|Education, Census, Opioid Task Force Highlights In State Budget For Mark|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
07:17AM / Sunday, July 28, 2019
|State Rep. Paul Mark secured a few local earmarks in the budget.|
DALTON, Mass. — The big news in the state's budget is $5.18 billion in Chapter 70 aid for schools, according to state Rep. Paul Mark.
"That is the most in the history of Massachusetts and it is also the biggest increase year over year in this account," the 2nd Berkshire representative said. "I think that is a really positive step toward what we have been working on getting this foundation budget changed."
Places like Pittsfield and Greenfield will be seeing massive increases in funding and all districts are seeing somewhat of a bump. This is start of what is expected to be the state's undertaking to significantly bolster education funding. It relates to the Foundation Budget Review Commission's findings that the state has been underfunding schools in regard to the costs of health insurance, English language learners, special education, and low-income students.
The state budget gets a jump-start on that effort with the increase, which is particularly eyed for schools with a high populations of students from low incomes. The cities are particularly happy with the increase — for Pittsfield, it is some $5 million. Despite municipal budgets already being passed, Mark is hoping towns put it to good use to show legislative leadership that the money is needed.
"It is going to be important that when this money comes to the local municipalities that they use it for school funding and that they show those of us in the Legislature that they need this money, that's what it is for, and that's where it going to go," Mark said, adding that there have already been debates at the municipal level as to how it should be used.
Smaller towns, however, are not seeing such a windfall. But, Mark said the state was able to raise some rural specific funds. The regional school transportation reimbursement is funded at $75.9 million, which raises the percentage of the cost the state is paying. The budget also raises the rural sparsity aid program, spearheaded last year by state Sen. Adam Hinds, by $1 million. Mark said this is additional support for schools with a certain population per distance. Last year, the Central Berkshire Regional School District was the biggest recipient of that fund.
"The good news in K-12 did not carry through to higher education. That is probably the biggest disappointment in the budget. We were not able to get the level of funding in higher ed that would mean a tuition freeze," Mark said.
Mark had previously headed a state group delving into the issue of student debt and has been advocating to increase funding for state colleges and universities to help curb tuition increases. While the state increased the state colleges and universities some, the Peru Democrat said it isn't enough to ensure there won't be another tuition hike — particularly in the University of Massachusetts system.
The budget also provides the regional transit authorities the full amount requested of $90.5 million. The amount won't necessarily allow expansion but shouldn't constrict services. The RTAs could still have some flexibility or possibly other funding sources to pilot new routes and times.
"If your existing service is set, that's when you can start to explore," Mark said.
Mark is the chairman of the Redistricting Committee. The U.S. Census count is the basis for not only drawing the lines for representation in government but also the basis for a significant number of funding allocations and grant programs. The budget includes $2.5 million for a grant program to help local Complete Count Committees and local organizations help get an accurate count.
"The Complete Count Committee, statewide and the local regional ones, exist to try to support the efforts of the Census takers and get every person possible counted. Secretary [of State William] Galvin said, and this is his third Census, that is will be the most difficult one to make sure there is a complete and accurate count, and recognizing that this is the first time the Census is going to be online. In rural areas that will be difficult, especially with seniors, filling out that form," Mark said.
The various committees can apply for funds to use for local efforts. Meanwhile, the budget includes $2.75 million for the secretary of state's office to provide technical assistance and data collection to aid the effort.
Mark also highlighted $900,000 in the budget for child advocacy centers statewide. A portion of that will go toward funding Berkshire County Kids' Place.
"I've been the lead on the last couple of years to get the funding," he said.
The Massachusetts Office of Employee Involvement and Ownership received another year of funding. The re-establishment of that office had been one of Mark's earliest efforts and it took him seven years to get funding for it. It was up and running in March but with being open just a few months has had little time to show results.
"There is a Western Mass group that will act as the face of this office, which is good. The $150,000 again this session shows, you are just getting started, keep going, let's show some results. They are going to have a chance. They were afraid between March and July, what can we show to prove this is a good program?" Mark said. "Keeping it going for a second year is going to give them an opportunity."
The office is intended to help businesses transition to a cooperative or employee-owned model. Mark said the original intent was aimed at keeping jobs locally and the need will just become even greater as time goes on.
