Senator Benjamin Downing
Senate President Therese Murray
Senate President Therese Murray and Sen. Benjamin Downing listen to Lee Harrison during a tour of the biodiesel facility.
Senate President Takes Tour of Biodiesel Facility
By Jen Thomas - November 29, 2007
PITTSFIELD - Though still in the planning stages, Berkshire Biodiesel LLC is ready to show the state that its willing to make a real impact in Western Massachusetts.
"With so many things going on globally, we need to get smart about how we're using energy," said Lee Harrison, executive vice president of Berkshire Biodiesel, before touring the site of the future biodiesel facility with Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, on Thursday morning.
Joined by state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, Harrison and Berkshire Biodiesel President and CEO J.Garth Klimchuk led Murray through what will be a $50 million biodiesel production facility, located at Crane & Co.'s Ashuelot Park. Expected to begin construction next year and begin operations in 2009, Berkshire Biodiesel will be the state's largest producer of biodiesel and will boast an output of 50 million gallons of biodiesel per year.
"If we're going to use biofuels, let's make them right here in Massachusetts," Harrison said.
Biodiesel is the result of a process that combines organically-derived oils with alcohol to create a renewable, environmentally-friendly fuel. According to Harrison, biodiesel cuts greenhouse gas emissions in half, reduces the release of sulfur and nitric oxide and makes the air cleaner. As a way to reduce reliance on foreign oil with no byproducts or waste products, biodiesel is a large part of the answer to tackling an impending energy crisis, said Harrison.
"We really need to get a hold of these problems and there are a lot of good things about biodiesel," he said. In a statement, he also said "This new industry is vital, not only to mitigate the ravages of global warming and to reduce air pollution and our reliance on foreign oil, but also to create new jobs and investment in Massachusetts."
The company plans to build two large manufacturing bays and offices on eight acres of land at the Pittsfield/Dalton site, as well as an additional seven acres allotted for construction of a rail line that will transport materials to the plant. The construction phase will employ approximately 100 people and the plant itself will create at least 30 permanent jobs.
With a progressive alternative energy bill introduced this fall, the state Legislature is looking to ensure that 20 percent of the state's energy is generated by renewable sources by 2020, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent in the same time period.
"The sky is falling and we have to do something," said Murray on Thursday.
With a standard built into the bill that would require all diesel and home heating fuel sold in the state to contain a minimum amount of renewable, biobased alternatives in their blends, Berkshire Biodiesel would be poised to thrive as an emerging biofuel producer.
"It's really exciting to be here and to see the facility," Murray said after her tour. "This is what we've been talking about. We need to find alternative energy sources. We're right here at the forefront and moving in the right direction."
The legislation that would make Massachusetts the first state to establish a biofuel standard for home heating oil passed through the House earlier this month and Downing and Murray said they expect the Senate to take up the energy plan in January.
With plans to utilize previously unusable farmland and pioneering new feedstock methods, Harrison and Klimchuk are eager to get their project moving into the next stages.
"We, as a country, should be shifting to renewable sources to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and we're excited about being a part of that," Klimchuk said.
Sherwood Guernsey II
"Biodiesel OK'd for rail redesign"
By Ellen G. Lahr, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, December 07, 2007
DALTON — The Zoning Board of Appeals has given a crucial approval vote to Berkshire Biodiesel's plan to replace and redesign the old railroad siding that links the CSX-owned tracks to the refinery site in Pittsfield.
The board imposed two conditions: The tracks must be made available to other tenants who may eventually occupy the Ashuelot Park industrial development area, and Berkshire Biodiesel must maintain the tracks as long as the company is a business, ZBA Chairman Anthony Doyle said.
The 3-0 vote was taken Tuesday, he said.
The $50 million biodiesel production plant is proposed for the old Beloit Corp.'s research-and-development facility off Hubbard Avenue. The state Department of Transportation has awarded a $4.5 million grant to reconstruct the old siding now deemed inadequate by the CSX rail freight company, Doyle said.
The mile-long rail improvements are essential to the refinery because the plant will receive most of its raw materials by rail and will ship out much of the final product on freight trains as well.
"This is our lifeline," said Lee Harrison, executive vice president of Berkshire Biodiesel. "If we don't have rail, we don't have a project."
The plant is projected to begin operating in mid-2009, and is linked closely to pending state legislation requiring that biodiesel be included in home heating oil and diesel sold in Massachusetts.
By 2010, 2 percent of home heating oil and diesel would be biodiesel; by 2013, that number would rise to 5 percent.
Berkshire Biodiesel would processing restaurant grease, animal fat, vegetables oils and non-food crops, which the company hopes will be grown locally.
"Downing Seeks Home Heating Tax Deductions"
iBerkshires.com - December 11, 2007
BOSTON - State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, has co-sponsored legislation to address the high cost of heating homes this winter season. The legislation was drafted by Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R–Westfield.
"At the top of every policymaker's priority list is to help ensure the necessities of living are available to all citizens," said Downing. "Home-heating costs are predicted to be very high this winter. This proposal will provide some financial relief to homeowners, and I am happy to lend my support its passage."
Modeled after a similar program ratified by the Legislature in the winter of 2005 and 2006, this bill, if passed, would allow income-eligible taxpayers to claim a deduction on their income taxes for the cost of home heating fuel up to a maximum of $800.
It requires that the deduction be used solely for the cost of home heating oil, natural gas, propane, electricity and wood fuel purchased between Nov. 1, 2007, and March 21, 2008. If the taxpayer does not take the full $800 deduction in taxable year 2007, the individual may take the remainder in taxable year 2008 for purchases made in 2008 through March 21, 2008. The deduction would be limited to individuals who make less than $50,000 per year and families with incomes up to $75,000 per year.
In related news, the state Department of Housing and Community Development is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP assists low-income individuals and families with the costs of heating their homes during the winter season.
On average, LIHEAP funds have helped more than 130,000 households annually across the state. In November, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a $15 million energy bill to provide heating assistance to low-income families that supplements the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
This year, the program will provide fuel assistance to low-income individuals with annual incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, not to exceed 60 percent of the state median income, or $40,000 for a family of four. For more information, visit www.mass.gov/dhcd.
This legislation must be admitted by both the Senate and House of Representatives before being referred to a joint committee for consideration. Its sponsors will advocate for a timely public hearing at the State House. At that time, individuals may submit written testimony in support or opposition of the bill.
The Cost of Health Care
Gary Happ is the owner of Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington. (Caroline Bonnivier / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"Business owners pay the cost of health care: Paperwork, fees piling up"
By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Monday, December 10, 2007
Gary Happ, owner of the Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, could perform the alchemy that transforms water, malt, hops and yeast into beer, but when it came time to set up a Section 125 plan for his employees, his powers failed him.
As with hundreds of small businesses throughout Berkshire County and with thousands across the state, Happ is confronting the hoops and hurdles of health care reform.
There is a bevy of paperwork and new reporting guidelines to the state, and complicated calculations to determine where he fits under the law.
And he had to create a "Section 125 cafeteria plan" — a somewhat opaque name for a fund that allows employees to set aside pretax money from their paychecks to pay for health insurance and medical expenses.
"As a small-business owner, here comes the state and asks us to do the administrative work for this new law, with really no compensation," Happ said. "They put us in the middle, and it's another obligation on us."
The state's health reform requires every adult to have health insurance or pay a financial penalty. It also requires any employer with 11 or more full-time equivalent employees to offer a health plan or face a financial penalty.
Of Happ's roughly 30 employees, only five or six are full time, and only four are enrolled in his insurance plan. But he still had to inform all of his employees about their health options, including the Section 125 plan.
"From a small-employer's perspective, it's just more forms that an employer has to deal with. It's a little bit challenging, especially for someone in my age bracket who isn't as familiar with computers," he said.
Gary Kolbran, of Wheeler & Taylor Insurance in Great Barrington, has made himself an expert on the small-business ramifications of health reform.
He produced a 12-page guide that he distributed to clients, only to find that the law was changing so quickly that he had to issue an addendum.
"All along, I feel like the government has made it extremely complicated," Kolbran said, as with the Section 125 plans, which he called an "elegant way to get part-timers to pay less for their health insurance, but they didn't think about the ramifications on small businesses. I'm sure General Electric has a (human resources) department that can handle this. A small business does not."
Although the state spent money marketing new health plans to people and informing them of the mandate, it did very little outreach to small businesses, leaving that task to trade associations and chambers of commerce.
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, with 3,000 members across the state, conducted two seminars in Berkshire County just to explain small businesses' obligations.
The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce also sponsored several conferences for its members.
But there are still businesses that know little or nothing about the law, including Jessica Rufo, who returned to the Berkshires from New York City and last summer opened Dottie's Coffee Lounge on Pittsfield's North Street.
Rufo does not have enough full-time employees to trigger the health insurance mandate, but said she knows "absolutely nothing" about the law's other requirements.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, said not enough has been done to reach small businesses such as Dottie's. He and other members of the Berkshire delegation insisted that the state's Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector — the agency overseeing the implementation of the new law — hold an informational session in Pittsfield on Saturday to try to remedy that.
State Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, sits on the Community Development and Small Business Committee on Beacon Hill. He said health reform has had unintended consequences on the smallest of small businesses. It ended, for example, a state program that gave them a health insurance subsidy as both an owner and employee of the same business.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the reform should have done more to help small businesses.
Because every adult is now required to have insurance, Hurst said, businesses that offer insurance to employees are finding that more are signing up for programs, which is adding substantially to their costs.
To alleviate that, Hurst said, the state should allow small businesses to band together and buy insurance in bulk.
Otherwise, a large company with 1,000 employees pays less per employee than a restaurant with 12 insured people.
"We have 3,000 members, and we cannot legally aggregate them together and seek a discount," Hurst said. "We believe that is discriminatory and creates a situation in which premiums ... are far higher for the little guy than the big guy."
Both Speranzo and Downing said group purchasing — which would require action on Beacon Hill — deserves serious consideration.
"The Berkshire Chamber put together a consortium to buy energy and get lower costs with large demand," Speranzo said. "That's the right model, and it makes sense that businesses should be able to pull together to purchase health care."
To reach Jack Dew: email@example.com, (413) 496-6241
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
"Here comes the sun"
Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, long a model of environmental consciousness, will continue to set a good example when it installs photovoltaic panels to provide 90 percent of the farm's electrical needs. Financing for the $100,000 project will come in large part from two state grants provided through the Renewable Energy Trust Fund, which, as state Representative Daniel Bosley, who announced the grant along with state Senator Benjamin Downing, observed, is a successful product of the state's energy restructuring efforts of 10 years ago. State money is well spent when it helps private entities like Caretaker Farm improve their operations while blazing a trail for others to follow.
"Senate bill cuts hybrid credits: The energy legislation will be merged with the House's incentive-laden version"
By Matt Murphy, (Berkshire) Eagle Boston Bureau
Friday, January 04, 2008
BOSTON — The Senate appears poised to pass a pared down version of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi's comprehensive clean energy bill next week, stripping out many tax incentives for consumers while leaving much of the bill promoting wind, solar and hydroelectric power intact.
The Senate version, released yesterday, eliminates tax incentives such as the $2,000 deduction for the purchase of new hybrid vehicle, or $300 for homeowners that install solar water heating systems.
It also includes new language that puts important carbon emission protections on the process of converting coal into gas that addresses the concerns of many environmental groups.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, said the state simply can't afford the expense of the hybrid tax break, and others, as it prepares to face a particularly lean budget cycle.
"We don't have the money. This is just the beginning of a lot of belt tightening as we go forward," Panagiotakos said.
The Senate bill also protects the state's Renewable Energy Trust, which funds clean energy projects with a 25-cent-a-month tax on utility bills. DiMasi, with the support of Gov. Deval L. Patrick, had proposed stripping the trust from the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and giving the spending authority to the governor's administration because of criticism that the trust had failed to produce enough clean energy.
Despite the changes made by the Senate, DiMasi spokesman David Guarino said the speaker is encouraged that 85 percent to 90 percent of the bill went unchanged.
Guarino said that the hybrid tax credits will likely be part of the "robust debate" in the conference committee that will work out the differences between the two branches.
"Democrats Plan Campaign Kick-Off in Pittsfield, Massachusetts"
January 06, 2008
PITTSFIELD – Democratic Party leaders will descend on Spice Restaurant on Friday to celebrate the Berkshire Creative Energy Showcase and Democratic Campaign Kick-Off.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and state Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh will be the keynote speakers. The event, which begins at 5 p.m., is sponsored by Berkshire Brigades, the county Democratic organization.
