Gov. Charlie Baker, in his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday, looked beyond the coronavirus pandemic to “the future of work.”
A sustained work-from-home boom should bode well for Berkshire County — as long as the state makes the necessary infrastructure investments, Berkshire representatives say.
Not just individuals but entire companies could relocate, said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. A company paying high costs for office space in Boston, for example, might look at the Berkshires as a potential new destination.
“It makes the infrastructure that’s needed in a place like Pittsfield — housing in Gateway Cities, internet access everywhere — so much more important,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
Making broadband internet faster and more affordable will require addressing monopolies, said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. Private companies often lack an incentive to expand or improve service to underserved areas, Barrett said, a problem that has spurred communities to build their own networks.
“I wish that [Baker] had mentioned broadband,” Barrett said. “As he’s speaking not every community has broadband yet, and right now it’s unaffordable in many areas and the speeds are not there.”
State investments must take into account the particular needs of western Massachusetts’ rural communities, added state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru. “Trying to force a statewide solution on us never works either and consistently keeps us three steps behind the rest of the state,” Mark said.
Lawmakers are also on board with building a “west-east” rail system for passengers running from Pittsfield to Boston and back. The generational project, they said, would connect western Massachusetts residents with jobs in the east, and Boston-area workers with affordable housing out west.
On Baker’s speech as a whole, representatives expressed a range of opinions.
Pignatelli saw it as the best State of the Commonwealth that Baker has given, due to its message of patience, vigilance and “realistic optimism.”
“There’s a lot of blame that can go around, but we can also talk about and build on what we’ve done right,” Pignatelli said.
Mark, on the other hand, called Baker’s speech “disappointing” because it “seemed to gloss over” problems with reopening and coronavirus response plans, including the rollout of vaccines. He expressed displeasure that Baker “took credit” for achievements on climate action despite vetoing the Legislature’s climate bill.
Berkshire lawmakers agree on a set of priorities, including K-12 education, higher education and local aid, which Baker proposed to increase by $1.13 billion.
The full funding of the Student Opportunity Act’s first year will greatly benefit Pittsfield, although some Berkshire districts continue to suffer from underinvestment, representatives say.
Tax revenue estimates have exceeded some of the worst fears, and Baker’s proposal rejects tax hikes in favor of one-time revenue, including a $1.6 billion dip into the state’s rainy day fund.
“I think that you have to look at everything, but I do believe that taxes, I don’t think at this stage in the game, are really on the table,” Barrett said.
Nevertheless, Farley-Bouvier expressed hope for budget discussions to entertain new revenue possibilities. “There are billionaires in Massachusetts that have made billions during the pandemic, many of them off the public dollar, and we should be capturing some of that revenue to invest it in vulnerable populations,” she said.
Farley-Bouvier added that many “essential workers,” though celebrated as heroes during the pandemic, continue to be paid relatively low wages. Workers in nursing homes and child care, she said, depend on state and federal investment for income.
“The pandemic has exposed the crisis in the workforce that already existed in both those areas,” Farley-Bouvier said.