DALTON, Mass. — The state Legislature relaxed a bit in the early hours of Aug. 1 as the formal legislative session was ready to close.
But, wait, wait. State Rep. Paul Mark had one more bill -- a land taking for the town of Northfield intended to help local farmers.
"I was able to hold the House and the Senate open until after 1 in the morning on the last day of the session because it was an important bill. It had to be done before we adjourned," Mark said, joking about the change in his popularity among legislators as that night waned.
The Peru Democrat is wrapping up his fourth term in the House of Representative. He said lawmakers tackled a number of issues on Beacon Hill over the last year and a half or so, many of which will have impacts in his Western Massachusetts districts -- whether that be the large criminal justice reform bill or small land takings such as the one in Northfield.
He particularly highlighted the economic development bond bill and the environmental bond bill as having key funding earmarks for the district.
In the economic development bond bill, he made a $2 million amendment to help developers of historic buildings comply with Americans with Disability Act regulations. The $2 million bolsters a grant program through the Massachusetts Office on Disability and adds language emphasizing economic development projects.
"The idea of this funding is to help communities, developers, who are trying to redevelop historic buildings in the Berkshires, in Franklin County, be able to make their buildings ADA compliant with the help of the state," Mark said.
"A specific example would be the Stationary Factory here in Dalton. They are trying to renovate and trying to make it productive again. But there is a problem with the expense of putting in new elevators and making the building fully compliant with the ADA is overwhelming and threatens project like this all over the state."
Another earmark for Dalton is a $250,000 expense to help construct North Mountain Park; there is another $250,000 earmark to make improvements to the Dalton Town Hall. In the economic development bill, Dalton is earmarked for $1 million to remediate the old Dalton High School, and $500,000 is earmarked to make drainage repairs along the Skyline Trail in Hinsdale.
"This money, I hope, will be helpful to repair places that flood so if you fix the road up it will last," Mark said.
Mark also secured money, though not as much as he wanted, in the state budget to combat opioid abuse. For the last few years, he was able to get funding for an opioid abuse task force in Franklin County and is now looking to replicate that model in the Berkshires.
The $150,000 will be used to hire a full-time person focused on the issue for Berkshire County. Currently, the county has the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Coalition but that is through the work of Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. He hopes this task force will enhance the work of that collaborative, not replace it.
The funds will go toward hiring one person to lead the task force, bolster material for prevention, distribute naloxone, and supplement funding for opioid treatment in the Berkshire County House of Correction.
The money goes through the sheriff's department and has multiple areas of focus, from prevention to education, to ending the stigma, to getting into schools. Mark is hoping whoever is the next district attorney is will be part of that collaborative.
One of the unique aspects of Mark's district is it has two jails. The state passed criminal justice reform, which Mark said will enhance the sheriffs' offices focus on rehabilitation in place of punishment.
"I think the changes were to make us smarter on crime rather than saying we are tough on crime and not addressing any of the causes, especially when it comes to drug abuse and drug treatment," Mark said.
He said the criminal justice reform attempts to avoid being "vindictive" in punishment but rather helping people to turn their lives around so they don't end up back behind bars.
It calls for diversion programs so that if somebody is facing something like a drug problem they are able to go to treatment instead of getting a lifelong mark on their permanent record and jail time. It eliminates many mandatory minimum sentences to provide the judge and prosecutors with more discretion.
Mark said there was some good news and some disappointments for him with both the energy bill and the compromise on the minimum wage.
Ballot questions regarding paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, and lowering the sales tax came before the Legislature. After parties file for a ballot question, the Legislature then has the opportunity to see if it can reach an agreement with the advocates. In this case, the Legislature was concerned with the Retailers Association's ballot question to lower the minimum sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent.
"We can pass something but if they agree to it, they can move forward with the ballot question anyway. With these ballot questions, it puts us in a position where we either need to act or say this is something we are going to leave to the people," Mark said.
"A deal was reached if the Retailers Association agreed to drop the idea of lowering the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent, which would have reduced revenue figures by over $1 billion, we would raise the minimum wage over time, over five years, we would implement the paid family leave system in collaboration with the business community, and they would eliminate Sunday overtime for workers in the retail sector."
Mark is disappointed that the requirement to pay workers overtime on Sunday will be faded out over the next five years. But he is supportive of raising the minimum wage and paid family leave. The retailers also got the Legislature to agree to keep the sale tax holiday a reoccurring event.
"The retailers got out of this the gradual reduction of the Sunday overtime and the permanent sales tax holiday, so going forward there will be a holiday every August," Mark said.
On the energy bill, Mark was happy that the Legislature agreed to raise the renewable energy portfolio to 2 percent -- though he filed an amendment to raise it to 3 percent -- but he is disappointed the net metering cap was not raised.
"In the end, we passed a bill that increases the renewable energy portfolio standard to 2 percent. It does a lot for energy storage, the potential for energy storage, the potential for using batteries, the potential for really modernizing the electricity grid and trying to find a new model. We are still doing things the same way they did 70 years ago and the world has changed significantly," Mark said.