"We are delighted that Senator Kerry will be joining us," said Lee Harrison, Berkshire Brigades chairman. "He's a great friend of the Berkshires and he has a lot of friends in the county. I know people will want to hear what he has to say about this incredibly exciting election and to participate in our Berkshire presidential straw poll, coming as it will just days after we have primary results from New Hampshire."
The New Hampshire primary is Tuesday, Jan. 8. The top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are currently U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards, former North Carolina senator and Kerry's running mate in the last election.
The evening will start out with a host of local companies, institutions and organizations involved the region's "creative economy" and renewable and alternative energy showcasing their progress.
Entities like the Colonial theater, Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacob's Pillow, Barrington Stage, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Topia Inn, Berkshire Biodiesel, the Williamstown Film Festival, the Center for Ecological Technology, Arrow Press, Quality Printing and others have already signed on, said Harrison.
"This is a celebration of the economic revitalization of the Berkshires and the part that the creative economy and clean, green, renewable energy are playing in that revival. It's a great way for the public to come and learn about these organizations," he said.
The showcase will run from 5 to about 6:30, when the campaign kick-off begins. The Democratic rally will include the speakers and presidential straw poll.
Berkshire Brigades Vice Chairwoman Sheila Irvin described the evening as a "good, old-fashioned" rally. Joining the keynote speakers will be notable Berkshire Democrats, including Rep. Daniel E. Bosley of North Adams and Sen. Benjamin B. Downing of Pittsfield.
"It's a new kind of event and one we think will be very well received," said Irvin.
Tickets for the event are $25 per person and can be purchased at the door. For more information: 413-441-2321 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
"Lawmakers initiated 'pig fest'"
The Berkshire Eagle - Letters
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
In 2006, Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan said, "40B has been a pig fest" for unscrupulous developers. Last month, December 2007, Christine McConville reported in the Boston Herald: "Developers shortchanged the town of Billerica to the tune of about $3 million by inflating a housing project's costs and understating its profits, according to a report released by the state's inspector general. As outraged town officials vow to recoup that money, Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan is urging all Massachusetts communities that house the roughly 950 developments built under the state's controversial affordable housing law to thoroughly scrutinize project finances."
Sullivan testified, "This 40B scandal represents one of the biggest abuses in state history, in my opinion, in terms of dollars and oversight."
760 CMR 31.09 is a 2002 amendment to Massachusetts General Law 40B that invented a new "state building permit" which allows developers to build in violation of town zoning. For the past four years, similar developer-friendly laws, 40Q, 40R, 40S, 40T have been prepared anonymously and slipped in with the annual commonwealth budget as "outside sections."
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing, newly elected chairman of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Rules, could certainly find out who is behind this anonymous lawmaking. Real estate interests spend around two million dollars a year to influence our elected officials in Boston.
As a licensed Massachusetts real estate broker since 1986, my professional opinion is that the "pig fest" for unscrupulous developers is the result of a highly sophisticated scam run by our state government.
"Local Business Owner’s Plight Prompts Legislative Action"
iBerkshires.com - January 09, 2008
Downing & Speranzo Seek to Amend State Uniform Procurement Act
Boston - Sparked by a local businesswoman’s concerns, State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) and State Representative Christopher N. Speranzo (D-Pittsfield) jointly sponsored legislation to amend the Uniform Procurement Act for state government entities. The bill, modeled after an existing statute giving preference for locally grown agricultural products, would allow Massachusetts governmental bodies to establish preference for products and services rendered by local businesses.
“We are attempting to give an edge to deserving businesses in the Commonwealth, while retaining tax revenue, creating job growth and spurring local economy,” said Downing. “This is a commonsense measure that we hope will keep jobs in Massachusetts.”
Last month, Christine Canning-Wilson, CEO of New England Global Network, LLC., located in Lanesboro, contacted Downing and Speranzo with her concerns about the loss of state contract awards to out-of-state businesses. Using their expertise in education consulting, New England Global Network recently submitted a proposal for consideration through the RFR process vying for the state contract to update the civil service exam. Despite a comprehensive proposal and sterling reputation for test writing, New England Global Network, LLC was not awarded the contract. Rather, the contract was given to a Pennsylvania-based company, siphoning state tax dollars away from the Commonwealth’s economy and narrowing job creation opportunities.
“This bill will go a long way to ensure that qualified Massachusetts businesses have an opportunity to win contracts for essential state services and keep our tax dollars in the Commonwealth,” said Speranzo.
Of the filed legislation, Christine Canning-Wilson said, “I am so pleased with the swift response and action of Senator Downing and Representative Speranzo. This bill will benefit all Massachusetts businesses- especially small businesses- and is a great step towards improving the state’s economy.”
An Act to Amend the Uniform Procurement Act was filed on January 7th. Downing and Speranzo expect that it will be admitted by the Senate and House of Representatives and be referred to a Committee for consideration expeditiously.
"Biofuels Task Force Plans Hearings in Lenox"
Staff reports - iBerkshires.com - January 08, 2008
LENOX - The state's new Biofuels Task Force will hold its first public hearing not too many miles away from the site of the planned $50 million Berkshire Biodiesel facility.
The task force will meet at Lenox Memorial High School, 197 East St., on Monday, Jan. 14,from 4 to 6:30 p.m.
The panel was created last fall to examine the use of biofuels and to make recommendations for legislation and regulations on their use and the development for an advanced biofuels industry.
The Legislature is working on a bill to promote the use of alternative energy, the Green Communities Act, and a bill filed last November would mandate the phased-in use of biofuels in heating oil and diesel fuel to reduce the state's carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.
Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, was appointed to the task force in early December, just a week after he and Senate President Therese Murray toured what will become the Berkshire Biodiesel facility in Pittsfield. The task force was created through an agreement between Murry, House Speaker Salvatore Dimasi and Gov. Deval Patrick; each appointed three members.
The panel is chaired by Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles.
As part of its work, the task force will develop a strategic framework to accelerate the research, development and deployment of commercially viable biofuels. Existing barriers to advancing biofuel innovation in the commonwealth will also be considered and legislative or administrative solutions to overcome those barriers will be filed by the task force with its final recommendations. The panel will also research the availability of federal grants for the advancement of biofuels.
The panel will accept oral or in written testimony at the hearing. There will be an opportunity to sign up for three-minute presentations at the hearing. Written comments will be accepted both before and after the hearing, but should be submitted no later than Jan. 31.
The next public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 17 at the State House, Room A-2, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Two additional hearings are expected to be held in March.
Written testimony may be sent to:
Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs
100 Cambridge St., Suite 900
Boston, MA 02114
Attn: Steven Clarke
Biofuels Task Force will file a report of its findings and recommendations with the governor and with the clerks of the House and Senate on or before March 31, 2008.
Expected to begin construction next year and begin operations in 2009, Berkshire Biodiesel will be the state's largest producer of biodiesel and will boast an output of 50 million gallons of biodiesel per year. Two other biodiesel plants are in the planning stages in Greenfield and Quincy. Officials say the price of biodiesel fuel will become more competitive as these plants come online.
Advanced Biofuels Task Force members:
Chairman, Secretary Ian Bowles, Energy and Environmental Affairs
Assistant Secretary David Cash, Energy and Environmental Affairs (secretary's designee)
Sen. Benjamin B. Downing
Bruce Jamerson, CEO, Mascoma
David Davenport, Department of Revenue
Sen. Pamela Resor, D-Acton, Senate chairman of theJoint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture
Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, Senate assistant minority leader
Rep. Frank Smizik, D-Brookline, House chairman Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture
Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, House chairman Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy
Rep. Bradley H. Jones Jr., R-North Reading, House minority leader
"Open races put Mass. in spotlight: With both parties still seeking a nominee on Super Tuesday, the state will be more important"
By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Invigorated by topsy-turvy early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Berkshire County political activists yesterday set course for the state's Super Tuesday voting.
The race for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations remained wide open following Hillary Clinton and John McCain's victories in New Hampshire on Tuesday, fomenting optimism among political supporters of all stripes yesterday as they looked ahead to Feb. 5, when Massachusetts and 22 other states will vote.
"We really have a horserace now, and the primary means something," said Lee Harrison, chairman of the Berkshire Brigades, the countywide Democratic organization.
Massachusetts last year moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5, when states including New York, California and Missouri will be voting. Proponents of the move — which passed the Legislature with ease and was signed into law by Gov. Deval L. Patrick in November — argued that it would make Massachusetts a key stop on the road to the nomination.
The rollicking start to the primary season appears to be validating the move. With four contests on the Democratic side and five Republican races still to go before Feb. 5, a total of 406 delegates are at stake before Super Tuesday, when 3,156 will be up for grabs between the two parties.
The Berkshire Brigades will kick off its Democratic primary season on Friday night with an event at Spice, a downtown Pittsfield restaurant, where U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray and state Democratic party chairman John E. Walsh will rally the troops.
As in past primaries, the Brigade will not endorse a candidate, said Sherwood Guernsey, a former state representative and one of the organization's founders. Its members mirror the national picture, he said, supporting Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent, John Edwards.
That marks a change from 2004, when Kerry's candidacy drew overwhelming support from the members of the Brigades, who rallied early behind their home senator.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing said the kickoff is perfectly timed, building on the momentum of early races.
"What we are going to have is a very chaotic, very interesting, and — hopefully — very informative race over the next couple of week," he said.
Mary O'Brien, former Middle Berkshire register of deeds and a member of the Democratic State Committee, spent Tuesday in New Hampshire holding a sign for Clinton at polling places. She spent most of the day thinking that the polls would be right and her candidate would to lose to Obama.
"We were standing out in Walpole, waving at passersby, and we got a fair number of thumbs up. I started to think, 'Maybe she won't do too badly,' " O'Brien said.
Now back in Massachusetts, O'Brien said she will continue to work for Clinton: "You canvas, you do phone banking, and you get out there and make sure that people know your candidate's strengths."
The Berkshire County Republican Association will likewise not endorse a candidate in the primary, but Executive Director Peter Giftos said support of the members appears divided between former Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Giftos — who supports McCain — said many Massachusetts Republicans continue to nurse a grudge against Romney for pushing aside former acting Gov. Jane Swift and then failing to build the party during his four years in office.
Matthew Kinnaman, also a member of the BCRA and a former candidate for Congress and the state Senate, is supporting Romney. He said he expects a vigorous, statewide campaign from the former governor, who so far has finished second in New Hampshire and Iowa but won the Wyoming caucuses.
"The whole process is full of twists and turns," Kinnaman said. "I think it gives us faith that anything can happen."
iBerkshires.com - Staff reports - January 09, 2008
"Senate Passes Sweeping Energy Plan"
BOSTON – The Senate passed a sweeping energy bill late today designed to encourage the development of renewable energy and to promote energy efficiency and conservation.
The Act to Generate Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now, or GREEN Act, also allows municipalities to construct, own and operate small renewable energy generation sources.
A similar version of the bill, filed by House Speaker Salavatore Dimasi with the backing of Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, passed the House in November.
The Senate unanimously approved the measure but not until after a number of changes were made. The House and Senate versions will likely be hammered out in a joint committee.
"This package contains many progressive initiatives to advance the renewable energy resources we believe will reduce rising energy costs and promote efficiency and conservation in Massachusetts,” said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.
Downing was recently appointed to a Biofuels Task Force, charged to examine the use and implementation of biofuels and their regulation.
"Day after day, we hear about the skyrocketing prices of gas and home heating oil and more news about the changes in our climate," Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said. "We cannot continue on this course if we expect to revitalize our economy and preserve our future. We need to reform our energy policies, and I believe the Senate's bill moves us in the right direction."
The bill promotes renewable energies by including initiatives such as updating the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard to reach the goal of 20 percent renewable power resources by 2020. It also requires distribution companies to enter into long-term contracts for renewable energy to help renewable energy suppliers secure their place in the supply network.
The Senate version, however, dropped the $2,000 income tax-exemption Dimasi wanted for taxpayers who buy hybrid vehicles; Murray also resisted an attempt to weaken the Ocean Sanctuaries Act to make room for the controversial 120-turbine wind farm in Buzzard's Bay.
The act establishes new energy-efficiency standards by requiring distribution companies to obtain energy supplies using the method that costs the least. Known as "least-cost procurement," this change is designed to make energy efficiency, which officials say is two-thirds cheaper than building new power, compete favorably with new power generation. It will also help limit and reduce energy consumption.
