A new wave of federal funds headed to Massachusetts, state lawmakers say, provides an opportunity to make investments in Berkshire County’s long-term future.
But, they warn, involving local voices is necessary for the $4.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act to get to where the money is most needed.
“This is taxpayers’ money any way you want to look at it,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. “And who knows their communities and what they need better than representatives and senators?”
After declaring a state of emergency on March 10 of last year, Gov. Charlie Baker had expanded authority to respond to the coronavirus pandemic through executive actions. That power, lawmakers say, helped Baker to make urgent safety-related decisions and to get money out the door when residents and businesses needed help.
But, lawmakers since have grown frustrated with what they see as one-sided decision-making. Now, with more federal aid on the way and what many perceive as a generational opportunity for investments in the county, they want a greater say in how to distribute funds.
Members of the Legislature have felt during the pandemic as if they had been “left out of the process,” Barrett said at a hearing on April 8 of the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, for which which he is vice chair.
“When a program was announced by secretary this or secretary that, the only way that we found out was we had to tune in to their press conferences,” Barrett told The Eagle. “And then many times, we would be given a list that said, ‘This is how we spent money this week.’ We didn’t know what was going on.”
State agencies have received about $29 billion in federal aid during the pandemic, according to the state’s website at mass.gov/federalfunds. After listening to lawmakers at the meeting, Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan said the administration would work more closely with the Legislature on the new round of funds, aiming to “lower the level of frustration” and “up the level of communication.”
Many lawmakers want spending of American Rescue Plan Act money to be determined in a supplemental budget, which would give lawmakers a chance to debate and alter provisions. When asked, though, Heffernan did not commit to filing a supplemental budget.
Local voices “have an on the ground view of what is happening and what is most useful locally that statewide officials just don’t have,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.
The shuttering of cultural institutions, which include major employers in northern Berkshire County, hit the area especially hard last year, Barrett said. He felt that his call for aid to those groups — Barrett and state William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, proposed a $75 million relief fund for them — went unheard.
This time, Barrett wants the spending process to look different.
The latest money presents a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to build a long-term foundation for the economy in Berkshire County, he said, where the population has declined since the 1970s and where many feel left behind by the state.
“I’m tired of fluff money, and I’m tired of studies and ‘we’re going to do this,’” Barrett said. “I want to see workforce development. I don’t want to see the word ‘workforce development.’ I want to see programs that are being developed.”
Investments in education and on-the-job training, Barrett said, would help set the Berkshire workforce on the right path. In addition, helping cities and towns build their own high-speed broadband networks could help attract workers who have newfound flexibility to work from home, Barrett added.
Improving stable, affordable and desirable housing options in Pittsfield remains one of the city’s top needs, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
“This is what we’re hearing from our major employers, that we need to have ‘workforce housing,’” Farley-Bouvier said. “Specifically, these young professionals are having trouble finding housing that they want.”
The combination of the work-from-home boom and investments in new options for passenger rail, which would allow for sporadic commutes to in-person meetings, could help the local economy extend beyond its reliance on tourism, Pignatelli said.
“As we come out of this pandemic, people can reevaluate the economy of the Berkshires and make it more of a year-round economy,” Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli said he has raised with U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Springfield, the possibility that an upcoming infrastructure package would delegate funds proportionally between legislative districts rather than to the state. That way, county lawmakers would not be “fighting for the scraps from Boston,” Pignatelli said.
Making the most of the present opportunity, lawmakers said, could hinge on whether the Legislature gets a greater say in how to distribute funds.
“The consolidation of authority has been to the detriment of good governance and ensuring that residents across the commonwealth have their voices heard through their elected representatives,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who described frustration as common “across the board” in the Senate as well.