Mark had really hoped to raise the net metering cap to bolster solar in the state. He noted integration concerns about energy with Saudi Arabia being the biggest oil producer and out of state energy sources. He said he'd like to see the state do as much as it can to move away from relying on those sources.
"I was disappointed we did not raise the statewide solar metering cap. I think it is important to try to take advantage of solar energy. I think there is a lot of growth in jobs, union jobs, good-paying technical jobs, and a lot of potential for our economy to make ourselves not reliant on fuel sources that come from out of the state or out of the country," he said.
The state also passed automatic voter registration that automatically signs up citizens to vote when they get a license or otherwise interacts with the state.
"There are so many people I talk to and they feel they've been left out, they don't understand the whole process, people are busy and sometimes having that extra step of having to go and affirmatively fill out paperwork to vote is a hindrance to them. To me, anything that makes it easier for people who are eligible to vote, to be able to vote, is a good thing," Mark said. "This isn't a sport you watch, this is a sport you play too."
The Legislature was unable to come to terms on health care and education bills. Though both were kicked around, no consensus was made by the end of the session.
With education, Mark said there are so many different views on how to change the foundation formula for school aid. A foundation review committee report was released showing the state would need to bolster Chapter 70 funding by more than $1 billion, which is a task Mark said is monumental. Instead much has been focused on trying to change that foundation formula for state aid to schools to get the best value and equity out of the money that is being spent.
"There are so many varying points of view on what to do to fix the foundation formula," Mark said.
He said Western Mass tends to be concerned with the funding aspects of regional school transportation, which denser communities like Boston don't benefit from. There are wealthy towns some don't think should get state funds, but those towns will argue that it is money they paid to the state. That wide range of issues led to many different opinions on the best way to change things.
"What ends up happening is we all come to a place where we agree 'well, we all have students.' So we're just going to increase the per-pupil amount. And that is what keeps on happening. The per-pupil amount goes up and the amount of funding toward Chapter 70 is the highest in the history of the state. But because there are flaws in the formula, we don't have as many students, we're not growing the number of students. We are getting more money than before but it is not tailored," Mark said.
Mark is hoping that will be one of the first things the Legislature takes up next session.
Health care faced a similar problem.
"The idea of sharing some of the income from the big, gigantic teaching hospitals out east and doing a one-time shot in the arm to try to prop up the whole system was a good one. But that wasn't able to get consensus on the conference committee and it fell to the wayside and it is a shame," Mark said.
And with that, Mark said a study on single-payer fell to the wayside, too. That bill included funding an independent study on what it would actually take to implement single-payer and what is currently being paid into the system. He hopes that would set a new starting point for having the conversation about moving to such a program in the future.
"One of the things we were hoping to be included in the final bill was a single-payer study, just to show year by year what are we paying as a state, as a population, right now per person for health care and what would we be paying if we went to a different model?"
There may have been enough agreement to get either of those bills passed, but Mark said both issues are so large lawmakers would rather have a large majority -- with health care, in particular, being one in which Gov. Charlie Baker would have a keen interest in and a large majority would be needed to override any vetoes.
Meanwhile, Mark thinks the state did a good job with the marijuana legislation but now he feels the Cannabis Control Commission is not moving fast enough with approving licenses. The legislation includes the ability for farmers to grow hemp, which Mark said wasn't included in the ballot question and could be a big help in Western Massachusetts.
"This isn't about marijuana and people smoking it. This is about people using hemp which is a crop people have been using throughout the history of humanity except for the last couple of years. When you are trying to support farmers in our region, diversification is one of the most important things they have," Mark said.
Mark spent the session chairing the Committee on Redistricting. The group is preparing for the U.S. Census in 2020 and the subsequent redistricting process.
"We've been trying to anticipate what will the population look like at the State House level, the state Senate level, and for the U.S. House of Representative," Mark said. "We did the best population estimate we could do based on the last eight years and if those projects continue through 2020, what the population of each municipality will look like."
The good news with that is that Massachusetts is not currently expected to lose a member of U.S. Congress like it had last time. But the Berkshires have been losing population or stagnant while the rest of the state has grown. That means there will likely be a further power shift from the Berkshires east.
"The congressional districts are going to get bigger, the state Senate districts are going to get bigger, and the state House districts are going to get bigger," Mark said. "The problem with that is if you are representing 16 or 22 towns, it is already a lot. It makes us have to put in that much more time and effort to make sure we are accessible to all of our constituents. If we boost that to 25 towns or 28 towns, it is just going to get that much harder."
He said Western Massachusetts already has a difficult time getting its voice heard because it is vastly outnumbered by the eastern part of the state and redistricting is trending in a way that Western Massachusetts will be even more outnumbered.
"Every single day we are at a disadvantage in terms of getting our voice heard," Mark said.
Mark said a whole lot can change in just a couple years so he didn't elaborate into any of the details. But, he said it is likely that Pittsfield will no longer be large enough to have two representatives in the House.
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