Downing said he would like to see increases in both local aid and higher education as the budget process unfolds.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Lawmakers are hoping to add more to a proposed state budget that level funds local aid, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, told residents Tuesday night.
Downing fielded questions on an array of topics at a "town hall" meeting with constituents at City Hall.
Right now, Beacon Hill's biggest priority is the state budget that has been proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick. The House of Representatives get first crack at it while the senators will take it up next month, he said.
With the way the budget is unfolding, Downing said aid to cities and towns will not be on the chopping block but instead be an area where he hopes to add more funding.
"I think at this point, the governor's numbers for Chapter 70 [education aid] and on unrestricted local aid is a starting point in both the Senate and the House, as in we expect them to be the baseline. We don't expect to go below them. I think we would all like to go above them," Downing said.
Downing said the Berkshire delegation will also be pushing for more funding for regional school transportation, also expected to be level funded. But that process is still in the Ways and Means Committee, which includes state Rep. Williams "Smitty" Pignatelli in the House and Downing in the Senate.
The governor's budget also includes a $10 million increase in the state's community colleges and a minor increase in the Board of Higher Education, which Downing said is another priority to add even more, too. The funding for the state universities are level.
"The level we fund public higher education at in Massachusetts is a disgrace," Downing said. "We are asking too much of our campuses and too much from our communities."
The state ranks near the bottom when it comes to higher education spending and every dollar that is not in the students' hands is adding to what they have to borrow — and not being spent in communities, Downing said.
Residents asked about the costs of books and possible reimbursements to cities and towns when colleges expand and take buildings off the tax rolls. Downing said going about it in a "whack-a-mole" way would not work. But increasing spending on higher education across the board will take care of those other issues, he said.
However, while the budget process motors along with hearings in both branches, the extent of what lawmakers can do depends on the federal government, Downing said. About a third of the budget is from the federal government and with that budget still unsettled politically, state officials need to be careful, he said. Additionally, a lot depends on the European economy because the state exports twice as much to Europe than any other state, he said.
While this may not be a "good budget year," Downing said the economy has "stabilized."
On The Issues:
On cell phones while driving: Downing said he previously hoped to reach a middle ground with an amendment that would require drivers to use hands free devices but that was voted down. He said he will continue trying to pass it.
While the state has focused on moving away from "dirty" energy sources, Downing said that conservation is part of the state's overall energy package. "We need to use less, use what we use smarter and get it from cleaner sources," he said.
On WalMart's recent tax classification change:
Downing wants the companies to let the towns know ahead of time if they are changing classification and if it means more money is going to the state, that money should go back to the towns.
On a bill that makes slaughtering horses illegal:
"The biggest challenge with Legislation that seems like a no-brainer is getting it to be a priority," Downing said. However, he has told the Joint Judiciary Committee, who is looking at the bill now, that he wants it to be passed.
On term limits:
While he has no firm position, Downing said ten years is about how long he thinks a state official should serve.
It's better handled by the federal government.
But when it comes to budgeting in general, Downing repeated the same line that he says at all of his public meetings: health care is the biggest contributor to rising costs. Downing, who supports a national single-payer system, said the state needs to find ways to curb rising health-care costs and legislators will be working on switching the system from a "quantity" to "quality." The federal health care reform will give the state more tools to tackle those costs, he said.
The nearly two-hour meeting was filled with not only budget questions but discussion on specific bills, energy efficiency, campaign finance, hunger, Walmart and even wandered into immigration. Downing mostly listened to residents' concerns and asking for follow-up emails to take with him to Boston as the legislative session continues.
"The best ideas don't come from Beacon Hill, they come from listening," Downing said.
While the conversation was mostly tame, Downing did face some harsh criticism from Michael Chalifoux of Vietnam Veterans of America in regards to veterans benefits. With the ending of two wars, Chalifoux said the VVA is the only group stepping up to open outreach posts for returning soldiers while the state is not providing enough support.
Chalifoux took shots at Soldier On in Pittsfield, whose CEO is Downing's uncle, saying the organization is not providing the services that are needed. Soldier On works with the Department of Veterans Affairs and is focused on helping to homeless veterans get their lives back together by providing long-term housing, job training and counseling.
