When the House began debate Tuesday about the proposed state budget, it considered a number of amendments filed by Berkshire County representatives.
House leaders had warned representatives that the typical “earmarks” for local spending might not be funded this year because of a pandemic-induced revenue shortage. Representatives filed 777 amendments, which, while fewer than in most years, are expected to require two to three days of debate.
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, filed two amendments but said he had several more he might have put in if not for the financial constraints.
Barrett’s request for $350,000 to resurface a section of Route 116 in Cheshire, he said, was intended “to keep it on the Department of Transportation’s radar more than anything else.”
“It’s a state-owned highway, yet there’s one small section that goes through Cheshire that somehow, some way, Cheshire’s being required to take care of it,” Barrett said.
Even if amendments do not receive funding in the budget, the support that lawmakers show can send House leaders a message about their priorities, Barrett said.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he focused his amendments on pandemic-related expenses.
Pignatelli sought funding for two groups, Community Access to the Arts in Great Barrington and Greenagers in South Egremont. The former has a role to play in sustaining the mental health of vulnerable people during the coronavirus pandemic, Pignatelli said, and the latter incurred costs for supporting an outdoor learning program when spurred to act by the pandemic.
One amendment seeks to start a feasibility study for merging Great Barrington’s water districts, but he decided to “take a pass” on others because of budget constraints.
Another Pignatelli amendment would require all first responders in the state to carry naloxone, an opioid-reversal medication that can prevent overdose deaths. While police officers in some cities and towns carry naloxone, others do not.
The amendment also states that an employing entity cannot charge first responders for the cost of naloxone.
“It seems to be a mix-match throughout the state, where smaller towns’ responders do not carry it,” Pignatelli said. “I don’t think you can put a price on somebody’s life, regardless of those costs, which, I think, [are] minimal.”
State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, requested $450,000 for the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office. He said the money would support the Berkshire opioid task force and that the request comes “in response to a potential cut that could reduce staffing and important programming.”
Mark also requested $250,000 for the Office of Employee Involvement and Ownership, which seeks to help businesses transition to employee-owned models.
“Employee-owned business[es] have been shown time and time again to be more likely to stay local and follow sustainable business practices that benefit employees, customers and the entire community,” Mark wrote in an email.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, requested money to support foster parents who experienced pandemic-related costs, as well as $60,000 to support center-based child care in Pittsfield.
Gridlock in Washington, Pignatelli said, also might have made the state budget process more difficult. Lawmakers expected a second federal stimulus package that did not arrive.
Pignatelli warned that next year’s budget could be even more difficult, particularly if federal aid remains missing and if another surge in coronavirus cases leads businesses to close their doors once more.
“If we go into next spring with any uncertainty about our creative economy, I think the Berkshires are going to be in trouble,” he said.