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Pignatelli discusses committee assignments, controversial prisoner organ donation legislation, bill of rights for the unhoused, more

This is a photo of State Representative Smitty Pignatelli
JD Allen

With committee assignments issued and bills filed, the Massachusetts state legislature is now waiting to receive Governor Maura Healey’s budget proposal on Wednesday. It’s the 20th year representing the county’s southern region on Beacon Hill for 3rd Berkshire District State Representative Smitty Pignatelli. The all-Democratic delegation’s dean has a slate of legislation this term, ranging from a bill of rights for the commonwealth’s unhoused community members to tweaking funding formulas for transportation infrastructure in rural communities. Pignatelli says he’s opposed to a controversial new bill that would allow incarcerated people in Massachusetts to donate organs to lessen their sentences. And he’s renewing calls for more representatives from Western Massachusetts in Healey’s administration. He spoke with WAMC.

PIGNATELLI: I'm staying right where I was from the last session, which is very, very good, considering the delegation is getting smaller, unfortunately, like we've talked in the past, but to be a member of the education committee, which I think with the Millionaire's Tax, the Fair Share Amendment, and education, how we're going to fund it, is going to be a very prominent committee to be on. Travel and tourism, cultural development, the economic engine of the Berkshires, we’ll have a voice there. And I understand [Democratic Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire District State Senator] Paul Mark is the Senate chair of that committee, is great. And financial services. I think the other aspect for the Berkshires is the strength of our community banks, so having a voice on the financial services will be very helpful. So, I'm very pleased we were I ended up and I think we're in some good positions as a delegation.

WAMC: Now you've got a whole host of new sponsored bills in for this session. Talk to me, what do you see as the most compelling or the most interesting, what are the ones you want to draw attention to, Smitty?

Well, I think the mental health aspect of things, I think, is going to be very prominent is discussions with the new governor. Her budget is coming out, so we'll have a better idea of her vision for the next 18 months when her budget finally comes out. It's been a slow start to the legislative process with a new governor. But I think mental health, substance abuse, those are some of the prominent ones. And the other thing that I'm really trying to drive home and have more conversations about is infrastructure. I've said very openly that infrastructure, in my opinion, is going to be one of those things that could bankrupt some of our communities, big and small if the state and the federal government don't play a larger role in defraying the costs of bridges, roads, sewer water projects. Those are the issues that I think are going to be very challenging for small towns, and I think the state needs to play a more prominent role in that.

Now, when we talk about taking a second look at Chapter 90 funding and how that formula works, what would you like to see the outcome of that process be? What sort of adjustments would make it more equitable?

Well, I think my bill is very simple and straightforward, although there's, the interesting part of this is there’s multiple bills being filed this year to try to address the Chapter 90 inadequacies. My bill very simply is to change the formula, that there's more weight on the miles of roads and less on the population of the community where the roads are. That's a very simple, straightforward one, but there's other bills that are going to be there raising the awareness of this. And I really think it's got to hit the ground running earlier. I don't think we can delay this much longer. I think it's a critical piece. There, again, going back to the infrastructure comments, roads and bridges, dirt roads, which are not included in the current Chapter 90 formula. There are several small towns all throughout Massachusetts, but especially Western Mass, that have dirt roads that they have to maintain. So, I don't think any town wants a dirt road. But as a state stepped up and helped them to pave those roads, they'd be much cheaper for the communities to maintain and easier to travel for the constituents and residents to live on those roads. So, we have a lot of work to do on Chapter 90. But I really feel we built some really big, nice momentum on that in the last year.

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on HD 107, an act establishing a bill of rights for individuals experiencing homelessness. Break it down for us, what would that bill of rights look like?

I think it's very simple, and it's very frustrating that we can't get this thing through the legislature. It just recognizes and acknowledges and treats people who are experiencing homelessness with some respect and some dignity. You know, in essence, you can't even register to vote unless you have a physical address. Homeless people don't have physical addresses, but they should be, have that simple right to go exercise or right, who's going to be their state representative or board of selectmen or city council. So, access to health care. Those kind of services and state government I think are really important. But without a physical address, it makes it very difficult to obtain those. And this simple bill of rights, and it really is a very simple bill of rights, needs to generate those support from the homeless shelters, which we have most of them in Massachusetts, there's a couple of down east homeless shelters that have been objecting to this bill. So, we're trying to meet with them to understand their concerns and try to treat people with dignity like we would, you and I would treat each other with dignity.

