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Western Mass. State Senator Mark says local earmarks, emergency shelter funding, and more are in $58 billion senate budget draft

State Senator Paul Mark in North Adams, Massachusetts in July 2023.
Josh Landes
State Senator Paul Mark in North Adams, Massachusetts in July 2023.

The 2025 Massachusetts budget took another step forward last week when the state Senate approved its $58 billion draft of the fiscal plan. The budget comes after a year defined by a surprise drop in state revenue, hiring freezes, and the emergency shelter system hitting capacity. It now moves to conference committee for a compromise draft before it’s sent to the desk of first-term Democratic Governor Maura Healey. Before voting, legislators from across the commonwealth tacked on tens of millions of dollars for local projects and other initiatives. Among them was first-term Democratic State Senator Paul Mark, who represents the largely rural Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire District. He tells WAMC that investments in education, childcare, and transportation are among the budget’s highlights — including MassEducate, a new $117.5 million program for universal free community college.

MARK: That's a pretty bold statement to try to make community college available essentially for free, for, tuition included for any resident of Massachusetts. And so, we had over the last year and a half, the governor proposing, the House and Senate working together on this idea of MassReconnect, which makes Community College available for free for people over 25 that are trying to go back and restart or finish up a degree or get on the path to a bachelor's- And then, that's an amazing program. That's something important to me, personally. I can look back at moments in my childhood where this would have been extremely valuable to either or both of my parents. It probably could have made a big difference in in our lives, and so, seeing that program and seeing the success of that program as it's gotten off and running, very important. And so now, this attempt to try to expand to allow more people to take advantage of that. And I think ultimately- It's a tough, it's a tougher revenue year, and so I know there's going to be some pushback, there's going to be a lot to consider as the conference committee between the House and Senate tries to work on this. But I mean, the goal is noble, the goal was the right one: How do we make education affordable and available for as many people as possible in this state? And when we're talking about community colleges, these are the colleges that are probably best poised to meet the needs of workforce and economic development. And so, I think there's a lot that potentially will go hand in hand with other things we're working on in both this upcoming economic development bill, in terms of housing, and in terms of the possibility of a climate bill, and in green jobs and renewable energy sector jobs. So, I think there's a lot to like, and there's a lot to be hopeful about.

WAMC: The state's emergency shelter program has been a source of much debate amongst the Democrats who rule Massachusetts. How does the Senate budget deal with the struggles posed to that system after the influx of migrants last year filled to the brim?

Yeah, we've been working on that throughout the year through supplemental budgets, and so I think we're in pretty good shape as far as funding being available for the foreseeable future based on the needs we know right now. The governor has been doing her best to try to manage the needs and balance the needs of how do we make sure no kid, no family is out on the street, is not getting that the resources that they need, while also making sure that this isn't something that's going to bankrupt the state and cut into so many other programs that are really important. So, I think we're in a much better place right now than we were even six months ago. It was really good to see – it's not directly related, but it is related – revenue came in at a stronger clip in April because there was a moment where, if revenue projections are falling under the benchmarks, under the standards, and we're seeing increases in the needs to make the shelter program successful and available- Boy, you're talking about a double whammy hitting at the worst possible time. And so, we seem to have gotten past that, and now as we move forward, I imagine in a couple of months, we'll see where we stand and we'll all be ready- House, Senate, and Governor working together to pivot to make sure that we stay in the strongest possible financial shape, the most competitive financial shape, and also maintain the programs that are so important to so many people.

Now, last week during debate of this Senate budget bill, there were over 400 amendments, there were over 40 roll call votes, around $90 million got added on to this budget for local priorities and other initiatives. What did you bring home to Western Massachusetts through that process?

We were able to get, for our region specifically, rural school aid is a big one. So, rural school aid [was] created by my predecessor, essentially, oh, I think five years ago now. We got that from nonexistent in 2018 to a place where it was $5.5 million two budgets ago, tripled that last year to $15.5 million, then we came into this year with the governor proposing level funding of $15 million, the House scaling back a little to $7.5 million, and [we were] able to increase that up to $17.5 million through an amendment I filed this budget. So, good news for rural communities. It's an increase. You know, we have a long way to go, but these are dollars that are come right to the Berkshires, right to Western Massachusetts, and help the schools that need that funding the most, that are most, in the most difficult position to find funding without extra help from the state. And then we take a couple of regional items- Opioid task force goes through the Berkshire Sheriff's Office, is used by great programs like Rural Recovery, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition does a lot of education work, a lot of Narcan work, and Berkshire County has been one of those places that we've seen overdose statistics going in the right direction. Again, another area where there's a lot of work to do, but certainly a place where we're trending in the right direction and I want to help to support that. Money for economic development, money for some important local projects, money for the Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad. I met with them back in September, they're talking about all the difficult challenges that they're facing, and here's a little shot in the arm that hopefully is going to help them get some equipment that they need, and maybe through getting the equipment with help from the state government, that frees up the money that they're using on a day-to-day basis for operations that helps them do their job more efficiently and effectively. And just this- The budget process, when we talk about how many amendments get filed, it's a process that basically runs all year, but really runs in earnest for almost six months. On the Senate side, now, I get the privilege of watching what the governor does, watching what the House and my colleagues on the House side do, and we work together collaboratively as a team, and where they're able to have a success, I get to go focus on something else that I've been working on, and where they come up short for whatever reason, I get to plug in and help out. So, it's a great team effort, and I'm hopeful everything will survive, House and Senate, for local earmarks through conference committee, and that we'll be able to get this important funding to our county.

