Pittsfield High School student Dwayne Revells talks about his experience with Goodwill Industries at Friday's breakfast.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — On the shore of Pontoosuc Lake on Friday morning, thoughts were on happenings on the shores of the Potomac River.
The 17th annual Berkshire Legislative Breakfast to support services for people with disabilities saw a crowd of more than 300 at the ITAM Lodge to hear families and care providers share their concerns with members of the county's legislative delegation. That's the county's delegation in Boston, but events in Washington, D.C., very much on the minds of the speakers and the audience alike.
"The current political climate has opened the door for conversations about defunding long-held federal programs which support access to all," Teresa Dooley-Smith of Baroco told the crowd. "House Bill 610 is presently being introduced. This bill will essentially start the school voucher system and begin the defunding process for public schools. This bill, which makes no mention of [1990's Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] will eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
"Children with disabilities are once again being targeted as those who take more than they deserve."
In addition to pleas to legislators to help preserve funding for programs that support the differently-abled at the state level, several speakers used the opportunity to talk about how a new fiscal climate in Washington will impact the lives of those dealing with issues ranging from cerebral palsy to traumatic brain injury.
In particular, less government support for families will make it difficult or impossible for them to continue to keep their loved ones at home, and family support was a theme that came up again and again on Friday morning.
"Proponents of [budget cuts] claim it would provide ‘flexibility' to states, but in reality, it is a recipe for setting the nation back 50 years to when people with disabilities commonly lived in institutions instead of in their own communities," Dooley-Smith said. "Opponents of the current Medicaid program may look at the dollars only and not the human beings behind them.
"Cost-benefit analysis has its place in how you look at policy, certainly, but it can't quantify the immense contributions of differently-abled people to our country and the value in being a society that sees disabled rights as basic human rights."
Each of the legislators in attendance expressed their concern for the communities served by agencies like Baroco and their commitment to maintaining family supports.
Several also specifically pledged their support to increased pay for workers at the kinds of agencies represented on Friday: Ad Lib, BFAIR, Berkshire County Arc, United Cerebral Palsy, Goodwill Industries and the like.
As Congress debated whether to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, called health care a "human right" and promised that the commonwealth's delegation in Washington, D.C., would fight to preserve funding at the federal level.
"But if it falls back on our shoulders, I have every confidence that every member of our delegation here in the Berkshires and the legislative body in Massachusetts stuck their neck out there 10 years ago to ensure that every man, woman and child in Massachusetts had a right to health care, and I believe in my heart they will step up to do it again," Pignatelli said.
"It will be hard. There will be a little bit of pain. We're going to have pay a little bit more in taxes. But it's the right thing to do. And that's what we're dealing with every day."
Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, echoed Dooley-Smith's comment about prioritizing people over cost-benefit analyses.
"What's the framework for making the big decisions we're making?" the first-year state senator asked rhetorically. "We have 6,000 bills coming across our desk and a limited amount of money in the budget. To me, the fundamental basis is the question is: Who are we as a society? What are we doing as a society to take care of each other, to look out for each other?
"At the state level, and the budget -- these are ultimately moral documents. You can judge a society based on where we put our priorities. So, you can rest assured that this delegation, every single day, is fighting to advocate for the priorities we heard today. … We are an inclusive society, and we're fighting for that."
Sometimes, that fight could be an uphill battle, the legislators reminded the audience. Pignatelli reminded the audience that Gov. Charlie Baker this week said his own party's ACA replacement plan would cost the commonwealth $2 billion -- this at a time when state revenue collections for FY17 reportedly are $134 million below projections.
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, thanked those in attendance for reminding the delegation that "spreadsheets and numbers being moved around affect your lives every day."
Some of those numbers are being moved around in Boston. The bigger ones are being moved around in the nation's capital.
"We can't go forward this year without acknowledging what's happening at the federal level," Farley-Bouvier said early Friday morning. "Today, maybe in the next hour or so, there will be one of the most important votes this year in the House of Representatives down in Washington. And the implications of that vote on the ACA -- or the AHCA or whatever their version of it is called -- are going to have very, very profound impacts on the Massachusetts budget.
"We're in trouble -- in really deep trouble here in Massachusetts. … That being said, we have to step up and say, ‘What's important?' "
Calling to mind the breakfast's them, "Let Our Voices Be Heard," Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, told the audience to keep telling their elected officials what is important in their lives. And he told them to encourage their friends and colleagues in other states to keep spreading that word as well.
"What we've been seeing in Washington is people who have been treating government like it's nothing, like it's something that doesn't matter, like the services it's providing aren't happening and we're just taking money and throwing it in a barrel and lighting it on fire -- now they're in charge, and they're realizing: It's not as simple as that," Mark said. "All these talking points they've been throwing out for 30 years -- when they're in charge, they actually have to do something.
"And when constituents are calling you and saying, ‘Don't cut my health care. Don't cut the services that we rely on every single day,' all of a sudden, government maybe is a good thing at some times. So keep up the advocacy because it's having an effect. It has an effect here in Massachusetts, but it's going to have an effect all over the country."
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