A number of the bills you have forward concern one of your pet projects, the ongoing expansion of resources for the fight against the opioid epidemic. Talk to me about some of them. They range from fentanyl testing strips to other issues around the topic. What are some of those bills looking like and what do you hope they're going to bring to the fore in that ongoing effort?

Well, once again, I think with this new governor and his new administration, I think we're going to have a lot more conversation about the opioid situation. We're seeing recovery centers here in the Berkshires popping up, the one in Great Barrington that Gary Pratt is doing is fabulous. We have to keep that momentum going and keep him funded to give people the resources they need. My Narcan bill, it just very simply requires all first responders, police, fire or ambulance, to carry Narcan on their body or in their vehicles when they respond to calls. It’s proven to be a lifesaving tool, and I just said we need to do that. The threat of that legislation the last couple of years has proven to be very beneficial. Pittsfield now carries Narcan, they didn't before. Lee carries Narcan, they didn't before. So, several other communities around the state of recognizing the value of Narcan as a lifesaving tool. And I think we need to recognize that. On the fentanyl strips, you know, we're going to be having more conversations about safe injection sites. So, if you're still using an illegal substance, a very simple fentanyl strip, you could test for yourself the product that you're buying on the street if, unfortunately, that's what you're getting from it, making sure that it's you're buying what you think you're buying, and not something that's laced with fentanyl, which is proven to be worse than the worst opioid imaginable and the deaths rates through fentanyl is going through the roof. So, I think mental health, substance abuse and Narcan training and the ability to access it, I think they’re going to be very wise investments. You see the Narcan campaign in the Berkshires that's going on right now with the billboards, raising the awareness and destigmatizing the opioid situation that we have here in the Berkshires and beyond.

I'm also interested in another one of your bills concerning an act relative to POST certified law enforcement officers. The POST commission is, of course, the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Talk to me about this bill- What exactly would it do to existent state law concerning the commission?

I think we need to just recognize that, you know, training is critically important, whether you're in the small town in the Berkshires or in the big city of Boston. I think training is paramount across the board. But we need to also have an understanding of the impacts of the training in the small towns in comparison to the big city. So having a voice from smaller communities, I think is really important. Chief Wynn in Pittsfield has done a good job, but I would argue, with all due respect to the chief, that Pittsfield is very different than, say, Tyringham or Alford or Richmond. So, I think having those local voices, small town voices, understanding it, but I fully support the training. And we also have to understand that these part-time officers that these small towns depend upon become very problematic, because they these part-time people, they don't have the time or the resources to go to the updated training after little work hours. So, I think the POST commission has a lot more work to do. But it has to be reflective of the entire commonwealth, large communities or small.

What are your thoughts on the somewhat infamous House Bill 3822, the House bill that would allow incarcerated people in Massachusetts to donate organs or bone marrow to reduce their sentences? What are your thoughts on that?

I'm absolutely opposed to that. I think it's foolish. I do not object anybody who wants to donate blood, and if they're a match for a kidney donation or anything like that, I think God bless them, more power to them. But I would not use that as a tool to reduce your sentence for a capital crime. I think that's misguided, personally, from what I've seen about it so far. And I wouldn’t hold out any hope that that's going to see the light of day,

From your experience in the legislature, do you feel like that's going to make it much farther than the desk? Or are we going to see a debate on this?

I would predict, and I have no inside knowledge of you know committee it's going to it's going to end up in, I would be shocked if even came out of committee.

At this point in the year, we're seeing more and more appointments come into play from the Healey-Driscoll administration. Any thoughts on some of the assignments that we're seeing in some of these statewide posts?

The appointment for the [Department of Energy Resources] Elizabeth Mahoney, she's not from the Berkshires, but she's got strong ties to the Berkshires," Pignatelli told WAMC. "I worked with her very closely when she worked for Senator [Ben] Downing many years ago, she's a home run, she's going to be a grand slam asset to the Healey administration. But I think appointments have to be reflective of the entire commonwealth, and it seems to be very Boston-focused at this point. The jury's still out, but I'm still hopeful that we'll have some representation from Western Mass.

A spokesperson for Healey tells WAMC the administration is “committed to building an administration for every region of our state – from Pittsfield to Provincetown. They were proud to make a visit to the Berkshires in their first two weeks to announce their first bill filing. They have prioritized hiring members of the administration with ties to Western Mass, including Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao who attended Williams College and has a home in Williamstown. Our administration is committed to continued collaboration with Western Mass officials and advocates to continue hiring and appointing strong leaders from across state.”

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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