Now, housing continues to be identified by both local leaders and state leaders as the greatest challenge posed to Massachusetts right now. We have this budget coming together while, in the executive branch, we have Governor Maura Healey’s $4 billion Affordable Homes Act. Can you speak to us about how this budget addresses that issue and how it's related to this much larger piece of legislation, or rather, this siloed piece of legislation that’s specifically about affordable housing?

Yeah, the budget, we address, how do we keep as many families and individuals as possible in their homes right now? And so, when we talk about the problem of homelessness, a big concern becomes, if you lose that shelter, if you lose where you live right now, you go into a spiral, you go into some kind of a snowball, and losing a home can mean you lose a job, lose access to education, lose resources for your kids. It creates a spiral that we don't want. And so, what I've consistently heard short of production of new housing, which we're not going to do in the budget, short of that, the most effective thing you can do to help people with the housing crisis is keep them in their homes right now. And then as we pivot now into a housing bill that I'm going to hope is going to probably go through the House first in the next two weeks, and then come to the Senate side, hopefully in June, and certainly by July, because as of August 1st, we have to be done with significant bills like that that require a roll call. We're talking about production, we're talking about looking at housing in a way that is going to meet production needs, and in a unique way that benefits the entire states. When we look at this housing bill, we're talking about seasonal communities, we're talking about how do we provide for septics and wells for people in rural communities, that, that's not an issue that people think about in Boston, in the greater Boston metro area. So yeah, there's a lot that's good coming out of the budget process, but there's a lot of work that needs to get done in the next few months if we want to allow Secretary Augustus and Governor Healey to get out there and really start cracking on making more housing, which will hopefully make housing more affordable in Massachusetts.

Let's turn to your frustrations with this budget. Is there anything in this or anything left out of this that has left you irked as it moves closer and closer to a compromise deal?

When we look at the budget – And again, being in the Senate now and having been in the House – you have the advantage of seeing what the House did and what the Senate does. And so, there are places where I think the House did a better job, and that I hope that in the conference committee, final version, that we're going to see the best of both worlds. And so, when I think about frustration, I guess, I think about some of the local projects I was trying to get money for. The Berkshire Black Economic Council, the Elizabeth Freeman Center. There was a couple of local projects that I, they are undertaking important projects, they need help – organizations, excuse me – they are undertaking important local projects, and the more resources that we can steer towards them, the more success they're going to have, and the better off our community is going to be. But, any place where we as a body came up short, we try again in conference committee to make sure that we get the best total final product working together. And where amendments I filed personally came up short, well, now we turn to, is there an opportunity in the economic development, is there a different place that some of the funding streams we were looking for maybe are better suited. And I'm going to continue to work together with my House colleagues and organizations in our community and the cities and towns to make sure we get as much of that pie as possible to our region, because I feel really good, we've been doing better in that in recent years, and we're going to keep doing that as much as we can.

So, where do you see the biggest conversations and differences being between the House and Senate versions of the budget? Where do you think the debate is going to center as this heads into conference committee before passage?

Yeah, so I think the investments in higher education, specifically the investments in community college, that's going to be an area where there's a lot of discussion. The Senate invested in a major way in regional transit authorities, I think that's going to be a major discussion. Rural road funding, that was something on the on the Senate side, we were able to get $62.5 million allocated for the traditional Chapter 90 funding, but in a formula that focuses on rural needs as opposed to population and employment factors- So, road miles. That was something that was new last year, and we more than doubled the appropriation for that in the budget right now. So, I mean, those are all areas that are going to be lively discussions. We've going to work collaboratively because we always do, and then when we get to the end stage, we're going to have to do this in a manner that is timely enough that the governor has an opportunity to look things over, offer amendments or vetoes as she sees fit, and then where we think those amendments or vetoes are wrong, we have to do those by roll calls. So, the July 1st fiscal year deadline is coming, but then also that August 1st end of roll calls in the House and Senate deadline is looming. And so, we need to work through those differences really quickly.

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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