"You're either going to let these guys die and give that outreach money to your uncle at Soldier On, Jack Downing, or you're going to not," Chalifoux challenged. "Talking time is over Ben, you're either going to save these guys' lives or your going to let them die."
Chalifoux said Soldier On is not going to help the returning veterans because that is not the type of assistance they need right now nor will the veterans actively go there looking for help. He asked Downing to budget to put some people in the Berkshires for outreach posts.
"We know what to do. You have to have a person they will trust. They won't come into the VA, they won't come into City Hall, they won't even come into the Legion. You have to have people who will go out and find these guys," Chalifoux said.
Downing dismissed Chalifoux's allegations that he is pulling strings for his uncle by saying he has never taken action on anything regarding Soldier On and has filed all of the paperwork with the State House explaining his relationship to the organization. However, he did agree that there was a "difference in opinion" between he and Chalifoux and advocated for improving the services the state administers through the cities and towns.
"It is our solemn duty to make sure they are getting those services and I would never do anything to make it difficult to have those services," Downing said.
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Why didn't someone tell him we do not need more local aid. The mayor has taken care of us needing more aid. He is taking taxpayer assets. That is how you move forward . With over 700 people a week lined up for food on Eagle street it looks like the asset taking is working.
I am not a fan of the seator but I repsect him for standing up and answering questions for almost 2 hr. I wish the mayor and city council would learn from him. Instead of passing rules to stop taxpayers ( guests ) from asking hard questions . Oh yes about calling or e-mail that also goes unswered also. Hiding what should be public information is not the way of open form of goverment. Shame . Again I do not agree with the senator Dowing but he has my respect for standing up for his actions.
Fan hit the nail on the head. Although, I have no real opinion towards Mr. Downing, he at least appears to be available to answer questions.
To me that speaks volumns. I wish the subject of the Governor passing a law allowing cities and towns the rights to change health care insurance for its employees, thus saving towns such as Williamstown 60k. The city council needs to get up to speed and jump on the bandwagon, thus giving the taxpayer some relief.
It constantly amazes me that people think that the Mayor and the Councilors are unavailable for questions. Every single one of them is listed in the phone book and will return a call.
AS for limiting access, I wonder how the State Senate would feel about giving Mark Trottier, Mike Chalifoux and Bob Cardimino several minutes of every single meeting. (The answer is that they would not.)
Ben is a very good Senator, but the fact that he can put up with an embarrassing gadfly at an election year town hall is not a comment on anything other than he has a cool head.
And, to the guy who always comments that the GIC would save North Adams money, the last time they did a comparison of GIC to the current plan for the city's employees, the GIC cost MORE. Things may change by the next time the city reviews it, but for now, the GIC does not save money for NA.
I have to agree with Whiner. Mr. Downing apears to be as cool as a cucumber. Unlike some councilors whom just blurt things out under their breath, Ben carried himself in a very professional manner. Whether or not politicians like the questions, comments or remarks, they need to answer them as an elected official. It is called accountability to your constituents.
Whiners Ok It the G I C costs more , how much ?? Or is this more public information that taxpayers are not going to be told even though we pay for it . Williamstown saved $ 60,000 . Please do not treat people like we are stupid . Anyone who buys insurance knows the more co-pay the less the insurance cost. Saving money is about making adjustments in co-pay and other costs. And as far as All councilors answering calls and e-mails , you are wrong again. They ALL do not !!! Everyone now knows that we have one councilor that is a LIAR. Which one you decide .
Whiners I know it must be hard to understand but for people in the private sector that have had to pay co-pays and deductables the higher the co-pay and deductables the less the insurance cost. It is no secret that workers in the public scetor have had to pay little or nothing . So the Governor came up with the current LAW to help cities and towns with the unfair cost to the taxpayers. So money can be saved on any policy.
The law that allows cities and towns to join the GIC works for some, but not for others. The next time the negotiations open up, insurance will most certainly be looked at again.
