PITTSFIELD >> In recognition of widespread public disenchantment with government and other institutions, the state Senate leadership is moving to increase transparency and provide greater involvement by citizens on key Beacon Hill decisions.
Citing "cynicism in the public and distrust for institutions large and small," state Senate President Stan Rosenberg acknowledged during a Friday briefing with The Eagle's editorial board that "people don't trust the church, corporations or their government anymore. It's an enormous transition and challenge we're going through."
The Amherst Democrat described the speed and volume of communications deluging the public — "that leaves us as people, I think, in a situation where we're having trouble sorting out what's going on around us."
Rosenberg declared that "the institutions we relied upon as human beings, we don't trust them anymore and we are confused by whether we're getting the truth or whether people are manipulating us for their own ends and purposes."
To confront the malaise, many members of the Senate have held so-called Commonwealth Conversations involving visits to "parts of the state they had never seen before," he said.
"We gathered an enormous amount of information, we heard from thousands of people," said Rosenberg. The result was reform to enable the public to review and discuss significant proposed legislation before debate on Beacon Hill.
"We're doing this in order to try to engage the public and rebuild some sense of confidence so the public would have more trust in what's going on because there would be more transparency," he said.
State Sen. Ben Downing, who accompanied Rosenberg to the briefing, called the Commonwealth Conversations "incredibly valuable" and the part of his job he'll miss most. The Pittsfield Democrat is leaving office this January after five terms over the past 10 years.
"In the long run, some of the best moments came when people were mad about something, they were frustrated," Downing said. "So much of that is a belief that someone's concerns aren't being heard, that no one's listening. That's what's scary, that's what's disturbing."
Downing voiced confidence that there's a "release valve for that frustration" when people hear thoughtful answers to complicated issues.
"We need to find a way to get out there and be accessible as possible so that when someone gets frustrated, before it gets to that boiling point, they know where to go and who to call, and hopefully get engaged," he said.
On the darkening financial outlook facing state government as tax revenues fall short of projections, Rosenberg acknowledged that "even with low unemployment and the highest per-capita income in the country, we're really having problems managing the budget because of continuing growth in health care costs.
"If we can't figure out a way of dealing with that, we're going to continue to have lots of public services compromised," he warned, since 42 percent of the state budget now goes to health care, compared to 22 percent two decades ago.
Another problem looming on the horizon, he added, is that hundreds of thousands of employees are migrating from health insurance provided by employers to the state's health insurance program.
Rosenberg said he urged Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday "to keep his powder dry, not start whacking away at the budget" since monthly tax collections are showing some improvement.
Because the state constitution requires an annual balanced budget, Baker has the power to cut anything in the executive branch, but "he can't touch local aid, higher education, the courts" without involving the state Legislature, Rosenberg pointed out.
On the struggle to build local "buy-in" for shared services in local communities, Downing said he understood "the concerns small towns have, but I don't think what makes Monterey or New Marlborough special is their town manager; what makes those towns special is how beautiful they are, the amenities those communities have."
But "smarter use of taxpayer resources" should outweigh an emphasis on local control, he suggested.
Discussing the hard-fought Ballot Question 2 facing voters on Nov. 8 that, if approved, would expand the number of charter schools statewide, Rosenberg explained that the state Legislature does not fully compensate local public school districts when they lose students to charters.
Schools have to maintain classrooms and cover salaries and other costs even when they lose several students to charters, Rosenberg said, calling the ballot question "extremely high stakes" because it could double the number of students in those schools within 10 years while 92 percent of all students remain in traditional public schools.
However, Downing voiced praise for the Berkshire Arts and Technology (BART) Charter Public School in Adams, since its students "on the whole, for one reason or another, weren't able to find what they needed in a traditional district setting, but that's not a knock on those districts. They weren't able to click in that setting."
"There's great value in the existing charters that we have," he added, advocating a "middle ground that allows us to continue to provide those opportunities while addressing some of the legitimate concerns. But unfortunately, the stakeholders have to believe that, too."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
In their own words . . .
On the possible approval of Ballot Question 4, legalizing the use of recreational marijuana through legislation:
"If the people pass it, it's going to go into effect, but we've also said there are things are not reflected in the current bill that should be addressed, for example a substantially lower tax rate than in Colorado or the state of Washington. It's not clear if that tax rate would be sufficient to meet the cost of setting up the regulatory scheme and managing enforcement such as public safety. There have been things not addressed at all, such as how we're going to deal with DUI, that's been a major problem in the other two states and they have no solution there."
— State Senate President Stan Rosenberg
On voter cynicism directed at government and other institutions:
"This is the difference between being a demagogue like Trump and actually trying to be thoughtful about something. I think in their gut people get when someone is selling them a quick and easy answer to a complicated problem. But they're willing to take that when they feel no one else is listening."
— State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing
On the last-minute legislative logjam at the end of the Statehouse session in July:
"This crunch at the end was the worst I've ever seen because the largest, most complicated bills all ended up being dealt with in the final 100 days of the formal session and the Senate didn't get most of those bills until three or four weeks before the formal end. Some of the legislation could have been better if we had had time to make our points."
— State Senate President Stan Rosenberg