Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal of the 1st district came to Pittsfield Friday to announce over $40 million in federal funding for Berkshire County as a part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. The Democratic Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee spoke with WAMC about the legislation, the hopes for a new infrastructure bill, local outcry against the Housatonic River cleanup plan he helped broker, and the state’s reopening plan amid a COVID surge in Pittsfield.
NEAL: It's almost $41 million for Berkshire County, just about $34 million for the city of Pittsfield. We followed the guidelines of what is known as Community Development Block Grant monies. There were some other formula attachments, including population size, unemployment rates, and poverty levels. So I think that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the city of Pittsfield and for people in Berkshire County to talk about some of the priorities that they see going forward, understanding that the next round up, the president has indicated and I'm fully supportive of a major infrastructure bill for the country. I think that these are long term investments. And understanding that as this money has now made its way into the pipeline, you're going to see an uptick in economic growth for the third and fourth quarters of the year. But not to miss the point either of what we did with the child credit- The Ways and Means Committee wrote that legislation. That has the potential to reduce poverty with children by half. The dependent care credit for moms who had to choose between work and taking care of children- This is a substantial opportunity, and one of my pet peeves for a long time has been expanding the earned income tax credit to single filers because the EITC rewards work. And I think that should be emphasized. I think this is seismic. It's transformative. And I think that some are highlighting the idea that this is almost an LBJ, FDR type initiative. And I'm glad I played a big role on it.
WAMC: When we talk about infrastructure in Western Massachusetts, it's a broad topic from transportation to aging bridges. When you think about spending in Western Massachusetts in a potential forthcoming infrastructure bill, what kind of numbers are looking at? What kind of areas do you hope it addresses?
Well, I think that you described it. It's hard to say what the allocation will be until we actually do the legislation and then figure out the revenue forecasts for how to accomplish it. But there is an opportunity out here as to rail, highways, roadways, sewer and water, broadband. I think that those are issues that come to mind. There's also a discussion about helping to rebuild old, aging school buildings across the country. I think that one issue that I'm also particularly interested in is expanding brownfields opportunities. I think that that's a major part of the challenge here in Western Massachusetts. There's an awful lot of vacant property that sits underutilized or unused because of what's in the ground. And the legacy costs become difficult to capture, because these companies are the ones that actually did the polluting, they're long gone. So I think that one of the suggestions I've had to the speaker, and we'll have to the president, is, I think an investment in brownfields legislation to clean up these properties so that for cities like Pittsfield and North Adams that come to mind that you can use those dollars for the purpose of reclaiming those vacant properties and make them productive for tax purposes.
So when we talk about corporate polluters in Berkshire County, GE, of course, comes to mind. There's been some local dissatisfaction with the GE deal that you were a part of brokering, and in fact, some legal action emerging from residents in the county. Any comment for folks who are experiencing frustration with that?
Well, I think, obviously, it's been a long standing issue. I'm the third congressman that has been part of the discussion as to what to do. But I also think that there's a very important lesson here, and that was a land use determination. Members of Congress don't do zone changes. You follow the edict of local officials, and it was local officials that did the negotiating and I think that Senator Markey and I, we accepted that premise. So I'm ever so hopeful that they'll find a reasonable path forward and an accommodation. I think that oftentimes in public life, there are a series of competing choices, none of which are easy.
President Biden held his first press conference this week. What were your thoughts on that? He didn't get asked about COVID, the vaccination rollout. Anything you want to want to say about the new administration's efforts in that realm?
Well, I think anybody who's knowledgeable about how presidential press conferences work, there are very few questions that a president is not prepared for. At least this President, I can tell you that with certainty. So there are a lot of things that go into it. I think presidents, in this one, Joe Biden's case, they're always wise not to answer “what if” questions, and I thought that the press conference went pretty well. And I also think that it highlighted the fact that Joe Biden's a very decent human being.
Out here in Berkshire County, there's been an uptick in COVID cases over the last month since Massachusetts entered a series of new reopening phases in the last couple of months. You've mentioned speaking with Governor Baker about issues in the state. Have you had any thoughts or commentary on that reopening plan?
Well, I think that Berkshire County also gets credit and should be acknowledged for the manner in which the distribution levels of the vaccine have taken place. They've been a leader in the Commonwealth. And at the same time, there has been an uptick and I think that part of the challenge is the variant that we need to be mindful of. But I also will tell you in conversations that I've had with the governor and will have again in the next day or so, my intention is to advocate for what Berkshire County needs.