It's clear that you do not even understand the basics of how the GIC versus a tradition single insurance plan works. You do not understand simple things like the demographics involved and you do not understand that the city cannot 'just change plans' while there are contracts in place for other coverage.
Until you educate yourself a wee bit on how the various options in insurance work and what determines actual costs along with the basics of contracts 101, don't bother responding.
Kudo's to Ben Downing for being a stand up guy. Get's my vote. As for Whiner, it appears this person may be in city gov. It appears she thinks she has so much information at her finger tips. Try adjusting the insurance bennies, and then maybe you will find some savings...But then again, that may take some work on the councils part. They couldn't even figure out how to stop illegal parking in the city, or give a business an answer on BYOB.
To Whiner, you knock Ben for having a Town Hall Style meeting because it's an election year. That's lame. He was there, and answered questions unlike at a council meeting. Why doesn't the Mayor or the city council ocassionally do the same? Have a town hall style meeting with questions and provide some answers? Hmm, quite a concept. Guess they don't want to open themselves up to criticsm on how poorly they have performed as a governing body. Easier to silence.
GIC Telling someone not to respond ??? You sound like you have the same arrogance as the mayor and citi council.
Anyway it seems that you should read the Governors Law ( for one thing contracts mean nothing. If they did the mayor is in contract talks with two unions. Anyway because I have not gotton any answers from the mayor or council I have asked the Governors office why our city can refuse to follow the law. I hope to have an answer soon .
Again thank you Lady councilor for the complement, again you show your true colors regarding the public having an input in local government. I did enjoy Sentor Downing meeting and what he had to say.
If asking tuff questions is a problem then just maybe this job isn't for you. I wrote V.P. Joe Biden questions and he did reply back saying that it sounds like a local question and your local officials should be-able to answer you at anytime.
Yep. and without sarcasma, not from a few. maybe one should take point from another V.P. "If this is you"?.
Good for Senator Downing. I disagree with the comments that the mayor should learn from him. The city has had more public meetings about the schools and taxes alone in one year than Barrett had in twenty-six years.
The person (GIC) commenting about the insurance needs to read the article that was posted on iberkshires by Ms. Daniels on 2/13/12 at 10:46 pm. And, the Mayor and City Council need to read the legislation passed by Governor Patrick. Williamstown did not join the Group Insurance Commision, but joined Berkshire Health Group Value Plus Plan, which saved the town 60k. It appears by that there are several options cities and towns can choose from, and not just the Group Insurance Commission. The article goes on to say that the rates thru BHG were better, and have found that competitive presure has now forced Blue Cross and BHG to come up with better and cheaper plans. Also, I believe the governor signing the law allows municipalities to change insurance providers without having to negotiate with employee groups. Get all the facts straight councilors before making hasty judgements, and assuming nothing can be done.
Wow an elected official that stands up looks people in the eyes and answer questions any questions. You can tell he isn't an elected person from N.A. . No matter what party he represents he has my respect. The citi council and mayor could learn a lot from a person like this. I guess they were never taught to respect people all people . OH and yes and never taught that lying and calling people hateful things, will never get you anything but despised. SHAME
I have never met Mr. Downing, however I was very impressed with his town hall style meeting which I viewed on NBCTV. I typically watch govenment programming. Last evening I was watching a talk show program on NBCTV channel 15 for North Adams, I was very disappointed to hear from a caller, that Councilor Bond would not sponsor an agenda item for a local citizen after he had originally agreed to do so. In lieu of the recent and unfortunate actions of a couple of councilors at the Feb 14th meeting, one would think the council would work extra hard, try and reach out to the public to show them they are working for the residents of North Adams, as they attempt to repair their tarnished image
GIC Did you see the news paper today ??? Cheshire is going to save over $ 300,000 dollars using the Governors Health Care Reform . Why is it that N.A. can not save a dime ?? The city should stop protecting the unions and do what is right thing for the Taxpayers
Benjamin Downing is a stand-up guy. This guy came to the PNA bar in Adams to watch a US soccer game with a few other fans. No frills; he just walked in wearing plain clothes and a baseball cap. A blogger in LA actually wrote about him few months ago, getting him some press in the American soccer world.