As a new two-year legislative session opens, Berkshires lawmakers are prioritizing broadband access, passenger rail expansion, wider availability of Narcan and addressing regional inequities.
With the loss of a state House seat due to redistricting, members of the all-Democrat Berkshire delegation acknowledge they were concerned about a lack of representation.
But they feel their ranks are strong — and are attempting to coalesce a broader Western Massachusetts coalition. Berkshire County is represented in Boston by state Reps. John Barrett III; William "Smitty" Pignatelli; Tricia Farley-Bouvier; and state Sen. Paul Mark.
Pignatelli characterized his concerns as “parochial when it comes to the district.” In the case of expanded rail and broadband, the four legislators hope to draw people back to an area that’s suffered from population loss.
In each case there are pet issues. Farley-Bouvier is trying to reform the foster care system. Mark is vying for a green "bank" to fund environmentally friendly projects. Pignatelli is focused on health care. Barrett wants to foster a more business-friendly Northern Berkshires.
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams
Barrett said his first priority is expanding broadband in the area.
“We’ve seen some communities that have added their own system with prior broadband money that’s come through. Now another slug of ARPA monies has come through, this time $50 million is available,” Barrett said. “I want to work with communities to make sure that, not only does it close the digital divide, so it’s available to everybody from all walks of life, but also that it’s going to drive our economy, and I think that’s where we’re missing the boat.”
Barrett says faster broadband service will spur growth in the area, drawing professionals from cities such as New York or Boston who want an office, or, if working remotely, a home, in Berkshire County. He called the federal funding coming as a result of the pandemic a “generational opportunity.”
“We have to make sure that somehow, someway, everybody has access to it — federal legislation says it must be affordable,” he said. “It can’t just be affordable to some.”
Barrett’s other chief priority is bringing the proposed passenger train that would run between North Adams and Boston to fruition. A new train station and train layover facility in North Adams would be needed as part of a potentially $2.187 billion project.
“The higher-speed rail going into Pittsfield, that’s several years away,” he said. “We have an opportunity now with available ARPA money and federal assistance to connect us, North Adams, Williamstown, right into Boston. Right now passenger service ends in Fitchburg. The $2.1 billion in the grand scheme of things is not a lot of money to get this done.”
State Sen. Paul Mark
The Democrat from the town of Peru, who served in the House since 2011, won his race for state Senate last year. His district is comprised of parts of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties.
Mark said he will continue to advocate for a revolving loan fund for renewable energy projects, a cause for which he has filed bills since 2014. He said the idea is gaining support.
The fund would provide backing renewable energy and jobs projects. “Right before COVID in 2020 we got a version of it passed in the House called Green Works for $1 billion. Then COVID set everything aside.”
President Joe Biden recently announced $29 billion nationwide to fund the concept. Former Gov. Charlie Baker established a clean energy fund in his final months in office. Mark sees more of an appetite for the legislation, with the potential for federal funding.
“We put in the language to ensure at least 20 percent of the funding will come to rural communities and some of the smaller coastal communities as well,” Mark said.
Mark is also pushing another repeat bill, “The Cherish Act,” which establishes minimum funding for public colleges and universities and bars any institution from raising tuition for four years, as long as the state meets its funding commitments.
He sees momentum on this issue as well. Gov. Maura Healey and Senate President Karen Spilka have highlighted higher education investments in public speeches.
Like other members of the delegation, Mark also backs legislation to better regulate how electric companies charge customers and to make Narcan more accessible in response to the opioid crisis.
State Rep. William P. 'Smitty' Pignatelli, D-Lenox
Pignatelli said he is focused on the health care system in the Berkshires, noting a shortage of nurses and dentists.
He backs legislation that would authorize an interstate medical licensure compact. Such an agreement among states would streamline the licensing process for physicians, according to the bill's summary.
Now, physicians have to jump through too many hoops, he said.
“I think the Berkshires and Massachusetts could be very attractive to professionals from all the other states," Pignatelli said. "What Mass. has done to protect same-sex marriage [and] a woman’s right to choose."
Pignatelli is refiling the HOPE Act, or “Helping Overdosed Persons in an Emergency.” It would require all first responders to carry Narcan when they respond to a call. He notes that the measure has support from the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association. “We have this teed up early because we’ve seen the highest opioid overdose deaths pre-COVID. We’ve seen those numbers spike," he said.
Pignatelli said a Berkshires family told him they watched a loved one die from an overdose in the presence of a police officer who was waiting for Narcan to arrive.
Pignatelli would also like to change the state's Chapter 90 formula — local aid for transportation — so that it is more favorable to rural areas. The measure would change a funding formula to boost assistance to small towns.
“Infrastructure, roads, bridges, dams — those are the very issues ... that are going to bankrupt smaller communities,” Pignatelli said. “The state has to play a much larger role in trying to alleviate the cost burden of sewer plant upgrades, water upgrades, and roads and bridges.”
Support for the bill could be scarce, though. “Any formula that gives me more money is a great formula. Any formula that takes money away from me is a bad formula. That’s the problem we have," he said. "The larger cities actually see a decrease in their amount of money, and that’s where the critical mass of politicians are."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield
Farley-Bouvier said she is continuing her work on child welfare issues. One bill calls for independent foster care review.
“Federal law requires that every six months, each case is reviewed. In Massachusetts, it is run through the Department of Children and Families,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I believe it has to be taken out of DCF in order to have a really good look at it.”
Farley-Bouvier is proposing that a supervisor to the social worker on a case, a reviewer from DCF and a community volunteer review cases. She pointed to the case of David Almond, a 14-year-old who died in 2020 after DCF mismanagement and "multi-system failure," according to a state report, of his case.
Farley-Bouvier is also pushing for the unionization of foster parents. “It’s not a traditional union like a nurses union or steelworkers or teachers, but it gives them representation, a true seat at the table, when talking about important issues such as working conditions,” she said.
She is also invested in broadband access, passenger rail and housing.
“You can never have a conversation without talking about housing these days. Transportation is a huge thing. What we used to call the 'future of work' is now our reality. We must, must, must have excellent internet in order for people to be able to meet their goals of working in a place where they want to live,” Farley-Bouvier said.