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Berkshire legislative delegation discusses $4 billion plan for federal relief money

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Last week, the Massachusetts legislature sent a spending bill outlining how to use $4 billion in federal pandemic relief funds to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.

The bill accounts for the majority of the funding the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“The federal government has been providing supports directly to municipalities and direct support to important programs, but it also has provided money directly to states," explained State Senator Adam Hinds. "And so Massachusetts received about $5 billion.”

Massachusetts municipalities and counties received another $3.4 billion in federal funding on top of the $5.3 billion the state secured.

“We’ve gone through about half of it, and then added another amount of state surplus funds," said Hinds. "And that's what we did earlier last month. And then it was finalized last week in terms of the House and Senate coming together and agreeing on what would be sent to the governor for signature. So it's a big number. And it's an exciting opportunity to put some major investments in things like housing, our health infrastructure, economic development and workforce, education, climate, and beyond. So it's a big deal.”

2nd Berkshire District State Representative Paul Mark says both bodies’ earmarks were maintained in the compromise bill between the House and Senate.

“Just about everything that was accepted on the House side and everything that was accepted on the Senate side went into the final version, which is great, because it means that the local voice was heard above and beyond what would normally happen,” he told WAMC.

Mark is running for state Senate next year as Hinds campaigns for lieutenant governor.

$1.5 billion will address economic development and workforce.

“I can't go into a room right now without hearing folks talk about the challenges related to workforce and filling open spots," said Hinds. "And so we put about $100 million into workforce support, including various technical service institutes and career development initiatives. We've put $7.5 million towards the green job initiative, so, it's exciting when you see that type of opportunity to say, hey, we want to really invest in a changing economy as well and making sure that we have money to support our small businesses and the like. So that that's another one, is $75 million towards small business, including $50 million for minority owned businesses.”

Mark says he’s happy to see $500 million go to replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund.

“That’s something no one saw coming, the reliance and the expansion of unemployment that hit when the pandemic first got underway," he told WAMC. "It's not that you can say anyone was, could ever be prepared- I think we were as prepared as possible. But no one expected the magnitude that was going to hit, and so we were able to get a lot of the money from the federal government to try to help address that.”

One of the biggest chunks of the $4 billion plan will go toward housing.

“We know, both across the commonwealth, and here in Berkshire County, that we are in a crisis around housing, and we need to provide a full spectrum of housing options- And there's $600 million going towards that," said 3rd Berkshire District State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier. “We’ll have an opportunity to apply for a grant for workforce housing. And something very important to me is permanent supportive housing, so that we can kind of expand the- We have to go beyond shelter, right? So sheltering is important, but we need to offer other opportunities besides shelter, and permanent supportive housing would be that next step to get people on their way to stable long term housing.”

Farley-Bouvier represents much of Pittsfield, and says she’s worked closely with Mayor Linda Tyer on the issue.

“Understanding the needs of the city through her and her team helped informed where I put my priorities in my advocacy for what's in the bill,” she told WAMC.

Farley-Bouvier identified at least one downside to the bill.

“I get nervous when too much money is given to the administration," said the state representative. "And I think money, that the legislature should have more control over how the money is well spent locally. And so that is something I'll be looking forward to in the next tranche that we disperse.”

Mark says he’s unhappy that a $50 million amendment he filed to raise road project spending in small towns wasn’t included, but that forthcoming federal infrastructure funds will likely address the issue.

“I was told pretty early on in the process that it wasn't going to pass," he told WAMC. "And I think that was in light of the potential for this future funding. And so, you know, we'll be back at it again when the next opportunity hits. And some of the feedback I've heard, even on that amendment, from the small towns is not only does the pot need to be bigger, the total pool statewide, but there needs to be some kind of an adder maybe for the really small towns, towns that are less than 2,000, 3,000 people, that just, even with high mileage, the population in the formula kind of kills them and they don't get all the money that they probably need.”

The bill is now on Governor Baker’s desk. Hinds, Farley-Bouvier, and Mark – all Democrats – do not expect the Republican to veto any line items in the plan.

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