For consumers, this reform seeks to level the playing field between utilities and ratepayers by strengthening the attorney general's power to act on behalf of ratepayers.
Supporters say the measure won't cost the state anything but there are concerns by some that power companies will pass on the costs of complying with it to ratepayers.
Murray said the state's fiscal condition isn't good enough to afford tax breaks for hybrid car buyers; the Senate does not include that House provision.
Eliminates the House initiative to remove environmental protections preventing the construction of a 120-turbine wind farm in Buzzards Bay, and instead inserts the Senate's Ocean Management bill that passed unanimously in September.
Keeps the Renewable Energy Trust Fund under the control of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. The trust, funded by a 25-cent tax on utility bills, would be moved to the governor's control in the House version.
Includes language authorizing the eligibility of coal gasification as an alternative energy source with two safeguards absent from the House bill. They are the permanent sequestration of carbon-dioxide emissions and a requirement that net emissions are no greater than those from the cleanest gas facilities.
The GREEN Act reform package also dovetails with other Senate energy initiatives, including the development of cellulosic ethanol produced with woodchips, cranberries and algae. Sen. Marc Pacheco,D-Taunton, has also proposed comprehensive climate change legislation, which the Senate is currently working on and hopes to bring to the floor later this spring.
Please use the enclosed envelope or send your reply to: Berkshire Brigades, 69 E. Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.
The Deadline is Jan. 3, 2008.
Berkshire Brigades cordially invites you to our
“Berkshire Creative Energy Showcase” & 2008 Democratic Campaign Kick-Off
on Friday evening, Jan. 11, 2008, at Spice, 297 North St., Pittsfield
From 5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. local companies, institutions, and organizations involved in the Berkshire Creative Economy (arts, theater, music, etc.) and/or Renewable Energy (wind, biodiesel, etc.) will host tables upstairs at Spice to showcase their programs, initiatives, and products, which are the very foundation of the economic
revitalization of the Berkshires. The Colonial Theater, Hancock Shaker Village, Jacobs Pillow, Mass College of Liberal Arts, Topia Inn, Berkshire Biodiesel, The Williamstown Film Festival, and others have already signed on.
This part of the evening is strictly a celebration of the economic revitalization of the Berkshires and the part that the creative economy and clean, green, renewable energy are playing in that revival. There is no cost to the participants. And this will be a great way for folks involved in the creative economy and renewable energy to meet and chat with their Lt. Governor, Congressman, State Senator, State Representatives, State Democratic Party Chair, and Pittsfield Mayor Ruberto. So if your organization would like to host a table – or if you know of organizations that would – please contact us.
Then from 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. we’ll kick off the critical 2008 Campaign with a good old-fashioned Democratic rally. Lt. Governor Tim Murray and John Walsh, Chairman of the state Democratic Party, will join us along with Congressman John Olver and State Senator Ben Downing. Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. John Kerry
have also been invited.
Tickets for the event are just $25 per person.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the 2008 election. Individual rights, human rights, health care, our national economy, The Iraq War, how we combat global warming – and indeed our very future – depend on electing a Democratic President and Congress. So let’s kick off the 2008 Presidential Campaign in a big way.
We hope to see you Jan. 11. Please use the form below to RSVP today.
Benjamin B. Downing
Berkshire, Hampshire & Franklin District
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"Kerry Urges Change at Berkshire Rally"
By Jen Thomas -iBerkshires.com- January 12, 2008
PITTSFIELD - More than 200 Berkshire County Democrats made their voices heard at a rally on Friday night and their message was clear - America needs change.
Joined by Sen. John Kerry, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and members of the Berkshire delegation, local Democratic supporters gathered at Spice restaurant to demand a new direction for the nation, which would begin by electing a Democrat into the White House.
"Together with a Democratic president, we're going to be able to finally move this nation forward," said Sen. John Kerry during a speech punctuated by the crowd's cheers and shouts of agreement as keynote speaker of the Berkshire Brigades' Democratic Campaign Kick-Off.
"It's going to take a Democratic movement."
Though he endorsed Ill. Sen. Barack Obama at a rally in South Carolina on Thursday, Kerry called upon county Democrats to support the party in general because "it's not about partisanship or ideology."
"It's coming to be one of those critical moments in our history where we get to register our hopes for the future. No matter what happens at the end of this, I know the Democrats are going to get together and select a Democratic president," Kerry said.
Specifically naming the Iraq War and global climate change as key issues in this year's presidential election, the senator said a Democrat in the Oval Office would give the Congress the power it needs to truly facilitate change.
"Now more than ever, this election is about common sense, about our country, about how you move everyone forward together," he said.
As part of the night's event, Kerry toured the "Berkshire Creative Energy Showcase," a demonstration of the Berkshires' leadership in both the creative economy sector and in developing alternative and renewable energy sources. Shown tables hosted by, among others, the Topia Inn, Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Biodiesel, the Center for Ecological Technology and the Williamstown Theater Festival, Kerry commended the region for its ability to look ahead.
"The creative economy and renewable, green energy is not jus the future of the county; it's the future for the country," he said.
Lee Harrison, the chairman of Berkshire Brigades and executive vice president of Berkshire Biodiesel, said electing a Democrat president would be "the end of our long national nightmare."
"It is one year and nine days from Jan. 20, 2009 - that's Bush's last day in office and that marks the end of this nightmare because we're going to elect a Democrat president. Have no fear; it's going to happen," Harrison said.
Following pleas from representatives for each major Democratic candidate - including rousing speeches from Rep. Daniel Bosley, D- North Adams for N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, for Obama - the rally's attendees named Obama their choice candidate in a straw poll.
With 91 votes, Obama took the honor. Clinton received 63 votes; Edwards, 36; Dennis Kucinich, 15; Mike Gravel, 1.
Saying he's supported Obama since his 2004 run for Senate, Downing told the audience he was "inspired" by Obama's message of change.
"We are the party of change. I think that this time, with these challenges we face, we don't need the same old, same old. We don't need the solutions of yesterday. We need change for tomorrow," he said in his speech.
"There's a lot of work still to do, but we have a real chance to be part of an Obama sweep in February (in the Massachusetts primary)," Downing said after the results of the straw poll were revealed.
For Harrison, Friday's rally is just one step to a whole new world.
"We cannot go on in the way we are for much longer. We need to have change - for our children, our grandchildren and our environment. And that change will come in the form of a Democratic president," he said.
Sen. John Kerry speaks with the city's Director of Cultural Development Megan Whilden during the "Berkshire Creative Energy Showcase."
Sen. Benjamin Downing spoke passionately about endorsing Barack Obama for president.
Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray advocated grassroots work to recruit more voters in 2008.
Donor: Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., Contribution: Updated Q2/2007 Barack Obama $1,500, 2008., Address: 74 NORTH ST, Pittsfield MA.
Did you know that $16,626 was donated in this donor's zip code (1201)? Click here to find out how much was given and to who.
"In a muddled field, Obama standing out"
Alan Chartock, Weekly Berkshire Eagle Political Op-Ed Column
Saturday, January 12, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts
So answer me this, Riddler. How in the world did Mitt Romney ever get to be governor of this commonwealth? The answer is that he was perceived to be better than the unfortunate creatures the Democrats put up. When the Democrats finally put up a solid, decent, charismatic candidate — Deval L. Patrick — he won.
The New Hampshire voters were bombarded by Romney ads, but he just couldn't make it work. Now, a very slow-on-his-feet John McCain has eaten his lunch. Obama was flanked by young people filled with hope.
McCain had Wilford Brimley behind him. He also was helped by editorial endorsements from two very powerful New Hampshire newspapers that just seem to hate Romney's guts. They paint a picture of a flip-flopper of the first order who will do whatever he wants to win and who hires the best scriptwriters money can buy and then just sticks to the latest script.
The Republican field is just getting more and more interesting. Rudy Giuliani was once the front-runner, but his stock keeps on going down.
Considering Giuliani's tough-mouthed approach to politics, I have at least one good friend who says that, if Giuliani becomes president, he and his wife are going to Canada. Giuliani is the mean guy who will protect us from the omnipresent "them." The problem for poor Rudy is that all his past sins are catching up with him. His ex-wives and kids don't like him, and the people that his firm — Giuliani Associates — has been representing have not been fully subjected to the smell test. His advocacy of Bernard Kerik as the homeland security top dog (accepted by the president) is really scary and, inevitably, there are questions put to Giuliani about Kerik, such as, "What did you know about Kerik, and when did you know it?" Rudy is in bad shape.
Americans seem to be sick and tired of the professional political class, who think more about getting elected than about governing or policy. That's been Hillary Clinton's downside and one reason why, despite her comeback in New Hampshire, so many people distrust her. She is surrounded by a Praetorian guard, a bunch of professional political operatives who think out every word and every nuance to the point that, when Hillary finally shows emotion and sheds a tear (genuine or not), a lot of people refuse to believe her.
On the other hand, I have friends who say that it was at the point when she expressed emotion that they switched to her.
And along comes Barack Obama promising change, hope and possibilities to the people of America, who need to believe in something, and bam, the people eat him up. A huge number of young people turned out in Iowa. Indeed, the man has caught the wave.
Hillary mistakenly assumed that she could get the nomination by borrowing a number of moves from Bill Clinton's play book. For example, she is true to form in her ability to triangulate. Assuming that she had the nomination won, Hillary moved to the right as fast as she could.
Her vote for the war was hardly courageous, but I'm sure that she did not want to go against the patriotic tide that was sweeping the country as President Bush blew the horns and sounded the cymbals. This allowed Obama to circle around her back and to become competitive.
Hillary's second mistake is her use of Bill Clinton. The former president is one of the most engaging of all people, but the Hillary campaign has him under very tight wraps. They want him to be arm candy — to smile and keep his mouth shut. When he wandered off in a supermarket, they lassoed him and brought him back like a bad little boy. How demeaning.
Hillary is making the same mistake that Gore did when he lost/won the presidency. He tried to distance himself from Bill, and that was the end of the game for Gore. If he had put his arm around Bill, he would be president.
Of course, this is just the beginning. The big Super Tuesday primaries are coming up on Feb. 5, and Hillary has an excellent chance in all of them. If she stays the course, she has the opportunity to win over Middle America. She would be the first woman candidate, and that is no small thing. She has Bill as a solid weapon, and she has to work on her accessibility.
As for me, I'm voting for Obama. He's my man.
"State Pushes Up Primaries"
By Jen Thomas - iBerkshires.com - January 14, 2008
With primary elections in the state pushed up more than a month this year, the deadline for voter registration is fast approaching.
Jan. 16 is the last day to either register to vote in the Feb. 5 primary or to change party affiliation. Town and city clerks' offices will be open until 8 p.m. on Wednesday, per state law, and requires only filling out a short form in person.
"It's a really simple process. Just fill out a form, get a signature and it's done," said Adams Town Clerk Paul Hutchinson.
Those registered as unenrolled (independent) voters will have their choice of four ballots on primary election day - Republican, Democrat, Green-Rainbow and Working Families. Nearly 50 percent of registered voters in the state declare no party affiliation and this is the first year that independents have been able to vote in the presidential primary without changing their status.
"If you're unenrolled and you go in to vote, you're asked which ballot you want. In previous elections, once you voted in the primary, you were enrolled in that party until you re-registered," said William Francis Galvin, secretary of the commonwealth, as reported in Boston's Weekly Dig. "Almost half of Massachusetts voters are unenrolled, for various reasons. This makes it attractive to them to participate in a primary without having to declare a party affiliation."
"People guard their unenrolled status very closely. This makes it easier for the voter," said Hutchinson.
Williamstown Town Clerk Mary Kennedy said she'd fielded many questions about voting with an unenrolled status but she'd also seen more residents embrace not having an affiliation with any specific party.
"I've had a significant amount of Republicans come in and change to Democrats or unenrolled," Kennedy said. According to The Boston Globe, 48.7 percent of Williamstown's registered voters are listed as unenrolled.
Joining 23 other states on Feb. 5, Massachusetts will be part of the largest "Super Tuesday" in history.
"We'll have more of a say in the presidential selection process than if we did it in March," said Hutchinson.
With less than a week to register, several state officials and organizations are trying to get the word out about the importance of registering to vote.
"It is extremely important to vote," said state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, at Friday's Democratic campaign kickoff in Pittsfield. "We try to educate, we try to get people involved but the best way to get people out is to have exciting candidates and vibrant elections. Luckily, that's what we have."
"We have to create excitement. We have to draw those lines between politics and other fields and come to see politics as part of our day-to-day lives. What we have to make those connections," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, at the same event.
