DALTON, Mass. — State Rep. Paul Mark is looking to create a Berkshire County opioid task force in the budget.
Mark has filed an amendment for $250,000 to start the task force with the Berkshire County sheriff's office, the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Coalition, and a number of other organizations tackling the issue.
"This isn't meant to replace any of those but work with them and enhance what they're doing and try to collaborate better," the Peru Democrat said.
The task force would focus on things such as prevention, education, ending the stigma, and getting into schools with prevention programs -- and not to be confused with the enforcement aspect of what was formerly known as the Berkshire County Drug Task Force.
In the sheriff's department, part of the money will be focused on providing treatment and other programs to help the inmates beat the addiction when they leave jail.
"It is important for the sheriff to think forward mindedly and have the services to help them get back on their feet," Mark said.
The concept isn't new for Mark. About four years ago, he sponsored legislation to create the same type of force in Franklin County, parts of which are in his 2nd Berkshire District.
"It has been a really great program. It was successful. It expanded. Last year when they released some of their drug overdose numbers Franklin County was one of the only land-based counties where opioid actually decreased. I think what we are doing is working. The good news for Berkshire County is that for the first time I'm filing something similar going through the Berkshire County sheriff's office to create an official opioid task force in the Berkshires as well," Mark said.
Last year, on his seventh try, Mark secured $150,000 to reopen it.
"The way revenue came in the governor, in spite of overrides, held back a lot of funding and so now we are finally at the point where myself and Sen. Julien Cyr are going to meet with Secretary Jay Ash who is going to at least host the program in his department. We're hoping it will be located at a college," Mark said.
He hopes to have that office in place soon and will be taking a request for the budget for next year to continue that office with another $150,000.
He is also prioritizing school transportation. The governor and the House Ways and Means budget both call for increases in Chapter 70 school aid. But, Mark said there is still more to do for the rural schools in his district.
"The one item we can all agree on is let's increase the Chapter 70, the per-pupil amount. And that's what ends up happening. That's the highest dollar amount in history. That's good. That's progress," Mark said. "But now we have to look at it for this region, what do we need to supplement it to make it more fair for our schools. We look for increases in regional school transportation."
He said rural transportation is one of the biggest cost drivers and he'd be sponsoring an amendment to raise that level of state support. He said he is also hearing from districts the need to increase funding for the special education circuit breaker, which is essentially a reserve account to handle any unanticipated special education costs that crop up during the year.
Another amendment Mark is making is to continue funding children's advocacy centers, such as Berkshire County Kid's Place. Mark said in recent years he's taken on the lead to bring support for the organizations across the entire state.
"That's a program to help kids in need when there is abuse, things people don't want to talk about. This is funding The Kid's Place and other children's advocacy centers can draw from. Obviously, it is a program you wish didn't have to exist but is really important," Mark said.
The state allocated $750,000 for those programs last year and Mark said he's seeking the same level of funding for the upcoming year.
The House of Representatives members filed a wide range of amendments and throughout the upcoming weeks will be crafting their version of the budget. The Senate will then take a stab at it. And finally, a conference committee will craft a final copy for voting on.
Mark said the revenue numbers are looking strong, to the tune of $800 million in the positive, which could help smooth out the budgeting process.
"My first four budgets, revenue was really tight. It was really difficult to even to get local stuff. Revenue came in ahead of expectations at this point in the current fiscal year and so the expectations are that things will continue to improve and we'd have a little more money to fund important programs. So, I'm hoping it won't be as contentious. I'm not hearing any hot-button issues," Mark said.
However, outside of those figures, there is also a lot in flux. Mark said he is watching what happens in Washington D.C. where the federal government has been looking at slashes to programs. Mark said if the federal government's support to the state is slashed, then the state legislature will have to adjust.
"If they start cutting funds or programs that are being sent to the state, we are going to have to change our priorities very quickly to try to respond," Mark said.
Further, there are two ballot questions coming that could influence revenues. The fair share amendment, which is an additional tax on incomes over $1 million a year, could increase revenues if passed. A ballot question to lower the sales tax to 5 percent could decrease revenues if passed.
"If either of both of those pass, it could change revenue upward or downward $1 billion in either direction. It is a lot of money and a lot to watch. We have to be cautious," Mark said.
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