Congressman Richard Neal held a town hall meeting at Berkshire Community College.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal faced somewhat of a tough crowd at Berkshire Community College on Friday night as residents pressed him to move further left on his stances on climate change, health care, and the Israeli Anti-Boycott Act.
The Springfield Democrat held a town hall meeting at the college during which he quickly touched on his stance on a number of issues facing the nation.
He held a lengthy question-and-answer session, facing sharp criticism of many of his stances and engaged in a number of back-and-forths with citizens on several topics.
A Dalton woman took him to task over climate change. She pushed him to oppose fossil fuels completely and instead craft policy to quickly roll out renewable energy technologies.
"We know the science tells us we need to leave a lot of fossil fuels in the ground," she said, adding that natural gas can be just as bad as coal while technology for renewable energy creation and storage has come to the point where it can be deployed as quickly as the building of another pipeline. "This is the future and we need to protect the planet."
Neal, however, wouldn't go so far as to completely rule out natural gas. While he opposed the proposed Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline that cut through Sandisfield and Otis, he says there needs to be a bridge to renewable energies.
"I opposed the pipeline and think it was handled very badly. But, we are going to need a bridge to the future," Neal said.
Neal told the story of his time as mayor of Springfield when he proposed a large recycling facility in his city. The entire area wanted to cap the landfill and move to more recycling but nobody wanted the facility in their back yard. But, he believed in the outcomes of having the plant and took on siting it because he felt it was the right thing to do. He opposes the "NIMBY" attitude toward such things and called for a "practical" solution for energy.
"I am with you on most of what you said. But, I am a little suspect that natural gas is not a way to get us there," Neal said.
Neal said he continues to support the wind production tax credit to increase renewables there but "you have to have an integrated approach." He said by simply ending the use of natural gas, prices would increase dramatically.
"I am also concerned about that single mother in Springfield who in the middle of January has run out of her fuel allocation and she is heating that apartment by opening the door of the stove," Neal said.
But Neal doesn't reject the need to combat climate change and pointed to the recent natural disasters that have been more severe than in the past. He called for utilities to decrease carbon footprints.
"We need to follow the science on climate change," Neal said. "This is about science and not about theology."
But, Neal believes part of the problem is the "hyperpolarization" of the country. He said the argument constantly gets wrapped back into "red states and blue states" instead of finding a practical solution to a problem based on science.
A couple people asked him about health care. But he took a similar stance when it comes to Medicare for all. Neal said he wouldn't push for that now, but instead craft a path to get there over time by expanding Medicare, researching and developing a "Medicare for All" model, and protecting the Affordable Care Act.
"I favor and voted for a public option for rural areas because you are going to need it," Neal said. "I think there are a series of steps."
Right now, Neal is focusing on the upcoming debate over the Graham-Cassidy bill that will be coming to the floor next week. That bill is yet another attempt to repeal the so-called Obamacare and Neal doesn't want the "Medicare for All" debate to cloud the issue.
"I don't want repeal and replace to be the argument," Neal said, doubling down on his support for the ACA.
Neal got defensive when another woman said she'd like him to be present more often. The congressman has been sharply criticized this year for a perceived lack of attention to his sprawling 1st Massachusetts district. A number of ads were placed throughout his district criticizing his representation.
On Friday, he quickly said he's visited his district on average once a week for the last five years. He said he is repeatedly in the district and isn't sure how or why the rumor that he wasn't there got started.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, got on stage and told the audience that the criticism is unfounded. It is an incorrect perception because when he comes to town he doesn't bring a "big entourage" and lot of press with him. She called him a "workhorse and not a show horse."
"I want to be accountable to you," Neal said.
While he did face criticism and urging, he was speaking to an overall supportive and welcoming crowd. He received an applause when outlining his stances on a number of issues.
Particularly, he focused on tax reform.
"The conversation ought to start with people at the top don't need any more relief. They're doing fine," Neal said.
He said, "the evidence is clear there has been a greater concentration of wealth in America," and when the tax reform debate comes up, he is going to hold the president to his word that any tax cuts will be for the middle class. He said in the last 12 years the economy has grown at a rate of 1.8 percent annually while wages have "basically flatlined."
As the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, he said he wants to have a "substantial and sustained conversation about tax policy" that focuses on rebuilding the middle class.
When it comes to the upcoming budget, Neal placed an emphasis on supporting veterans. He said while he was one of the few who voted against the war in Iraq, it is now the responsibility to support the service men and women who went there.
"Those veterans need to be taken care of regardless and that is part of the expenditures going forward," Neal said.
On North Korea's recent nuclear saber-rattling, he called for that country to stay on a "diplomatic path." He was in sync with the audience when it comes to net neutrality, believing that is the way to go. In response to a question about the investigation into President Donald Trump's relationship with Russia, Neal said he'd support impeachment if investigator Robert Mueller finds criminal activity. But, he wouldn't support it with less than that.
As for the local issues, he believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should stick to the consent order when it comes to cleaning up the Housatonic River. But, he said that cleanup will likely be in court for a long time and wants continued support of the consent decree.
He called on the state to put up the funds to expand broadband internet to all corners of the county.
"We will always hear in public life, let the private sector do it. The private sector looked at this and what conclusion did they come to? They can't do it. They're not going to do it," Neal said. "It is going to require the state government ... This has to be done."
One man pointed out a Channel 22 News reporter, who had interviewed Neal prior to the town hall meeting, and asked if Neal would do something to get the channel back on in the Berkshires. Spectrum had cut the channel out of its cable offerings for Berkshire County. Neal said it is in his interest to have Springfield's WWLP on in the Berkshires as well and he wants the Berkshires to be included in the Massachusetts media market, not New York's Capital District.
Neal was introduced by college President Ellen Kennedy and Mayor Linda Tyer. Farley-Bouvier, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, were also recognized.
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