"Voting is what the whole country is predicated on, the ability to choose your own leaders," Hutchinson said. "The question is, will the people come out?"
Kennedy added that the 2008 presidential election would draw more attention than past years - "There are no incumbents sitting there," she said - but she was concerned weather might be a factor in voter turnout.
"We usually have a good turnout, especially for presidential elections, but weather might have a big impact on who makes it out in February," she said.
While the presidential race is sure to dominate interest well into November, Hutchinson noted that local elections affect Berkshire life much more directly.
"You have much more power in voting in town elections," he said. "We all come out for the presidential races but the best way to get your voice heard is to vote in the community election."
A full list of poll locations will be available on iBerkshires.com at as the presidential primary nears. For more information on voting in Massachusetts, go to www.votinginfo.info/
"Insurance proposal leaves legislators mixed: Should state workers' insurance go up?"
By Robert Mills and Hillary Chabot, Berkshire Eagle Boston Bureau
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
BOSTON — Increasing the contributions that state employees are required to pay for their health insurance is an idea that has been floated before, but the Legislature has always sunk it.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick is preparing once again to propose a measure that would raise some state employees' health insurance contributions as part of his proposed fiscal 2009 budget, due to be released by the end of the month, according to an administration source who asked to remain anonymous.
Local legislators were mixed on the merits of the idea, but fiscal watchdog Michael Widmer, executive director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, called the proposal a fair adjustment.
"This would bring consumers into the cost-control efforts. If health care is free or doesn't cost much, they don't care what they spend, but if they are taking on more of the burden (employees) might be more conservative," he said.
Although the changes could save the state $51 million, the move could be met with resistance from union officials, some local legislators said.
State Reps. Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, and William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, both said that similar proposals have been made in the past by Republican governors, only to be shot down in the Legislature.
"Health care is the tiger we just can't get a noose around," Pignatelli said, adding that the collective bargaining might stop the proposal in its tracks. "Everyone's costs have risen dramatically."
Most state employees now pay 15 percent of their health insurance costs, with the state picking up the other 85 percent. Patrick will propose increasing that contribution to 20 percent for employees who make between $35,000 and $50,000 per year and increasing it to 25 percent for employees who make more than $50,000, according to an administration source.
Those who make less than $35,000 per year would continue contributing 15 percent, and about 6,000 employees who currently contribute 20 percent but make less than $35,000 per year actually would receive a 5 percent reduction in their contribution under the governor's proposal, the administration source said.
Roughly 37,000 people would see their insurance costs climb by 10 percent.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said lawmakers should be more open to the proposal.
"I give the governor credit looking for savings and efficiency anywhere he can. We in state government should do everything we can to make sure we spend taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible," Downing said.
Pignatelli said state officials should pressure Blue Cross Blue Shield to join the general insurance commission to lower costs and options for state employees.
All legislators agreed that there will be tough decisions to be made with a projected $1.3 billion budget.
"I think it's another sign of the difficult budget we have facing us and the difficult choices ahead," said Speranzo, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Beacon Hill Roll Call- Friday, January 18, 2008
Boston - THE HOUSE AND SENATE. There were no important roll call votes in the House or Senate during the week of January 14-18, 2008.
Beacon Hill Roll Call has obtained the official list from the state treasurer's office of "per diems" collected by the 40 state senators in 2007 for mileage, meals and lodging expenses. The list reveals that senators have collected a total of $107,444. Per diems are paid by the state to senators "for each day for travel from his place of residence to the Statehouse and return therefrom, while in the performance of his official duties, upon certification to the state treasurer that he was present at the Statehouse."
The amount of the per diem varies and is based on the city or town in which a senator resides and its distance from the Statehouse. These payments are not taxable and range from $10 per day for senators who reside in the Greater Boston area to $90 for some Western Massachusetts lawmakers and $100 for those in Nantucket. Senators who are from areas that are a long distance from Boston's Statehouse often are the ones who collect the highest total of annual per diems.
The Legislature in 2000 approved a law doubling these per diems to the current amounts. Supporters of the hikes defend the raise and note that the per diems had not been increased for many years despite the rising costs of travel, food and lodging. Some opponents said that the hikes were excessive while others argued that the very idea of paying any per diem is outrageous when most other private sector and state workers are not paid additional money for commuting.
These per diems are paid to senators above and beyond their annual salaries which in January 2007 were raised 4.8 percent from $55,569.41 to $58,236.74 under the terms of a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1998. The amendment requires legislative salaries to be increased or decreased biennially at the same rate as the state's median household income for the preceding two-year period - as ascertained by the governor. All 40 senators also receive additional stipends ranging from $7,500 to $35,000 for serving as committee chairs or in other leadership positions.
The 2007 statistics indicate that 29 senators have received per diem payments ranging from $250 to $11,340 and that 11 senators have so far chosen not to apply for any money. State law does not establish a deadline that senators must meet in order to collect the per diems.
The senator who received the most per diem money in 2007 is freshman Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) with $11,340. Downing is one of 40 senators but he received more than 10 percent of the total per diems collected in 2007 by all 40 senators. The other recipients in the top ten include Sens. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) $8,976; Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) $8,460; Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) $6,795; Robert O'Leary (D-Cummaquid) $6,500; Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) $5,400; Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge) $5,148; Joan Menard (D-Fall River) $4,824; Gale Candaras (D-Wilbraham) $4,740 and Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell) $4,160.
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
BAN HAND-HELD CELL PHONES (H 4477) - The House gave initial approval to a bill abolishing a current law that allows drivers to use cell phones as long as one hand remains on the steering wheel at all times. The legislation bans all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving but allows drivers over 18 to use hands-free ones. The measure bans the use of any type of cell phone by drivers under the age of 18. It also leaves intact a current law that allows use of a CB radio as long as one hand remains on the steering wheel at all times. Penalties on drivers over 18 include a $100 fine for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for subsequent ones. Drivers under 18 would face the same fines as those over 18 but would also be subject to suspension of their license for 60 days for a first offense, 180 days for a second offense and one year for subsequent offenses. Some 16 amendments have been proposed to the measure and are likely to be considered soon.
SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME ADVISORY COUNCIL (H 1678) - The House approved legislation creating the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) Advisory Council. The council would be the focal point for many of the issues surrounding SIDS. The bill also names the proposed law The Paige Victoria Perry Act in honor of a two-month old girl who died of SIDS in 2006. Paige was the granddaughter of Rep. Jeffrey Perry (R-Sandwich), the sponsor of the bill.
ALLOW TOWN MEETINGS IN JUNE (H 1943) - The House approved legislation allowing towns to hold their local elections and town meetings in June. The bill would expand a current law that allows these events to be held only in February, March, April or May.
RAISE CAP ON RETIREES' ALLOWABLE EARNINGS (H 4341)- The House approved a bill allowing retired public state and local employees to continue working in public jobs as long as the combination of their pension and new salary does not exceed by more than $15,000 the salary they earned when they retired. Current law prohibits the combination from exceeding the salary at retirement and does not allow the additional $15,000. Supporters said that many retirees cannot live on their pensions and should be allowed to earn more money than is permitted under current law. The House and Senate approved a similar bill in 2006 but it was vetoed by former Gov. Mitt Romney. The Legislature did not override Romney's veto.
SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS (H 4396) - The House approved a measure that would require school bus drivers to complete a basic course in first aid. Successful completion of the course would add these drivers to the list of school personnel currently exempt from civil liability arising from their rendering first aid in good faith to a sick or injured student.
ARREST CHILD SUPPORT SCOFFLAWS (H 113) - The House approved a measure requiring courts to issue a warrant for the arrest for any person who has left Massachusetts and gone to another state without making reasonable provisions for the support of his spouse or child.
LUNG AND THROMBOSIS MONTH - The House passed a Senate-approved bill designating the month of November as lung cancer awareness month (S 1871). The Senate passed a House-approved measure declaring the month of November as Thrombosis Awareness Month (H 4288).
MOTORCYCLE HELMET LAWS (H 3428) - The House rejected legislation repealing the current state law requiring all motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear helmets. The bill would require only those under 21 to wear helmets.
MOTORCYCLES IN BREAKDOWN LANE (H 3493) - The House rejected a bill that would allow motorcyclists to use the breakdown lanes when heavy traffic causes vehicles in regular lanes to slow down to ten miles per hour. The cyclists would be limited to traveling 20 miles per hour and required to yield to emergency and disabled vehicles.
BAN SMOKING IN CARS WITH CHILDREN (H 3486) - The House rejected a proposal making it a crime for drivers or passengers to smoke when a child under 18 is in the vehicle.
MISUSE OF DISABLED PARKING PLACARDS AND MORE (H 4220) - The Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on legislation that would strengthen penalties for falsely using a disabled parking placard. The measure imposes up to a $500 fine and five years in prison. The measure was filed by Gov. Deval Patrick who said that a recent investigation showed than some 50 people regularly use placards registered to deceased individuals and 300 placards are used by someone other than the disabled owner. The committee's agenda also included a proposal establishing the Massachusetts Missing Child Clearinghouse - a state wide database of missing children to be used by law enforcement and the public (S 2350). The measure also prohibits any law enforcement agency from requiring a waiting period before accepting a missing person report. Other legislation before the committee included banning police motor vehicle chases in any residential area (H 3802) and banning chain link metal basketball nets in public parks, playgrounds and recreation centers (S 1419). Companies that sell these metal nets say that they are sturdier than nylon ones and also discourage vandals from stealing them. Opponents say that metal nets are very dangerous and point to the injuries sustained by a young Walpole girl who was playing basketball with her friends and seriously injured her hand on an open chain link.
ELECTRIC SHOCK THERAPY - The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee heard testimony on a bill to restrict and regulate the use of aversive therapy including electric shock, corporal punishment, aromatic ammonia and Tabasco sauce on disabled students (S 1123). The committee is also considering a proposal completely banning the use of these techniques (H 109). The testimony was heated and emotional. Supporters of the techniques argued that these therapies have been successful and argued that patients who receive this treatment often fare better than those using psychotropic drugs. Opponents of the techniques said these therapies are barbaric and unfair to use on any child.
"It was clear that if this activity continued, that there would be repercussions."
From a State House News Service story quoting Rep. Peter Koutoujian (D-Waltham), House chair of the Public Health Committee, following a private meeting at which House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi told his leadership team that members should stop campaigning to succeed him as speaker. DiMasi said that he currently has no plans to leave the job that he has held since 2004. Majority Leader John Rogers (D-Norwood) and House Ways and Means chairman Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) have been lining up support for the job.
"The pharmaceutical industry spent $29 billion on promoting and marketing prescription drugs in 2005. Of that, pharmaceutical companies spent more than $7.2 billion marketing directly to physicians, which is an average of about $8,800 per physician per year. Studies show that gifts from pharmaceutical companies to prescribers inherently impact prescribing decisions."
From a press release from the Massachusetts Prescription Reform Coalition, a group that says it is working to ensure affordable prescription drugs for everyone.
"The House convened at 11:03 a.m. with Rep. Donato presiding and Rep. deMacedo attending. Members and guests stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The House adjourned at 11:04 a.m. to meet next on Tuesday at 11 a.m. in an informal session."
From a State House News Service story summarizing the 60-second House session of Monday, January 14 - the day of the year's first snowstorm.
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK'S SESSION? Beacon Hill Roll Call tracks the length of time that the House and Senate were in session each week. Many legislators say that legislative sessions are only one aspect of the Legislature's job and that a lot of important work is done outside of the House and Senate chambers. They note that their jobs also involve committee work, research, constituent work and other matters that are important to their districts. Critics say that the Legislature does not meet regularly or long enough to debate and vote in public view on the thousands of pieces of legislation that have been filed. They note that the infrequency and brief length of sessions are misguided and lead to irresponsible late night sessions and a mad rush to act on dozens of bills in the days immediately preceding the end of an annual session.
During the week of January 14-18, 2008, the House met for a total of four hours and 45 minutes while the Senate met for a total of 17 minutes.
Mon. Jan. 14 House 11:03 a.m. to 11:04 a.m., Senate 11:05 a.m. to 11:10 a.m.
Tues. Jan. 15 House 11:00 a.m. to 11:35 a.m., No Senate session.
Wed. Jan. 16 House 11:00 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., Senate 11:06 a.m. to 11:12 a.m.
Thurs. Jan. 17 House 11:04 a.m. to 11:42 a.m., Senate 11:00 a.m. to 11:06 a.m.
