NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — State Rep. John Barrett III said he is of the mindset of at least making a little bit of progress at a time.
That's why he is disappointed there couldn't be some consensus at the State House on education and health care. Neither of those bills ultimately passed the Legislature and Barrett said he wished at least something could have been done on each topic and then continued next year.
"I thought the House's education bill was excellent. It went to conference committee because the Senate had their own and that never came out either. I don't know why for the sake of me that didn't happen. I'd rather see something come out and then work on it more next year," Barrett said.
Barrett's nine months in the Legislature served as somewhat of an orientation for him, which he plans to build on heading into his first full legislative term. Barrett had been elected to the office in a special election and was sworn in on Nov. 15. Shortly after, the House of Representatives broke for Christmas break. He is running unopposed in November.
The former North Adams mayor said he hadn't really been able to "get into the swing of things" until January when much of the major legislation had already been filed and debated.
"I spent most of my time building relationships. Not only in leadership but in the entire House of Representatives, which is very important in the Legislature. When a former mayor goes back into a legislative body when he or she is used to being the only one, it was an adjustment process," Barrett said.
With much of the work on the major bills already completed, Barrett focused his attention on local priorities. Particularly, he said he scoured wherever he could to find money for the Greylock Glen. Though three separate earmarks, close to $6 million is now aimed to move that project along -- though the governor's office still has the ultimate say.
"I am a strong believer that this money will generate millions of dollars in private sector investment. That is what we did at [Massaschusetts Museum of Contemporary Art]. I have experience being involved in that project, being mayor and chairman of the commission. We built that into a really good thing," Barrett said.
Barrett said the development of a welcome center, camping area, trails, and eventually a conference center will be able to drive visitors to the town of Adams, bolstering the economy. The environmental aspect of it will help the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' environmental science programs and be a place for hands-on learning and conferences, he said.
"We've been talking for years about keeping people here for five, six days. You may not be able to keep them here five or six days with just art but now you keep them here five or six days with a year-round recreational facility. It is going to have the cross-country skiing and the snowmaking that goes with it, hiking trails," Barrett said.
"I believe this is going to be the recreational and environmental economy that Mass MoCA was to the arts economy."
He said he was able to get the Legislature to reauthorize a prior earmark and then helped secure two additional earmarks -- $2 million and $2.3 million in the economic development and environmental bond bills.
His short time in the formal session did give him a say in the budget. He highlighted an earmark of $200,000 for the Baystate Games, raising statewide regional transit funding by 10 percent, and $25,000 for McCann Technical School and Berkshire Works for on-the-job training programs.
"I do think we've got to build our on-the-job training programs. I think that is what many of our businesses want, they want to be able to train the people on the job," Barrett said.
The program will have the state pay the salary to have a student work for a local company. The local company will only be required to pay the health insurance benefits. Barrett said his district needs more workforce development programs like that.
He wasn't able to get in money for a study on upgrading broadband in the Northern Berkshires. That money wasn't eyed to make sure all corners of the county have broadband access -- that's another program altogether -- but one that connected a handful of towns together to look at the next wave of technology and how to ensure the Berkshires keep up without costs skyrocketing.
"We've got to get competition in here," Barrett said, who doesn't trust that cable/broadband provider Spectrum will invest the money to upgrade internet service in the Berkshires on its own.
He remembers in the early days of Mass MoCA when he said businesses were being charged 10 times the amount for high-speed internet as in other parts of the country and how that impeded the ability to attract businesses to the area. He hopes that doesn't happen again as technology continues to evolve.
Those two pieces are expected to be part of Barrett's efforts to find ways to diversify the economy. While the arts is a huge aspect of the local economy, Barrett said it needs to be supplemented with other sectors.
"It is diversification that is so important. We can't be all arts. We can't be all recreation," he said.
His time in the Legislature so far included following up on bills his predecessor, the late Gailanne Cariddi, had put forth. He said he particularly advocated for environmental issues Cariddi had cared about.
Cariddi also had a bill to stop spam robocallers. That didn't pass the Legislature this time but Barrett said he plans to refile a similar bill next session.
"We are going back to the drawing board and hopefully we can get something that'll pass. The do-not-call list doesn't work. They're doing a lot of stealing of numbers now, spoofing," Barrett said.
Upon taking office, Barrett was placed on the joint committee on marijuana policy, the joint committees on health care, on financing, and on election laws. While the first two were approaching the finish line on bills when he joined, he said the election laws committee crafted a good bill to enhancing voting.
The bill now automatically registers citizens to vote when they interact with the state such as getting a driver's license. It switches from having people need to affirmatively opt-in to vote to having them affirmatively opt-out if they don't want to be registered.
"Hopefully, we will get more people to vote. I think that was a good piece of legislation," Barrett said.
The health care committee did get a bill out but it stalled in conference committee. Barrett said the speaker of the house is now getting too harsh of criticism because of it. The champion of that bill, Rep. Peter V. Kocot, died in office.
"He was the major author of the health care bill. In fact, the bill itself was dedicated to his memory. It is a very important bill. One of the major components of it is what happened a North Adams Regional Hospital. A small, community hospital that ran out of money, didn't get the funds necessary. This bill was keyed toward really helping those hospitals survive, not only in places like North Adams but other parts of the state as well," Barrett said.
That aspect of the bill called for larger hospitals to share revenues to keep the smaller, community hospitals afloat. But the clock ran out before an agreement could be reached in conference committee.
"I do think the speaker has been unjustly criticized for all of these things. When you step back and think about with health care, you lose the chairman of the committee who has been working on this for two or three years now, was the architect of it and really knew it, he basically gets sick in December and passes away in January, that causes delay in getting it to the floor," Barrett said.
"Those are some things you can't do anything about. That contributed to it not getting there. If he had been there, it may have been different."
The education bill also stalled in a conference committee but Barrett said at something was salvaged during the budget. Not only had Chapter 70 support for schools been increased but the special education circuit breaker reimbursement was funded to pay for the 75 percent of the cost as originally intended.
"Some of those bills could be $150,000. The state at one point was as low as 40 percent and it should be funded at 75 percent," Barrett said.
Barrett wished the Legislature could have passed smaller versions of those two bills to just make some strides and that's what happened with the energy bill. Barrett said the bill does make some steps to renewable energy but doesn't raise the net metering cap. He hopes that'll be addressing in the next session.
"I think that has to be done. I thought it would be a negotiating point in the conference committee but it didn't come out," Barrett said.
Now with a little bit of orientation and an uncontested election, Barrett has his eyes toward next year. He said he'll be looking to address the hands-free driving law, the Pollinator Protection Act, and craft a bill to pilot new computer science curriculum in schools.
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