Bills aid in rural cell service, small biz funds
Funding for rural cell service and Berkshire businesses would be made available through bills passed by the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, filed amendments to an infrastructure bill to allocate $10 million for improving rural cell coverage and to dedicate $500,000 to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission for a grant program upgrading businesses' internet infrastructure. For a COVID-19 supplemental budget, Hinds added amendments to provide $250,000 to Berkshire businesses and $3 million to summer camps to help them adapt to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
The Senate passed both bills after adopting Hinds' amendments, and it also arrived at a compromise to send a voting access bill to the governor's desk.
During the pandemic, increased reliance on cellphones has accentuated the need for reliable cell service in rural communities, Hinds said. Poor cell service poses a safety issue when people cannot access emergency services, and it also hurts economic development and accelerates population loss, he said.
"There's been a gap that's emerged that has left a lot of the region unsafe," he said, adding that he sees state assistance with cell service as analogous to state-funded broadband internet expansion. "Realtors say cell service even impacts how people choose where they live."
The infrastructure bill is a bond bill, meaning the state provides the allotted funding by borrowing money. It includes an investment of $200 million in roads and bridges through Chapter 90.
The ACLU of Massachusetts had opposed the House version of the bill on the grounds that it could allow funding for prisons and jails, in addition to funding police cruisers at a rate that the ACLU saw as disproportionate.
The amended Senate bill added a requirement that funds could not be used to build new correctional facilities or to expand existing ones. It also reduced the allocation for replacing police cruisers from $92.5 million to $40 million.
The supplemental budget will sustain government operations until a permanent budget is passed for the 2021 fiscal year, which began Wednesday. It includes $350 million of funding for personal protective equipment, contact tracing and other public health supports, in addition to food security assistance.
It adds $20 million of funding to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, which provides short-term assistance with housing-related payments.
An amendment from state Sen. Rebecca Rausch, D-Needham, would bolster child care and early education through a private-public trust fund.
A proposal to make Juneteenth a state holiday was also approved in the supplemental budget.
Small cultural nonprofits would be able to apply for grants due to $2 million allocated to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, under an amendment from state Sen. Patrick O'Connor, R-Weymouth, co-sponsored by Hinds. Berkshire lawmakers and observers have said reopening cultural nonprofits would be key to the county's economic recovery.
The voting access bill requires Secretary of State William Galvin to send every registered voter in Massachusetts an absentee ballot application by July 15.
Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.
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