Fri. Jan. 18 No House or Senate session.
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at email@example.com
"Boston Senator to get award"
By Matt Murphy, Berkshire Eagle Boston Bureau
Friday, January 18, 2008
BOSTON — Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, a first-term Democrat from Pittsfield, picked up some high praise yesterday when he was named "Legislator of the Year."
The Massachusetts Association of School Committees named Downing the top legislator, citing his work on health insurance as a key for helping school districts rein in costs.
"Sen. Downing's commitment to both public education and health care issues demonstrates the kind of forward looking, socially conscious, and fiscally responsible qualities we look for in our legislative leaders," said Joseph Santos, president of the MASC.
Downing, as a member of the Committee on Public Service, last summer helped to shepherd Gov. Deval L. Patrick's group insurance option for cities and towns through the Senate.
The legislation allowed communities to join the state's Group Insurance Commission, joining with the state for increased buying power that has proven able to drive down the escalating cost of health insurance.
"It was a pleasant surprise," said a humble Downing.
"It's not what you're in it for, but if you do the right work and work hard enough and well enough, people will point it out once in awhile," he said.
Downing will receive his award at a legislative forum for Berkshire County school committee members in Dalton on Monday night.
Downing shares the honor with his House colleague Rep. Geraldine Creedon, a Brockton Democrat, who was also named "Legislator of the Year" by the MASC.
State Senator Benjamin Downing spoke about plans for the coming year in state government. (Gillian Jones/North Adams Transcript)
"Downing praises North County's potential to grow"
By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript
Saturday, January 19, 2008
NORTH ADAMS — State Sen. Benja- min B. Downing, D-Pittsfield believes that the next step in furthering the success of the creative economy in North Berkshire lies in retaining the young people that Williams College and MCLA are bringing to the area.
The freshman senator from Pittsfield praised the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts during an editorial board meeting at the Transcript Friday afternoon, in which he talked about the need to strengthen the creative economy in North County and a primary focus on bringing broadband to all of his 48 communities.
"Northern Berkshire has an incredible advantage with MCLA and Williams to capture the young college student and keep them here," Downing said. "Ever- yone else is jealous that North Adams has MCLA. If Mayor Jim Ruberto could steal the college away and bring it to Pittsfield he would."
A main priority this legislative season, he said, is to get either the higher education bill or life sciences bill, both which hold funding for a new science center at MCLA, passed and signed into law.
"All we have to do is look over the border to Albany to see all the investment that is being made," he said. "It's the result of that area consciously investing in education to build a workforce that will be able to sustain those jobs. Unless we begin developing a similar strategy, that won't happen. A science center at MCLA does just that — it promises a skilled workforce."
Downing said that he sees the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts remaining as a driving force within the creative economy, but that it will now play a different role than it has over the past nine years.
"It's a hope," he said. "Now is the time that it will draw individual workers in the creative economy, individual institutions and creative enterprises that will locate here because of the museum. It holds a lot of promise."
He said one obstacle North Berkshire has to overcome is an invisible divide.
"Too often it is said that North County is either Route 7 or Route 8," Downing said. "That has to end. There needs to be collaboration. I don't think our fut- ure is in attracting a Toyota plant here. It's in fostering the small business with three employees and helping it grow into one with 12 employees. It's about looking at what we have and growing off of that."
The senator said three key items will help grow the economy locally — the new science center, incentives to bring more energy choices to this end of the state and getting the broadband bond bill passed.
"I think we might be able to get this bill passed before this Legislative session is done," Downing said. "It's vitally important not only to my towns in Berkshire County, but also those I serve in Hampden and Franklin counties. While it might not draw in businesses to the area, it will draw the workers who want to be able to live here and still be able to access their work."
He said he's heard numerous complaints that executives living in the area can't lead video teleconferences because of a lack of broadband access.
"Of the 48 communities I serve, only half of them have full or partial access," Downing said. "Twenty-four have no access at all. It's not my goal to have every kid in my district googling non-stop, but it is important to the workers, the businesses and public safety."
While the more populated areas tend to have broadband access, he said that it is not enough.
"The key is to sell the Berkshires as a region - the cultural aspects and quality of life," the senator said. "Not everyone lives in North Adams and Pittsfield. We're talking about the viability of small communities and the rural way of life. This bill provides a platform for leveling the playing field."
Gov. Deval Patrick's broadband bill has earmarked $25 million to help build the "last mile" of infrastructure to bring service to underserved and unserved areas.
"The money is going to go to the unserved communities first — all of which are out here," Downing said. "It's going to have to be a collaboration of private and public funding to complete what needs to be done."
While he said there is a need to find additional revenue sources to help fund the commonwealth and its 351 municipalities, the senator is not in favor of legalizing casino gambling.
"I don't think opening the door to legalized gaming is smart, and I don't think it's sustainable," Downing said. "I think we can do better than casinos that also bring a host of social ills with them. The governor will say that they will bring 30,000 construction jobs, but I think we can find another way to bring them."
"An ambitious budget"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Governor Deval Patrick yesterday released an ambitious budget for difficult economic times, one that counts heavily upon $300 million in licensing fees for theoretical gambling casinos. It's a dangerous high-wire act and the Legislature isn't likely to stand below with a safety net.
The $28 billion spending plan comes as the United States faces a possible recession which, if history is any guide, will hit Massachusetts particularly hard when and if it arrives. Lottery officials estimate that the games will generate $124 million less than was promised to the state's already struggling communities. These stark realities aside, the governor is proposing a variety of new programs and spending increases, all of which are worthy, though some more than others. This is where the casino licensing fees come in to play.
The governor has proposed three casinos, with the selected bidders required to purchase licenses from the state. Mr. Patrick proposes to use $124 million of this funding to make up the local aid shortfall, with the remainder used to fund other proposals. He argues that this will force a reluctant Legislature to take his casino proposal seriously but it is more likely to cause an angry legislative leadership to bury casinos in a forgotten committee. Mr. Patrick's plan is disingenuous anyway because if casinos were approved tomorrow on Beacon Hill, the lengthy process of establishing a regulatory structure and gaining the necessary approval from the affected communities would make it nearly impossible to collect licensing fees in time to contribute to the fiscal 2009 budget which begins July 1.
While we share the legislative leadership's opposition to casino gambling, in fairness, all of the governor's revenue-generating proposals cannot be rejected. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi regards Mr. Patrick's plan to raise $297 million through the closing of corporate tax loopholes as a burden to business, but the loopholes are unfairly depriving the state of tax revenue. If they were closed, the state could make up the $124 million shortfall in lottery funding without going the casino route.
By including nearly $600 million from licensing fees and closed loopholes, Mr. Patrick is able to be aggressive, most notably in a $368 million increase in spending for education that includes funding for expanded full-day kindergarten classes and extended-day classes. We agree that education is a high priority, though perhaps not $368 million worth, and believe that $100 million to rehabilitate the state's long-neglected parks and visitors centers is money well-spent. Some of the governor's plans, however, such as $106 million in public safety funding, are unlikely to make the cut because he isn't going to get his $300 million in licensing fees through the Legislature.
Residents who feared that a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature would move in free-spending lock-step have had their fears eased over the past year. The real danger with this budget is an old-fashioned stalemate like those that pitted Republican governors against their Democratic counterparts. Establishing a budget is a matter of give-and-take, and there is room here for both. All parties should engage in this give-and-take with a minimum of political posturing.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick said more jobs and a stronger education system are key to reviving the economy during his first State of the Commonwealth speech last night. House Speaker Salvatore F. Dimasi looks on inside the Statehouse in Boston. (Associated Press)
"Patrick highlights jobs, education"
Wire and Staff Reports
Friday, January 25, 2008
BOSTON — Gov. Deval L. Patrick, delivering his first State of the Commonwealth address, said last night the key to reviving the state's economy is strengthening education, creating more jobs and inspiring the public to become more engaged in civic life.
He used his own rags-to-riches life story to drive home the point — and make the case for a handful of contentious initiatives, including his call for the creation of three resort casinos in Massachusetts.
He also threw down a challenge to lawmakers, with whom he has occasionally clashed, to help push through his agenda — from a $1 billion, 10-year life-science initiative to a five-year plan to virtually eliminate homelessness in Massachusetts.
"The people don't expect us to agree on everything, but they do expect us to engage. They expect us to work together toward the best solution. They expect action, and they deserve it," Patrick told an audience of lawmakers, state and local officials and family members. "I ask you to join with me in partnership."
Local legislators gave mixed reviews about the speech, which highlighted the "cost of inactivity."
"Just because we're not moving in the direction he wants us to go in doesn't mean we're not doing anything," said Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams. "We've been working day and night on the life-science bill, and I get discouraged that they blame us for inaction when we work as hard as we can to get these passed."
Those in the Senate seemed a little more supportive, including Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.
"He's right. We have a lot to do and the cost of inaction is high. Now we have to find a way to work together get some of this done by July," he said.
Patrick spoke to a packed House of Chambers, which included Bosley and Downing, as well as Representatives Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, Denis Guyer, D-Dalton, and William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
Patrick, who has described himself as an impatient governor, also spoke about what he called the cost of inaction on key programs like early education, renewable energy initiatives and repairs to roads and bridges.
In the speech, Patrick also announced the creation of a nonpartisan Governor's Council of Economic Advisors chaired by Cathy Minehan, former president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The council will include economists and leaders from local, national and international commerce.
Patrick launched the address telling the story of his own journey from a poor neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to a Milton prep school to Harvard University — a life that he said mirrored the quintessential American story of hard work and opportunity.
"One generation and the circumstances of my life and family were profoundly transformed. That story is not unlike many of yours in this room or elsewhere in this Commonwealth," Patrick said.
"For most of us, that story was made possible by a good education, great opportunities to work and develop our skills, and adults who involved themselves in our lives in key moments and ways," he added. "That is our agenda: schools, jobs and civic engagement."
The themes echoed elements of the $28.2 billion state budget proposal Patrick unveiled on Wednesday.
The budget included hoped-for dollars from Patrick's plan to open three casinos in Massachusetts — which he said would create 20,000 permanent jobs. Patrick has said he hopes to create jobs in the clean energy and life-sciences areas too.
Patrick wants to use $124 million in casino licensing fees to help close a shortfall in lottery aid to cities and towns. His budget plan also relies on nearly $300 million in revenue from the business loophole closings.
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, a casino opponent, had warned Patrick against including the money in his budget. Lawmakers have yet to hold a hearing on the casino plan.
DiMasi, who sat directly behind Patrick during the speech, has also been cool to the tax loophole plan.
DiMasi downplayed any friction with Patrick after the address.
"He basically gave a lot of people a call to action here," DiMasi said. "He focused on most of the similarities we have, not the differences."
Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said the Senate is ready to take up Patrick's initiatives.
"He wants us to get moving and we're ready to move," she said. "He says he's impatient, but what we do here takes a little time."
House Republican Leader Brad Jones said he was disappointed by what he called "more of the same" in Patrick's warning of a looming deficit while recommending increases in spending.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Eagle Boston Bureau Hillary Chabot contributed to this story.
"Obama has the character"
The Berkshire Eagle - Letters
Friday, January 25, 2008
It's a matter of character. The competition among the two top Democrats running for president has gotten contentious. We all hate this, but it does reveal differences in leadership character — which is what we focus on most in electing our presidents.
Sen. Obama, in both his speeches and answers to attacks, shows deep intelligence, political wisdom and experience, a sense of history, a sense of humor, and the patriotic, heartfelt urge and natural talent for reaching across party lines and age groups and national boundaries. He wants to make America one country and an ally of other countries in working to heal the world. No president or presidential candidate has appealed to us for a long time with such an inspirational message, or shown the personal qualities and political experience that convince us he can lead in that direction.
Sen. Clinton, in both her speeches and handling of attacks, shows grit and a determination to win, but a contentious nature — "scold" is an apt word — and an inability to inspire us beyond urging us to vote for her because we, somehow, owe it to her. She also has a wonkish approach to issues that seems to leave us out. And, we can see, more and more clearly, that the baggage she brings with her, including her husband, is reminding us increasingly of the Bush-Rove power broker style that we've endured for eight years now.
Listen to our better selves, listen to our youth, listen to our Gov. Patrick and our young state Sen. Ben Downing, listen to our Sen. Kerry, listen to our minority and immigrant populations: Obama.
Capital New 9, Albany, NY
"Lawmakers respond to State of the Commonwealth"
Updated: 01/25/2008 09:12 PM
By: Ryan Burgess
PITTSFIELD, M.A. -- "Let's start with education and invest in strategies that we know work."
