastructure improvements, and his own plans for next year’s elections.

HINDS: We've been looking for the last six months at how do we take the lessons learned from all of the vulnerabilities that really expose us and expose certain communities to being impacted more dramatically by the public health crisis and by the economic downturn. And we really want to make sure that we are identifying the ways that we start to address things like intergenerational poverty and wealth gaps by race and a whole range of challenges that we've seen manifests during this real tragic period. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, we're preparing for changes in our economy and workforce needs that we need to be investing in to make sure we're prepared for the future of work and a range of other changes in how we live our lives. And so it's been a broad mandate. We released our first set of findings and we accompanied that with a trip with the senate president to multiple models for intergenerational care, where you have child care and care for aging parents and loved ones and loved ones with special needs all in one location. And that's one of the findings, honestly, and one of the insights that come from our work, is that there are a whole range of caregiver needs that might keep somebody from the workforce or may complicate working from home, among other things. And so, how do we use this moment to rethink our models? And do we need to have intergenerational care closer to home in the neighborhood?

WAMC: One of the big findings of the report is about how disparities exist at almost every level of life in the commonwealth. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you found in the report about access to broadband for groups in Massachusetts from different financial backgrounds?

So I have to confess that I came at the digital divide issue from a rural perspective, as you know, from our work in Western Massachusetts. This has been a real focus. And yet, what we're finding that basically 20% of Massachusetts residents do not have access to a hardline wire into their home, and 93% of those are in our downtown and urban areas. And so there was a shift really in perspective for me, that while there still are infrastructure challenges that are to be overcome, it's really a poverty issue. And that's been as big a barrier. And it includes not only someone to pay for a subscription, but also to pay for a device, be it a laptop or a tablet, and to have the instruction in the use for utilizing all the above. And so, that's what we've seen, pretty drastic differences. If you're making over $75,000 as a family, then there's almost ubiquitous coverage. If you're making under $35,000, then it's six in ten have coverage and have internet access. And so we went through policy proposals that say we need to have automatic low cost options for folks who are receiving MassHealth and eligible for MassHealth and the like. We also thought that there's value and promoting municipally-owned networks, and finding that there is really innovative work out there for providing local options to internet access, especially at a time when you see municipalities providing sewage and water, but then, the internet is increasingly at a level of a utility in terms of need and universal needs. So that was an interesting insight to come from the report.

Another narrative of the report is the disparity between the experience in Massachusetts between white people and white families and Black, Hispanic and Asian communities in Massachusetts. There's a lot of ways to dig into that aspect of the report, but could you highlight a few areas where you were particularly taken aback at how pronounced some of those differences are?

Yeah, well, the one that everybody was well aware of before, during and after the pandemic, of course, is a wealth gap by race. And basically, wealth transfers through things like homes. And so we not only recognize that inheritance gap is one that has been confirmed, and then, so we try to put on the table, what are the ways that you can start to address that? And so, we found for example, there are existing programs by the state related to seeding bonds and seeding savings accounts at birth for college or other investments when you reach an adult age. We found out a compelling and interesting piece to that. And there are other ways to try to get at that inheritance gap, if you will. But certainly, income support and the like. So that was one. When it comes to housing and making sure that we have elevated investment in first-time homebuyer programs. That's a key priority. We also saw the gap in who's, as we're moving towards more and more remote work, who is in jobs that is more likely to have the opportunity for remote work. And so there's a potential disparity on the horizon as we're seeing more and more folks going into remote work. And again, there's certainly by income, a big gap. If you're making over $100,000, you're twice as likely to be able to work remotely than someone who's making $50,000 or less. And so what are the implications of that? It became a real life and death issue, who is able to stay protected at home, who was able to benefit from lower housing costs in outlying areas, and on and on. And so I think it's a red flag for, if we do see a continuity of shift towards remote work, who can benefit, and what are the implications of that.

Can you walk us through some of the conclusions of the report, given how widespread its findings were? What are some policy initiatives put forward by your special committee, and what can we expect to see come out of this?

