The state Senate Wednesday approved a state budget that, like the proposals by Gov. Deval Patrick and the House, are in the $36 billion range. They all have their differences, but the most intriguing aspect of the Senate proposal from a Berkshire perspective is the money proposed for regional school transportation.
Imposing transportation costs discouraged otherwise sound regionalization programs in rural areas of the state like the Berkshires from being instituted, and to push regionalization the state promised to pay for those costs. The state has consistently failed to do so, however, failing to live up its part of a bargain made in good faith and sticking communities with transportation costs they feared would be their burden should regionalization come about. In fiscal 2013, the state paid only 60 percent of those costs, requiring districts that have made painful budget cuts to make up the difference.
Under the Senate proposal, the state would pay 90 percent of regional school transportation costs in fiscal 2014. "It was a promise made a long time ago," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat, to masslive.com. "We told communities ... if you regionalize your school systems, you’ll have bigger labs, libraries, athletic teams ... we’ll pay for the transportation. But we didn’t."
Paying the freight at the 90 percent level is, in the interest of fairness, a provision that should make it to the final bill that goes to the governor’s desk. Further regionalization efforts in South Berkshire County could be encouraged if this funding could be counted upon on an annual basis, as was originally promised.
The Senate legislation also provides $70 million for a rental voucher program to address homelessness, a $12.5 million increase over the current fiscal year. This would enable the state to subsidize housing for 1,000 additional families. Homelessness is a statewide problem, including in the beautiful Berkshires, and boosting the voucher program would play an important role in addressing it.