A bold commitment made by the governor in his State of the Commonwealth Address to spend more than $223 million to support public schools. But with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, some education leaders are wondering where, exactly, that money's coming from.
"I think anytime, no matter what the source, if it wasn't yet in place, it raises questions,” said William Travis, Mount Greylock School District Superintendent.
The answer to those questions, for Governor Patrick, is casino gambling. He wants to build three in the Bay State. But now that the governor's gambling on using that money to boost education, some lawmakers are wondering why.
"Personally I would like to see critical investments like education, like transportation infrastructure made through reliable sources. Not those that are still dependent on a vote in the Legislature,” said Massachusetts Senator, Ben Downing.
Most officials said they are happy about the governor's commitment to funding public education. But many are still asking the question: is this funding too reliant on money generated from casinos. Now remember, these are casinos that still haven't been approved here in the Bay State.
“There's a concern about that. Personally I wish the governor hadn't included the casino revenues in there. It's not a debate that we've had in this Legislature. It's one that we've had in the past. One that I think we're ready to have again,” said Downing.
Lawmakers aren't all ready to tip their hand on the casino debate, but they say it's worth exploring for an important reason.
“Whether it's trying to improve our graduation rate, or trying to improve our schools. I think that's what's so critical about this Chapter 70 education funding. To combat some of the important issues that we're tackling locally, but to provide state support for that,” said Christopher Speranzo.
Support that may have to come from rolling the dice.
Kennedy endorsing Obama - Senator Ted Kennedy announced Monday, January 28th, 2008, that he is endorsing Barack Obama in the presidential election.
"Senator Kennedy endorsing Obama"
Updated: 01/28/2008 03:45 PM, By: Web Staff
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bay State is buzzing about yet another surprise in the presidential primary season.
Senator Ted Kennedy is endorsing Barack Obama for president. The Massachusetts senator made the announcement before a capacity crowd at American University in Washington D.C.
Kennedy's endorsement was highly sought after by all the Democratic candidates. Besides his status as a liberal icon and member of the Kennedy dynasty, his endorsement could also boast a broad national fundraising and political network.
Kennedy said he has always planned to "support the candidate who inspires" him and "who can lift our vision and summon our hopes."
Senator Kennedy said, "He is tough-minded, but he also has an uncommon capacity to appeal to the better angels of our nature. I'm proud to stand with him here today and offer my help, offer my voice, offer my energy, my commitment, to make Barack Obama the next President of the United States."
Kennedy went on to say that he respects Obama's opponents, Senator Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and will support whoever wins the Democratic party's nomination.
"Mass. lawmakers convene to press for Obama: Seeking Bay State win Super Tuesday"
By David Abel, Boston Globe Staff, January 30, 2008
About 40 elected officials from around the state met at Governor Deval Patrick's committee headquarters yesterday to support Senator Barack Obama's bid to win Massachusetts in next Tuesday's Democratic primaries.
The state lawmakers, city councilors, and other elected officials were joined via conference call by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Representatives Michael E. Capuano and William Delahunt.
Patrick sought to dampen expectations about Obama's chances against his chief Democratic rival, Senator Hillary Clinton.
"Nobody is kidding anybody," Patrick said. "This will be an uphill climb for this candidate. This is an insurgent campaign in many respects. . . .
"Unless we make it personal, we will not get it over the goal line," he said. "By that, I mean, tell somebody. Tell your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. Tell the people who support you why it is you have decided to support this visionary leader."
Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for Obama's campaign in Massachusetts, said he did not know whether the candidate would visit the state before Feb. 5.
But he said that as part of a national ad campaign in the runup to those primaries, the campaign planned to begin running ads today on cable and broadcast television in the Boston and Springfield areas.
Obama's leading rival in the race, Senator Hillary Clinton, visited Springfield Monday.
Mark Daley, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said he did not know whether Hillary or Bill Clinton would return to Massachusetts.
Cherlin said the Obama campaign is relying on about a dozen paid staff, hundreds of volunteers, and the lawmakers gathered to get out the vote in Massachusetts.
After problems with the conference call, Kennedy reiterated his endorsement of Obama, which he made at a large rally Monday in Washington, and called on officials to spread the word about the senator from Illinois.
"I said yesterday that change is in the air, and I think there's change in the air in Massachusetts, as well," he said. "I said I was looking for the candidate who could inspire, and now we've got one in Barack Obama. This is . . . a unique opportunity to elect a president who will inspire an entire nation and meet all the challenges that confront us."
He added: "We didn't get in this campaign to lose."
The officials who joined the governor included state Senators Dianne Wilkerson and Benjamin Downing; Representatives John Rogers, Linda Dorcena Forry, and Jamie Eldridge; and Councilors Michael Flaherty, Sam Yoon, and Charles Yancey.
The Berkshire Eagle: "I Publius-Alan Chartock: Primary predictions"
By Alan Chartock
Saturday, February 02, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts
Tuesday, we will know more — but the way it looks from here is that John McCain will win the Super Tuesday primaries. He has momentum and the Republicans operate under a "unit rule," which means winner take all.
If you get one more vote than the other guys, you win. McCain will get through Super Tuesday and be the clear choice of the Republican convention. It is important to remember that McCain is a Republican maverick. The party regulars are scared of him — and many of them will tell you so. But McCain has captured the imagination of the Republican electorate who are downright unhappy about the behavior of the incumbent. In fact, they are embarrassed by the guy, who wouldn't know the truth if he fell over it. It is no secret that the two men don't like each other.
The people who know McCain will tell you that once he makes up his mind about something, he's a real bulldog. This kind of character trait is a good thing when a man like McCain is right in areas like his opposition to the U.S. use of torture. On the other hand, when he's on the wrong side of an issue, as he is about the war in Iraq, there is real danger.
It is also important to remember that they guy is "of that age" when the choice of vice presidential nominee becomes very important. My bet is that the dropout, McCain endorser Rudolph Giuliani, must be looking at the second spot, and I expect McCain will pass on the (discredited) Rudy.
This should be a Democratic year, but that was true of the last national election, too, and the Democrats and John Kerry managed to blow it.
After McCain beat Romney in Florida, he went out of his way to be conciliatory to the failed Massachusetts governor. That was a smart move, and one that the two contending Democratic forces could have learned from.
Over on the Democratic side there is, as always, chaos. The three top dogs in Massachusetts have endorsed Barack Obama. Gov. Deval L. Patrick will tell you that he is indebted to Obama. Kerry doesn't seem to have any love for the Clintons. Maybe he felt they could have done more to help him and they hoped he would fail so that they could have their shot. But what really made a lot of people sit up and take notice was the Kennedy phalanx endorsement of Obama. I love it. I have to admit that I watched it on C-SPAN and the tears welled up in my eyes.
Teddy Kennedy is the lion of the Democratic party. He is one of the great speech-makers of our time. He is the brother of two martyred heroes and carries the torch for the disenfranchised. We are told that he was mad at the Clintons, particularly Bill, for his not so subtle attacks on Obama. Of course, it could have been anything.
Politicians have long memories for real or imagined slights from years past. But whatever it was, Teddy and niece Caroline Kennedy got up and did their thing.
Make no mistake about it. Bill Clinton was not, as has been suggested, off on his own as he attacked Obama. The Clintons have, at the very least, a tight political marriage. Bill Clinton has developed incredible amounts of political capital. Now, perhaps as a reward for all she had put up with, perhaps because he wants back in the White House, Clinton has begun to spend that capital, even though you can just see his popularity slipping. He became the "bad cop." Maybe that's what brought Teddy into the whole thing, maybe not.
The Democrats have a different set of rules from the GOP.
The Democrats award delegates according in proportion to the way the vote goes. If Clinton gets 51 percent of the vote in a state on Super Tuesday, she gets 51 percent of the convention delegates. There are also so-called "super delegates," the Congressmen and senators, and they will become very important. Clinton does have an emerging credibility problem. She knows that the convention is going to be bare knuckles, and very close, so she and her advisers decided to go into Florida where she had said she wouldn't participate.
She broke her word and campaigned.
Now that she has "won," she wants to change the rules and include the Florida and Michigan delegates. That's like changing the rules after the game is over. So that's where we are.
"Politicians to hold Q&A at EPOCH"
Community, Thursday, February 07, 2008
PITTSFIELD — State Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, who both maintain Pittsfield district offices, will hold a town-hall style question-and-answer session at EPOCH at Melbourne, on Friday, Feb. 22 at 10:30 a.m.
Schedule permitting, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, will join the meeting.
The politicians plan to discuss key issues the legislature that face this general court session, in addition to fielding constituent questions. EPOCH at Melbourne is located at 140 Melbourne Road.
This event is free and open to the public.
Information: (413) 499-1992.
"She who controls the purse: Terry Murray gave away $11 million of state money. Will anyone call her on it?"
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN, The Boston Phoenix, February 9, 2007
The rumor mill has been buzzing with speculation that Massachusetts senate president Robert Travaglini might leave the legislature to take a position with the Massachusetts Hospital Association or the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. This comes after rampant speculation last fall of Trav’s imminent departure.
True or not, the rumor has put a spotlight on one of Beacon Hill’s most powerful — and most feared — legislators: Senator Therese Murray of Plymouth, chair of the senate Ways and Means Committee, who many senators and staff believe has the support to succeed Travaglini.
That’s if a brewing scandal doesn’t explode in her face. According to some state employees, Murray appears to have personally directed $11 million of taxpayer money to a man who had been caught bilking the state before.
That contractor, William MacDougall, was supposed to be boosting international tourism to Massachusetts, a task at which he seems to have failed, according to Commerce Department data that shows a steady loss in the state’s international-tourist market share — and a surprising drop last year — since he received funding.
What MacDougall actually did is a mystery, because, according to state employees who oversaw his contract, he refuses to fully account for how he has spent the $6 million he received during the past two fiscal years. Now, MacDougall appears to have pushed the state beyond the limits of its patience. After weeks of closed-door meetings between Patrick administration officials and legislators, the state made the extraordinary decision to rescind the money already allotted to MacDougall in the current budget — $5 million that officials had been withholding because MacDougall refused to adequately account for his spending — and leave him out of the next fiscal year’s budget all together.
Still, the greater mystery to many in the tourism industry is why MacDougall received the budget earmarks in the first place, and why every attempt by the Romney administration to stop the waste was thwarted.
The answer, insiders insist, lies with First Berkshire representative Democrat Daniel Bosley and, more importantly, with Therese Murray. As a top Travaglini lieutenant who plays bad cop to his good cop, Murray controls the state budget as Ways and Means chair — and uses the power of the purse to reward and punish as she pleases, say Beacon Hill observers.
“The Romney people thought this kind of thing only happened in books like Black Mass, not in real life,” says one political insider — who, like many others, asked not to be named for fear of revenge from Murray.
The power of the purse has thus far insulated Murray from criticism, say her detractors, because Murray controls the budgets of the offices that should be investigating her actions. Meanwhile, the state auditor’s office has recently been handed reams of documents about the MacDougall fiasco, but a spokesperson there claims it is beyond that agency’s scope to investigate. (Others argue that because the money was a direct earmark, the office could perform a vendor audit of MacDougall.) And while the state Inspector General’s office received complaints about MacDougall more than a year ago, no inquiry has yet been made. Arguments that the MacDougall arrangement violates the “Pacheco Law” against privatizing a state function have fallen on deaf ears at senator Marc Pacheco’s own Post Audit and Oversight Committee.
By finally agreeing to stop the MacDougall money train, Murray may hope to put the mess behind her. But, as sources and documents show, she still has a lot to explain about why this happened in the first place.
“If your average taxpayer knew that you can take $11 million, give it to a couple of friends, with no oversight or supervision, and get away with it, they would go crazy,” says one individual who was directly involved in the bidding process for the state grant. “But that’s what happened.”
Was the fix in?
In late 2003, Murray slipped a $2 million expenditure for marketing international tourism into an economic-stimulus package. The function had previously been handled by state agencies, primarily the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT).
But instead of simply giving the $2 million to MOTT to increase international tourism, or authorizing that office to award the contract, Murray’s legislation privatized the function and assigned a tiny, obscure, quasi-public office to select an outside vendor, through a competitive-bid process, to receive the funds. That office, the Massachusetts International Trade Council, had no tourism experience, and had never been responsible for such a large contract, but agreed to handle it, according to those who were there at the time, because the process included an “administrative fee” that would allow the office to stay open, in spite of its recent loss of state funding.
