State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, seen with Reps. Paul Mark and Gailanne Cariddi last week, shared his thoughts of this year's budget priorities.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Hours after receiving Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed fiscal 2015 budget
and months away from seeing what ultimately comes out of negotiations on Beacon Hill, State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, took some time last week to talk about the budget and other issues affecting the Berkshires.
Downing was in town to speak at the Library Supporters of Western Massachusetts' Berksshire Legislative Breakfast. This year, the annual event was held at the David and Joyce Milne Public Library.
Downing, who serves on the Senate's Ways and Means Committee, will play an integral role in how the final budget is shaped. And as the chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications and vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, he is well versed on two issues dear to the region: the statewide broadband initiative and funding for the arts.
The governor will give his address on the State of the Commonwealth on Tuesday night at 7:30. The address is usually a presentation of policies being put forward in his budget, but the spending plan came first this year after a storm last week prompted the cancellation of the address.
After his appearance at the breakfast, Downing shared some of his thoughts with iBerkshires.com:
Question: The governor has proposed level funding for local aid. Where do you think that ultimately will shake out in the legislature?
Downing: I think like nearly every year, the governor's budget is one attempt at putting together a spending plan for the state. I think we on the Ways and Means Committee intend to take testimony at, I believe it's 15, statewide hearings.
I know I've already heard from local elected officials with concerns about the funding levels for local aid. It's always a priority in the Legislature. Certainly, representing 52 communities, it is for me.
I'm sure there's a way we can meet those needs and address those concerns while still making a lot of the investments the governor highlighted.
Question: Cultural funding took a hit in the governor's budget [a $1.5 million reduction to the Massachusetts Cultural Council]. What was your reaction to that?
Downing: I was surprised by that. Obviously, we had some good news a few months back when the governor announced an increased investment to the Cultural Facilities Fund. I think to get the most out of that investment, we need to continue to support the ongoing operations of our cultural organizations through the MCC.
We need to promote those organizations through our regional tourism councils and through the Mass Office of Travel and Tourism.
Those will certainly be areas that I seek to increase. I tend to think those investments produce revenue for the commonwealth. They certainly mean jobs here in the Berkshires.
That will be an area I know the entire delegation is focused on.
Question: What is your thinking about the governor's proposal to apply the state sales tax to candy and soda?
Downing: I tend to think that all of those measures would be best handled in a tax reform package, but I think it is tough to make the case that soda and candy and non-nutritious juices ought to have the same sales tax exemptions as an apple or a banana.
That being said, I'd be surprised if we take up any significant tax changes in this budget.
One thing the governor has always put in his budget that I have voted for multiple times and would love to see included in this budget that would produce revenue and improve our recycling rates would be an expanded bottle bill.
My hope would be this is the year we get it done. If not, I think voters will overwhelmingly support it at the polls this fall.
Question: What's holding it up on Beacon Hill?
Downing: A variety of different things. Some as fundamental as some people who believe it's a tax. Others believe it's not an entirely efficient way to run a recycling program.
I have a little bit of trouble with people who want to question the efficacy of the bottle bill but they themselves haven't been advocates for increased recycling over the years.
But I think the bottle bill has got a great record, and we ought to be able to build on. Unfortunately that hasn't been the case.
Question: What are the prospects for the Broadband Initiative in the near future?
Downing: The middle-mile is just about done. We have an [information technology] bond that passed the House that I hope to be taken up in the Senate in early February that would add an additional $50 million to the last-mile portion of that project and I think would put us well on the way to connecting businesses, consumers and residences across Western Mass.
I think the end is in our sight, and I'd like to get that investment in place while this administration is still there.
Question: You think this can be done before Gov. Patrick leaves office later this year?
Downing: I think the [Massachusetts Broadband Institute] is acting as if that legislation has been passed. There are other parts of the IT bond that are a little more controversial. I think we'll be able to handle those.
I think there's broad support for finishing the work we've done on MBI123.