Berkshire legislators say county should see 'big impact,' particularly from restoration of arts funding


PITTSFIELD — Local lawmakers were generally pleased following a flurry of activity prior to the end of the legislative session on Sunday that should boost the Berkshires.

Not only did the Legislature override Gov. Charlie Baker's vetoes on more than 200 budget line items, but lawmakers also passed important energy, economic development and municipal modernization bills, and more, over the marathon weekend.

"It has been a whirlwind past few days," state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said Monday.

She noted veto override votes that restored funding the Legislature had put in its version of the $39.1 billion state budget to benefit the arts and tourism, the MassDevelopment Transformative Development Initiative program, which includes a multi-year on-going project in the Morningside section of Pittsfield, and for the George B. Crane Memorial Center for peer-driven addiction support services.

A "big impact" on the Berkshires will be felt from the restoration of $7.77 million in funding for the arts, Farley-Bouvier said. "We certainly heard from our constituents on that. It is key to keeping the economy moving forward here, and we had very broad [lawmaker] support."

"The arts [funding] was my priority, and I took the lead on that," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "These are the things that keep driving the Berkshires' economy."

For every dollar spent on the arts, travel and tourism, he said, about $10 comes back to the state in terms of spending. In total, Pignatelli said, the industry accounts for some $1.2 billion in spending and helps create about 32,000 jobs statewide.

Funding for the countywide Berkshire Youth Development Program also was restored, he said, adding that the program "is personally important to me."

The program grew from Great Barrington's Railroad Street Program over the past 15 years, Pignatelli said, and now involves a collaboration of organizations like the United Way and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

Funding of $200,000 in the budget included a $50,000 increase, he said, with some of that funding going for educational programs to combat drug abuse by youth. He said a major focus will be on underage youth who use marijuana, especially in light of possible passage in November of a state referendum to legalize recreational marijuana.

"I think we are assuming that [citizen petition referendum] will pass," Pignatelli said, adding that there is particualar concern about the strength of the marijuana produced today compared to in past decades and the on the possibility of edible marijuana products.

With a number of votes taken the prior weekend by the Legislature, and with the Democratic National Convention on July 25-28, which many Massachusetts Democrats attended, the end of the Legislative session "was a mad scramble" at times, Pignatelli said. There were hundreds of votes, he said, with the override bids each requiring a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.

Among those proposals that did not make it into the final budget were smaller funding items that would have benefitted the county sheriff offices and district attorney offices, Pignateli said. "The clock just ran out" on some items, he said.

After the long weekends and after attending the four-day DNC in Philadelphia, "I am very happy to be here," Farley-Bouvier said.

Having the DNC come at the same time as the state legislative session is ending "was highly unusual," she said.

In addition to the funding restored by the override votes, Farley-Bouvier said the Berkshires could benefit from the late passage of important bills. Among those sent to Baker's desk were a comprehensive energy bill requiring utilities to seek contracts with developers of offshore wind power, and contracts for hydropower or other renewable resources.

An economic development package included more than $300 million for the MassWorks program, providing grants for infrastructure projects. Farley-Bouvier said that could help Pittsfield in securing full funding to replace the Columbus Avenue parking garage on Summer Street.

And a municipal modernization bill to provide cities and towns with tools to manage finances, deal with parking planning issues, make decisions on tax incentives and in other governmental areas could benefit Berkshire communities, she said.

Among proposals left on the cutting room floor at the session's end for lack of a compromise agreement were legislation to restrict the use of non-compete employment contracts; allowing communities greater flexibility in awarding liquor licenses; adding such online services as Airbnb to those that must pay the state hotel/motel tax; requiring paid family leave for all workers in the state; and a proposed prohibition on untilities passing on to ratepayers any costs connected to pipelines carrying natural gas into Massachusetts.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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