The Trade Council, however, was never really intended to choose the vendor. Instead, in the same stimulus bill, Murray created a 17-member “advisory board” to assist the Trade Council — which Murray believed would select the vendor, as documents and correspondence from the process show. Murray placed herself on that advisory board, along with Bosley, who had become co-chair of the Economic Development committee; the two of them also stacked the advisory board with tourism-industry friends — from her base on the Cape and Bosley’s base in the Berkshires.
There were three bidders competing for the $2 million contract for international-tourism marketing. But Murray and Bosley — both of whom declined to be interviewed for this story — and their hand-picked friends on the advisory council voted for the newly created company of William MacDougall, a North Shore Republican who had been head of international tourism marketing in the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT) under Paul Cellucci.
Still, Murray’s plan to appoint MacDougall did not unfold without interruption. The Trade Council took their jobs seriously, raising objections to Murray and co’s unified support of MacDougall. They contended — and the state’s legal authorities concurred — that the power to choose who would receive the money belonged not to the advisory board, but to the Trade Council’s own three-person board of directors. “Someone had failed to give us the notice that the fix was supposed to be in,” says one staffer at the time.
With the state now backing them, the Trade Council’s staff sent its board members a 150-page report meticulously evaluating the bids. That report, which was never released publicly, has been obtained by the Phoenix. Not only did it recommend a different bidder, the Massachusetts Lodging Association (MLA), it concluded that MacDougall’s bid was ineligible — i.e., it did not meet the statute’s criteria.
In addition to other disqualifying problems, MacDougall’s international-tourism proposal included spending way more than the defined maximum of 20 percent on administrative costs. If overseas sales representatives’ fees are included, more than half the MacDougall plan was budgeted for administration — three times what the MLA’s budget put toward those same costs.
The Trade Council staff’s evaluation wasn’t the only voice of opposition, as revealed in correspondence obtained by the Phoenix.
Representatives of Boston’s Museum of Science and Museum of Fine Arts sent a letter condemning MacDougall: “The MFA and the MOS would not do business again with Mr. MacDougall.” Several dissenters on the advisory board submitted harsh warnings about MacDougall as well.
MacDougall contends, with some justification, that some of the dissenters had their own biases, due to their relationships with the other bidders. He also argues, less persuasively, that the trade council’s staff was taking direction from the Romney administration to block MacDougall’s bid. “It is my view that they sabotaged the competitive process,” he says.
But at least one dissenting member of Murray’s advisory board, Gerald DiPietro of TourCo in Hyannis, was convinced that the bid process was being pushed in the other direction — toward MacDougall. He sent a scathing letter to Travaglini and Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi.
“The perception in the tourism community throughout New England is that the entire process, and indeed the grant itself, was corrupt in the extreme,” he wrote. “I feel very strongly that [MacDougall’s company] should be eliminated from consideration.”
The decision to award the $2 million contract, however, fell into the laps of the three Trade Council board members in the fall of 2004.
“And this is where it goes through the looking glass,” in the words of one participant in the bid process.
Those three board members were in possession of a staff report telling them that MacDougall was undeserving, and, in fact, ineligible. But defying Murray’s wishes could have been politically disastrous for two of the board members. Mitchell Adams, the board’s chair, for instance, is executive director of the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which relies on state funding controlled by Murray’s committee. And Christopher Supple is a Beacon Hill lobbyist.
Adams and Supple abruptly resigned on the same day in November 2004.
Neither publicly cited the MacDougall decision as the cause. Still, under any circumstances, with just one member remaining of the three-person board, a majority decision was impossible. The final member — a bewildered Columbia University professor — gave up and resigned the following month, effectively dissolving the Trade Council.
Soon after, Ranch Kimball, then serving as Romney’s secretary of the Executive Office of Economic Development, asked Murray and House Ways and Means chair John Rogers to approve a transfer of the $2 million to MOTT so that it could start running the badly needed tourism-marketing program. But Murray denied the request, in a letter obtained by the Phoenix, so Kimball returned the money to the state comptroller.
According to one State House aide, Murray and Bosley then “went ballistic,” and redirected the money to MacDougall — bid process, be damned.
Bosley — after a meeting with MacDougall in Murray’s Ways and Means office, according to two other State House sources — then placed the $2 million into his committee’s latest supplemental budget, earmarked directly for MacDougall’s company, the Massachusetts International Marketing Partnership (MIMP). The legislation, which passed in February 2005, referred to MIMP as the entity that had been awarded the contract from the 2003 economic-stimulus legislation — a falsehood, as even MacDougall concedes, since no contract had been awarded at all.
To keep the Massachusetts Lodging Association from complaining — or, for that matter, bringing a lawsuit over the mysterious mothballing of the competitive bidding process — Bosley personally brokered a deal in Worcester, which several sources say was arranged by Murray. At that Worcester gathering, the MLA agreed to let MacDougall have the contract, and MacDougall agreed to put several MLA members on the governing board of his new entity, Tourism Massachusetts.
Perhaps by coincidence, MLA’s then-chair Mark Waxler, who hosted the Worcester meeting and agreed to the deal, soon received state funding for groups he was involved with in Worcester.
Meanwhile, the legislature earmarked $4 million more in the FY ’06 budget to MacDougall, overriding Romney’s veto. The next year, while the Business and Technology Department was still withholding some of the ’06 funds due to MacDougall’s failure to disclose his spending, the legislature earmarked another $5 million in the FY ’07 budget.
Romney again vetoed; the legislature again overrode.
None of your business
MacDougall says that he has bent over backward to demonstrate where the money has gone. But that documentation, obtained by the Phoenix, shows that expenses were broken down only in broad strokes.
Roughly $850,000 was spent on two marketing Web sites, for example, although his bid proposed spending just $35,000. MacDougall would not reveal who received that money, to the state or to the Phoenix. When asked for more detail by state officials, he responded: “There is no provision for us to provide contracts and/or invoices and we are not going to.”
So, for all anyone can tell, the Web sites might have cost half that, and MacDougall might have handed out the rest in stacks to friends. In a way, he has. His staff is mostly his old MOTT cohorts, as are the overseas sales representatives to whom he has paid nearly a million dollars in fees. Plus, his company, Tourism Massachusetts, rents space from, and has paid an undisclosed amount for Web design to, his friends at Rendon Associates — which is run by the husband of his former MOTT co-worker, and one-time MIMP employee, Tara Rendon.
Frustrated, Romney officials repeatedly tried to get MacDougall to disclose where the money had gone, and ultimately refused to sign a contract or release any FY ’07 money until he satisfied their requests for more information. But as the debates raged into November 2006, Romney abruptly stifled them, slashing the entire $5 million earmark as part of his “9C” emergency cuts.
Following those cuts, it was MacDougall who went ballistic, going so far as to bring a legal claim for the money, which proved unsuccessful.
Two of the Tourism Massachusetts board members, appointed as part of the deal brokered with the Lodging Association, resigned from MacDougall’s board in December. One said that MacDougall was running the enterprise “like a personal fiefdom,” according to Jay Fitzgerald, writing in the Herald.
Fitzgerald also revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of alleged wasteful spending — at a time when, with its funding frozen, Tourism Massachusetts’s vendors were owed money, and its grants were not being paid. The MLA offered a small loan to tide MacDougall over, but even that fell through.
MacDougall contends that Fitzgerald’s “shoddy newspaper reporting” lost him the state contract. But he doesn’t dispute any factual claims in those articles, and documentation shows that the funding had already been withheld for months before the situation broke in the media. “People were quitting his board before I even started working on this story, citing his management style and lack of spending oversight by the board,” Fitzgerald says.
Still, up until last week, MacDougall had reason to hope that he had an ace up his sleeve: the newly elected Deval Patrick administration.
Patrick, who had attended a MacDougall-hosted event during the campaign, swept out everyone who had been fighting MacDougall — part of the normal re-staffing of a new administration, says a spokesperson for the governor.
Paul Sacco, the tourism-industry veteran who headed MOTT, for example, was replaced by Betsy Coleman Wall, an industry novice and longtime Patrick friend, co-worker, and campaign deputy manager. Daniel O’Connell, who worked at MassPort with Tourism Massachusetts’s chairman Charles Yelen, became the head of the Executive Office of Business Development. And Leslie Kirwan, another MassPort veteran of those days, became Patrick’s secretary of Administration and Finance.
Slated to work above O’Connell, as special advisor for business development, was none other than Representative Daniel Bosley.
This time, however, MacDougall’s luck didn’t hold. Bosley changed his mind and declined Deval Patrick’s job offer — for reasons unrelated to MacDougall, according to several sources. And when Yelen spoke up for MacDougall in a personal meeting with O’Connell last week, he failed to sway him.
Although MacDougall portrays himself as a victim of unreasonable Romney personnel (and bad media), the new Patrick team has drawn the same conclusions as its predecessors: MacDougall has not come clean about where the money has gone, and has failed to produce the results he promised, according to a source at the new administration.
After numerous meetings and phone calls, a decision was made last Thursday to cut MacDougall off completely. The state will reimburse any legitimate, provable expenses already made, and fulfill any outstanding contracts with vendors. But the rest of the $5 million from the current fiscal year will go back to the state. And the FY ’08 budget will restore international tourism marketing funds to MOTT.
In the two years that MacDougall had the contract, international tourism to Massachusetts has declined, while going up in the rest of the US. Last August, for instance, state officials wrote to MacDougall that, by his own documentation, “for every dollar spent by MIMP on international tourism in 2005, the state actually lost $10 in direct spending” by tourists. The figures for 2006 were similar, according to Department of Commerce projections.
MacDougall and some others blame the bad numbers on the Romney administration’s refusal to promote international tourism. But that claim was belied by Romney’s budget proposal released the same month, February 2005, when the legislature short-circuited the competitive-bid process to award MacDougall the first $2 million.
Romney’s budget would have more than doubled MOTT’s funding, to $12 million, giving it plenty of funding to restart its international-marketing program. But Murray and Bosley would have none of it. They slashed his $12 million MOTT proposal down to $7.8 million, with $4 million of that earmarked directly to MacDougall’s MIMP. Clearly, their interest was not in more money for tourism marketing, but more money for William MacDougall.
At the very least, Murray is guilty of bad judgment, in choosing to champion MacDougall, who had been forced to resign from MOTT in 2001, after state auditor Joseph DeNucci accused MacDougall of “inappropriate use” of the state’s money.
That “inappropriate use” includes the failure to report more than $40,000 worth of airline upgrades bestowed upon him by airlines MOTT did business with, which is in direct violation of the agency’s policies. And, according to DeNucci’s report, it also includes thousands of dollars of undocumented, unsubstantiated, or duplicate reimbursements for travel expenses, and personal use of frequent-flyer miles that belonged to the state.
The most damning claim against MacDougall, however, is detailed in materials that were part of the auditor’s inquiry. It alleges that MacDougall reimbursed himself $1007 for an airline ticket that he never paid for. MacDougall insisted it was legitimate, but a Virgin Atlantic Airways manager confirmed that “You have a dirty ticket,” according to an auditor staff memo.
MacDougall denies any wrongdoing, and tells the Phoenix that his leaving MOTT was unrelated to the audit report. Curiously, his personnel file disappeared from the office files, according to two sources.
But the financial misdeeds were only part of the problem — and in fact, prior to 2001, people had been trying to get rid of MacDougall for other reasons.
One was Charles Yelen (now chairman of Tourism Massachusetts), who was MacDougall’s counterpart at MassPort, the other state agency doing international-tourism marketing. In memos to then–MassPort director Virginia Buckingham obtained by the Phoenix, Yelen blasted MacDougall’s “unprofessional and often boorish” behavior. Buckingham, in turn, lobbied Governor Jane Swift.
MOTT’s director at the time, Mary Jane McKenna, had friends in the legislature where she had previously served — most notably Murray in the Senate and Bosley in the House. Both are from districts that rely heavily on tourism as their economic engine: the Cape for Murray and the Berkshires for Bosley.
And both, particularly Murray, had become personal friends with state tourism officials and industry leaders, who regularly took Murray on state-paid international junkets to promote Massachusetts, say people in the field. “She was traveling to Italy every year as part of the MOTT sales missions,” says one.