"That has taken on increased urgency as 10,000 people a day for the next 10 years in the United States are going to turn 70. They are calling it the 'silver tsunami.' As businesses don't have a transition plan in plan and are thinking who is going to take it over? Are my kids going to take it over? Is the CEO going to take it over? When they don't have an answer, there is an opportunity. Let's sell it to the workers instead of selling it off and having it move out of time," Mark said. "It's going to affect everything from a restaurant to a factory and everything in between."
The budget includes money for the Pioneer Flyer passenger rail in the so-called "knowledge corridor" to connect Springfield, Northampton, Greenfield, and Holyoke on a daily basis with stops in each multiple times a day, allowing greater ease for people to commute. The train system also allows for people to be able to take the train to Hartford, Conn., and New York City for work.
"It makes it easier for people to get from here to other places and from other places to here. When you look at the Census, at redistricting, there are three districts that are losing population — District 1, District 2, and District 9 on the Cape. So how do we stop that population loss?" Mark said. "This is a beautiful area, it is safe, it is quiet, it is a nice place to live. But if you can't get your family here to visit, you can't go see mom, you can't get to work, whatever it is? Transportation, we have a good education and we have that, and internet service is coming. All of these are going to be factors to try to make us more vibrant."
However, as those factors come together, Mark is already being cautious about the future. He hopes local communities can get ahead on zoning and other regulations to protect longtime residents from being priced out or homes being turned into simply short-term rentals. He said the growth in Boston has continued to displace longtime residents who can't afford to live there anymore. If the Berkshires get high-speed internet and easier commutes, the Berkshire could face a similar issue. Further, when it comes to tourism, Mark doesn't want homes being purchased and turned into solely short-term rentals like Airbnb.
Mark also said the Berkshire Opioid Task Force received $100,000 in funding. A similar task force in Franklin County is showing positive results, he said. Last year, Mark advocated and received funding to start the Berkshire County program. The task force is administered by the Berkshire County sheriff's office and the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative.
"This allows for someone to focus on opioid abuse prevention, opioid education, opioid treatment, and advocacy. Partnering with the sheriff — whether we like it or not the sheriff's office is one of the biggest opioid treatment centers in the county. That's not how we want things to be. We want people to have other options that don't involve a criminal record and don't involve jail time," Mark said.
The budget also includes $25,000 for both Peru and Windsor to hold 250th celebrations in 2021. Mark said the state has supported anniversary celebrations elsewhere and often those type of events receive a lot of private donors backing.
"Peru is a town with no commercial activity, has less than 1,000 people. The same thing for Windsor. These are beautiful towns. They are the highest two towns in the state elevation-wise. They deserve the same opportunity for a great celebration," Mark said. "We don't have big businesses to draw from, no big donors, so what can we do to help? We were able to get $25,000 for each town and in a timely manner. It is going to be available before 2021 actually starts. People in both towns are excited about this. I tried to keep it a surprise."
He also backed state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier's request for a study on how Pittsfield could own and operate an internet provider service.
"It is important to recognize that internet service is like the airport or rail service or highway of the future. We don't want to leave it in somebody else's hands to decide if we are able to offer the best service. I appreciate what Pittsfield is trying to do and I was really glad to see Tricia take the lead on that item," Mark said.
Overall, Mark said the state's revenues remain strong — so much so that the income tax is expected to decline — and the state was able to add more to the rainy day fund.
"It is at pre-recession levels for the first time which I think reflects good budgeting," Mark said.
The budget did come out three weeks late, however, which Mark chalks up mostly to changes in leadership.
"Two years in a row now we've had new chairs of the Ways and Means. This session we had a new chair and vice chair on the House and the Senate side. They are learning the process a little better. I imagine it is very different when you are one of the normal legislators and are advocating versus when you're one of the six people on the conference committee and dealing with negotiations, dealing with all of us who are calling you to make sure our stuff makes it though, dealing with the speaker and Senate president. It must be a lot to get used to," Mark said.
He later added, "We always had money in place for the fiscal year. There was never a shutdown. There was never a threatened shutdown. Not a single employee of the state had to think 'am I going to get paid tomorrow?'"
The budget was released on Sunday from the Conference Committee, which settles differences between the Senate's version of the budget the House of Representative's budget. Gov. Charlie Baker still has an opportunity to veto items before signing it and has done so in recent years. But also in recent years, the Legislature has overturned most of those vetoes.