Well, the timing is important, right? We're now at the legislature. We've been working through several hearings on Ways and Means to identify where we would spend our ARPA funds, our American Rescue Plan funds from the federal government. We’re at about $5 billion there. And so the timing of the release of this report is deliberately set up so that these recommendations will be a part of that conversation. We've seen that- It's a broad mandate, and the recommendations reflect that. And so some of the big ticket items are certainly in housing and housing expansion, but also policy changes and thinking through how we, a new approach to eviction, essentially, so that we can have automatically connecting tenants with rental assistance and guaranteed rights to counsel and the like, which is good for landlords and tenants alike to have the flow of protections and keeping people housed. So there are there are a range of those types of programs that we identify and they're not cheap. But what we also tried to focus on is, where can you have one-time expenditures and in that category, we've talked a lot about, should we create a public bank in Massachusetts or capitalize something that we have called the MassGrowth Capital Corporation, which often provides capital to kind of small businesses and beyond. And what we saw when we were receiving federal support through the PPP loans is that there were there were communities that were traditionally underbanked, and did not have traditional relationships with banks. And so there was a real gap. And so by capitalizing a public bank, we feel that there is, maybe that creates a bank that's willing to take a lower return and maybe back up a commercial bank, and really close that gap in the, again, which businesses are getting the loans. And so it's being held up as a particular way to help Black-owned businesses, for example.

If you had to approximate a price tag associated with the propositions in the report, what does that come to? And would all that be funded theoretically through ARPA money?

Yeah, so we were looking at this as, certainly making sure the recommendations are a part of the ARPA discussions, but we also have a state surplus that we'll be tackling before the Thanksgiving break. So there's, that's another source of funds. And of course, on an annual basis, we find other sources of revenue for funding our programs and the government, and so it's all of the above. So when you add up the recommendations that we have in the report right now, it's over $1 billion. We're talking about how are we going to spend close to $5 billion in direct state support from the federal government through ARPA. But it's also the case that some of the items we proposed were not ready for finalizing a price tag. We don't know the cost or the programs need more development. And so it's a mixture of what's been put forward, but it is over a billion dollars when you look at what's in the report.

Pivoting for a moment, let's take a look at redistricting in the state. Could you sort of walk me through what your thoughts are on a proposed reimagining of the Western Massachusetts representation on Beacon Hill would look like now the conversations are underway before next month's deadline?

So my focus is in the state senate. I’m in the senate redistricting committee, and I will say that I from the start I have been fighting for and arguing for a continuity and having a Berkshire County-based senate seat even though the current district that I'm in includes 20 towns outside of Berkshire County. But it's the case that any proposal that would have changed that would not have been good for Berkshire County and Western Mass and so that's what I've been fighting for. I'm encouraged by what we're seeing and discussing at the committee level, and the data, honestly didn't point to a need to try to do anything else. We were closer to our current number than we anticipated. And, honestly, because the snapshot day for the census is April 2020, we think that really, our numbers have increased in Berkshire County since then. And so I'm happy with an outcome that is as close to the status quo in terms of the number of towns and which towns that are included in this district. But it is inevitable that we do need to move a little further east.

Now turning to next year and a lot of speculation around your plans for the coming election. It's been reported that you've considered a run for lieutenant governor. Where are you in that process? And what are the major factors that would influence your decision?

Yeah, thanks for asking. I mean, it is true. I've been open about the fact that during the summer, we put a team together, we've been looking at lieutenant governor, and it's an exciting, exciting prospect, the idea that you want to be able to do more and more for the region and for the Commonwealth. And so that's been the motivating factor. And so, we're getting close to a decision. I want to make sure that folks have as long a runway as possible to know either way that either I'm in running for reelection or not. And so we'll keep you updated.

Now, of course, the fact that Governor Charlie Baker has not made his intentions for an electoral run clear for next year- Is that part of your thinking about whether it's the right time to wade into statewide politics or not?

No, it's really driven by you know, where can you have a bigger and bigger impact, and I've loved working in the state senate. I find that there are- It's been great that the senate president has given me a range of statewide policy issues to lead on and doing work for the district that I grew up in, and the region that I grew up in, it's just been such an honor. And so, you know, we're driven by how to continue that work and how to have a bigger and bigger impact and less concerned about the decisions of others.

Any reactions to State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s report on the Rural Rescue Plan and how it impacts Western Massachusetts?

Well, I'm a co-chair of the rural caucus in the Massachusetts legislature and we will definitely be pushing for a rural relief plan and taking what she has put in black and white as the evidence, and as her report very poignantly gets at, the unique challenges that small towns and rural areas confront in government and services. And honestly for too long, we've seen that rural and small towns have been left behind when it comes to the big investments that results in fewer opportunities and the like for people who live here. And it's just a shame that your zip code could determine the range of opportunities and investments in things like public safety and beyond that you have available and so that's what we'll- We are very appreciative for her work and we're going to put our head down and make sure that we can take action with it.

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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