State budget on Gov. Baker's desk backs variety of Berkshires investments

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Worth waiting for. That's how area lawmakers view the $41.9 billion spending plan they finished this week, removing the state's dubious distinction of being the last in the country to pass a budget.

While they flag certain missed opportunities, lawmakers said Thursday they are pleased, at a time of rising state tax revenues, to make investments across Massachusetts — and here in the Berkshires.

More for regional transit authorities. More for hard-pressed dairy farmers. More for special education. More to cover rural school bus costs.

And more for municipalities.

"The final amounts for local aid and Chapter 70 education money are the highest in the history of Massachusetts and will be put to very good use locally — where every penny matters," said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said the city will get $2.1 million more than last year in school funding and $302,000 more in local aid.

"It reflects the progressive values of Massachusetts," she said of the spending plan.

The budget must still be approved by Gov. Charlie Baker; lawmakers then have an opportunity to override any line-item vetoes.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said in a statement that months of work resulted in a spending plan that includes investments in the region.

"Two years of work went into many provisions passed today," Hinds said Wednesday. "I am proud this budget includes direct action to confront some of the biggest challenges in western Mass."

Farley-Bouvier said she is pleased her effort to allot $125,000 to help advance the conversion of a vacant Tyler Street church into the Morningstar Residences survived the House-Senate conference committee.

"Anything around Tyler Street is a focus of my work now," she said, noting her wish to support the area's economic revival.

Along with receiving a boost in its K-12 state funding, Pittsfield and other communities will be eligible to seek help from a special education "circuit breaker" account, easing costs in that area. Farley-Bouvier said the money — $319.3 million for the state as a whole — aids municipalities left at a disadvantage by the state's education funding formula.

"We are doing our best to get money into that account," she said. "We know the funding formula is broken."

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, saw several of his budget priorities embraced in the final plan.

They include boosting the yearly cap on the Dairy Farm Tax Credit from $4 million to $6 million. Access to that money helps producers make up differences between production costs and federal limits on the wholesale prices they can receive.

Vasundhra Sangar, Pignatelli's legislative director, said the lawmaker's statewide priorities also included the increase in Chapter 70 funding to $4.91 billion, $68.9 million for regional school district transportation, $16 million in support for the Massachusetts Cultural Council and lifting the allocation for regional transit authorities to $88 million, enough to guard against service cuts in the coming year.

The increase in school transportation will enable rural districts to recover 80 percent of their costs — more than before.

On strictly local issues, Pignatelli secured a recurring allocation of $200,000 for the Berkshire Youth Development Project in Great Barrington and obtained $50,000 to pay for a study on ways to improve improve emergency medical and fire response services in the southern Berkshires.

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, spent Wednesday monitoring action on the budget.

He said he is pleased to see planned investments in a host of issues of regional importance, including transportation.

One involves a $35,000 to help devise new approaches to public transportation gaps in areas of the Berkshires. The effort will address needs outlined in the Berkshire County Blueprint 2.0, an economic development plan.

Matuszko said one issue is how to help travelers reach destinations in the Berkshires after arriving by expanded rail service.

"We're still figuring that out in terms of the `last mile,'" he said.

The commission itself also came out a modest winner, securing $200,000 to pay for the technical assistance it provides on planning issues to small towns in the county. The funding matches what the commission received last year.

"Those are funds that allow us to work with communities on a lot of different projects," Matuszko said.

Opioid issue

Though he sought $100,000 more, Mark was able to get $150,000 into the budget for a new Berkshire Opioid Task Force involving Berkshire Sheriff Thomas Bowler and others associated with the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative.

"I think this is a great first step," Mark said. The program is based on a model running in Greenfield.

On other statewide issues, the new budget increases funding for the Department of Environmental Protection, addressing what were widely seen as gaps that reduced enforcement actions.

Communities in the Berkshires that are home to significant state land holdings will see increases in the "payments in lieu of taxes" program.

Farley-Bouvier said she is pleased that money is also made available in the budget to address pay inequities for early-childhood educators (an addition of $20 million) and to develop the workforce in that field ($10 million more).

Another $5 million will be tapped by the state to expand access to preschool programs.

"Pittsfield is particularly poised to take advantage of that," Farley-Bouvier said.

In the final conference committee talks, certain hoped-for budget elements fell away, lawmakers note.

Mark said he is disappointed that the state isn't doing more to make higher education affordable and keep college an option for working people.

"A more significant investment in public higher education needs to be made to combat student debt levels," he said.

Farley-Bouvier said she is disappointed the budget did not include protections for immigrants, including restrictions on use of state money to assist links between sheriffs' departments and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

"It was something we worked hard on. Even in Massachusetts it's hard to bring consensus to this issue. We didn't get it done," she said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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