Several sources say that Murray became “regular drinking buddies” not only with McKenna, but with industry figures such as Sheila Martines Pina, former executive director of the Southeastern Massachusetts Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Debra Catania, whose family owns the Cape Codder Resort in Hyannis as well as other vacation properties. Pina, Catania, and Catania’s father were all on the stacked “advisory board” that tried to award the contract to MacDougall in 2004, and Pina, who was recently fired from her Visitors Bureau job, has been placed on the Tourism Massachusetts board. It was Catania, people say, who championed MacDougall to Murray. Just after the original $2 million appropriation was passed, Catania sent a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Phoenix, informing people in the tourism industry about it, boasting, “I have been working very closely with Senator Terry Murray” to make it happen. Catania did not return phone calls from the Phoenix.
But at the time of the auditor’s report, neither Murray nor Bosley were powerful enough to save MacDougall or his boss, Mary Jane McKenna, who resigned as director of MOTT in 2002. Nor could they save the international marketing-tourism budget in the budget crisis and post-9/11 decline in airline travel.
This ended the junkets. It also devastated Murray’s friends in the industry, who lobbied her to restore the funding after she became Ways and Means chair when Travaglini became senate president in 2003.
At the same time, Murray found herself forced to defend her senate seat against self-funded challenger Timothy Duncan. People like Debra Catania and their well-heeled friends would prove invaluable, as Murray ran the single most expensive state- senate campaign in Massachusetts history.
She spent a staggering $474,095 — no other senate candidate in the state spent more than $300,000 that year — and her tourism-industry connections were critical to her fundraising. Not only did they personally donate, they hosted fundraising events — including at least two at Debra Catania’s Daniel Webster Inn — and invited their friends to donate.
The doomed bid process was going on throughout that year — in fact, the two Trade Council board members resigned just days after Murray won re-election. And soon after that, Murray and Bosley handed the earmark to MacDougall, who had been openly championed by Catania.
Not much later, the junkets returned. Murray and other legislators went to Russia this past year, paid in part through a grant from Tourism Massachusetts, for instance. That excursion was ostensibly to encourage visitors from a town that, by one industry source’s estimate, might generate a maximum of 35 tourists to Massachusetts.
"IG Report on State Senate Prez takes a convenient dive: Fails to deal with tourism controversy"
By: DAVID S. BERNSTEIN, The Boston Phoenix, 2/15/2008
After a full year investigating a Boston Phoenix article about State Senate President Therese Murray, the state’s Inspector General released a report today finding “no evidence of impropriety” in the legislature’s awarding of $11 million worth of contracts for international-tourism marketing.
The report, however, fails to even address many of the key elements of the Phoenix story, while agreeing in almost every respect with the article’s claims. It seems Inspector General Gregory Sullivan — a former legislative colleague of Murray, whose budget is controlled by the legislature she oversees — goes out of his way in the report to avoid addressing — let alone criticizing — many of the most important actions described in the article.
Sullivan’s report disputes or contradicts only a few minor claims in the article — one of which — a mention of Murray having traveled to Italy — the Phoenix retracted two weeks after the story ran, almost one year ago. Nevertheless, the IG’s office “reviewed Senator Murray’s passport…and found no evidence of any entries into Italy.”
But while conceding that she had not, as we erroneously reported, gone to Italy, the Phoenix stood by the broader assertion in the article — which Sullivan’s report failed to even address — that:
…Murray had become personal friends with state tourism officials and industry leaders, who regularly took Murray on state-paid international junkets to promote Massachusetts, say people in the field.
The 3500-word Phoenix article, published in February 2007, described the process through which Murray and representative Daniel Bosley privatized the international-tourism marketing function previously run by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT) — and ensured that the contract would be awarded to an individual named William MacDougall. As the article said:
“If your average taxpayer knew that you can take $11 million, give it to a couple of friends, with no oversight or supervision, and get away with it, they would go crazy,” says one individual who was directly involved in the bidding process for the state grant. “But that’s what happened.”
Murray and Bosley championed MacDougall, the article reported, even though he had been forced to resign from MOTT after the state auditor’s office accused him in 2001 of inappropriate use of state money, failure to report gifts, personal use of state frequent-flyer miles, and thousands of dollars of questionable reimbursements.
The IG’s report mentions nothing about these apparent irregularities of MacDougall, his association with Murray and others involved in helping steer the contract to him, nor other objections and complaints that had been raised about him in the Phoenix article.
Nor does it address allegations that MacDougall paid more than $1.1 million on Web site development, when his original proposal called for $35,000.
Regarding the awarding of the contract, almost everything in the IG’s report concurs with the Phoenix’s version of events. Those aspects of the story that the report does not specifically corroborate, neither does it refute.
With one exception: The IG challenges the reason given by the Phoenix for the abrupt resignations of all three board members of the agency — the Massachusetts International Trade Council, Inc. (MITCI) — charged, by statute, with awarding the contract.
The Phoenix speculated that, although they never said so, the directors may have left because of pressure over this contract decision. Two of the three directors held full-time jobs that depended in large part on Murray’s power as Ways and Means chair. The IG’s report offers a different explanation, rooted in administrative technicalities.
Regardless, Murray and Bosley then gave the contract to MacDougall through a direct earmark in a supplemental-budget bill. They ultimately appropriated $11 million to him over three years.
Those appropriations claimed that MacDougall’s non-profit entity had been chosen under the statutory bidding process, but this was not true — that bidding process was never completed after the directors’ resignations. The IG’s report corroborates this.
The IG’s report also repeatedly omits the central roles played by Murray and Bosley in the events it describes. For example, it says that “the state senate” put the first $2 million initiative into an economic-revitalization package, but does not say that Murray introduced it.
And, while claiming to have accounted for all of MacDougall’s expenditures — which he refused to detail for either the Romney or Patrick administrations, leading to the ultimate termination of the contract — the IG’s report fails to provide any significant accounting for large payments. For example, MacDougall paid more than a million dollars to his United Kingdom representative (with whom he had done business when working at MOTT), with no breakdown of how much was spent on advertising, printing, fees, or other uses.
Many other portions of the Phoenix article are simply never mentioned in the IG’s report, including questions about whether the contract observed provisions of the Pacheco Law against privatization; and a suggestion that the chair of an opposing bidder was rewarded with state funding after agreeing to a cooperative role.
"A greener future"
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorial
Monday, March 10, 2008
It was little noted, but last month, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson acknowledged before a Senate committee both that global warming is "unequivocal" and that man-made emissions are largely responsible. Unfortunately, he did it in the context of arguing that California should not be allowed to pass stricter rules against vehicle emissions because that is the responsibility of the EPA — which refuses to act. Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, declaring that the EPA is a "serial stonewaller," is fighting the agency on behalf of Vermont, California and other states, but it may take regime change to get the EPA to begin doing its job.
Happily, a solid record on environmental legislation is something that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain have in common. Indeed, Senator McCain's willingness to work with Democrats on environmental issues is one reason why his party's far-right fringe is unhappy with him. The next president and Congress may actually be able to make some progress on global warming and other environmental issues.
Whatever Washington does or doesn't do, however, states and local communities will still need to do what they can to protect the environment from further harm. The Global Warming Solutions Act, which the Massachusetts Student Public Interest Group (MassPIRG) advocated for, with assistance from Pittsfield Democrat Benjamin Downing, requires Massachusetts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. This would not only cut down on the emissions that fuel global warming it would help the state reduce its use of increasingly expensive foreign fossil fuels.
Last week, a state task force issued a report urging Massachusetts to encourage a biofuel industry. Among the worthy recommendations were exempting biofuels from the state gas tax and requiring all home heating fuels to contain a minimum amount of bio-based alternatives. Biofuels pollute less, make good use of forest and agricultural waste, and as the report noted, provide jobs. With Berkshire Biodiesel of Pittsfield gearing up, we hope Beacon Hill will follow up on the report with concrete action.
On a mountain north of Pittsfield, the wind turbine that is providing clean energy for Jiminy Peak has led to the creation of EOS Ventures, which will build turbines and sell the power. CEO Tyler Fairbank, who is partners with his father, Brian, and Joe O'Donnell, the owners of Jiminy, should find customers in government and business for a clean, sustainable private energy source. The desire to find a green way to provide power to Jiminy has led to the creation of a business that should prompt the development of wind power, a clean and underutilized source of energy.
"Downing Secures $6.5 Million Authorization For PEDA"
"Spec Building In Life Sciences Bond Bill"
iBerkshires.com - March 21, 2008
Boston - As the Massachusetts Senate considered the Governor’s Life Sciences bond bill during today’s formal session, State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) secured the adoption of an amendment he filed, authorizing $6.5 million for the design, construction and development of a life science incubator building at the William Stanley Business Park in the City of Pittsfield.
“Making industry-ready commercial space available to prospective businesses is vital to rejuvenating the economy of Pittsfield and the surrounding region,” said Downing. “It is important that western Massachusetts carve its own niche in the Commonwealth’s emerging life science industry. This targeted investment will pay dividends for years to come.”
Using payments promised by General Electric (GE) in 1999, the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA) is spearheading the redevelopment efforts of former GE land, now recognized as a Brownfield and known locally as the William Stanley Business Park. Downing’s amendment authorizes $6.5 million for design and construction of a 30,000 square foot facility. Construction of an incubator building on-site is intended to attract businesses and provide a temporary growth space, or small business incubator, that would also house on-site employee training. This project is the next step towards filling the redeveloped space with new high tech businesses.
This $6.5 million authorization for PEDA was also included in the House of Representative’s version of the life sciences bond bill, though in a different account. As the Senate and House have engrossed competing versions of the life sciences bond bill, the differences between must be reconciled by a conference committee before it can be forwarded to the Governor for final approval.
"[Jimmy] Ruberto and Donna Walto Face Off in Debate"
iBerkshires.com - By Jen Thomas - October 30, 2007
PITTSFIELD - Election Day is right around the corner and mayoral candidates James M. Ruberto and Donna M. Walto are taking every opportunity to tell the public their plans for the city.
In a Berkshire Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate on Tuesday morning, incumbent Ruberto faced off against Walto on economic development strategies, ways to include the growing immigrant population in politics and plans for public funds. Fielding questions from Berkshire Eagle staff reporter Jenn Smith, the candidates expressed their vision for the next stage of the city's development.
"I am running for mayor because I care about our city," said Walto in her opening statement. "We need to restore Pittsfield and all of the people need a voice, not just a chosen few."
The mother of three said her "personal touch" would make all the difference if she is elected to lead the city into the future. As an entrepreneur (she owns Berkshire Sightseeing Backroad Tour Co.), Walto said the attributes that make her a successful businesswoman would also help her effectively run the city.
"I will use my knowledge, my integrity and my honesty to bring our city forward," she said.
For Ruberto, a third term would mean continuing the initiatives he's already put in place and working to produce "more results."
"We're looking at new businesses while also working hard to retain what we have," said Ruberto.
The mayor also said the next step in his plan is to move into the neighborhoods and establish revitalization efforts that include improving streets and sidewalks.
Investment in Education
When asked about incentives to strengthen the school system, Walto and Ruberto agreed on the value of education for the city's youth but little else.
Ruberto outlined his administration's commitment to placing more teachers in classrooms as an indicator of his dedication to education. While much had been done in the schools, he said, there are still certain elements where "critical improvement is still needed," including a still-escalating high school dropout rate and less-than-outstanding Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores.
Walto said her plan to aid the youth of the city begins with strong family support. She recommended educating young mothers and single parents, while also promoting confidence in youngsters from preschool onward.
Additionally, Walto said city youth needed motivation to pursue education.
"We're failing our children by not giving them the background of economic viability," she said.
A key issue for both Walto and Ruberto, the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority site is a topic of contention among city residents. Acquired by the city following an agreement with General Electric to clean up PCB-contaminated areas, the William Stanley Business Park has yet to welcome its first tenant.
"There are a series of steps that are needed to lay the infrastructure of what will be the most prestigious and most attractive business park in western Massachusetts," said Ruberto, adding that he "won't be pushed into making bad decisions" at the site.
Earlier this year, Walto called for an investigation of the goings-on at the site and at Tuesday's debate, she said she'd replace the entire PEDA board if elected.
"The PEDA site is a failure," she said. "Right now, it is a barren wasteland. [The site] has given the city of Pittsfield a very bad reputation and it reflects our very poor governmental leadership."
According to Ruberto, some construction is moving forward at the site, including road development, the laying of sewer lines and landscaping.
Another major project in the works is the construction of a $12.9 million Beacon Cinema in the Kresge-Kinnell building. One of Ruberto's most-celebrated cultural development projects, the cinema will be located at 49-55 North St. and would draw up to 200,000 visitors each year, according to Ruberto.
"Will this mayor continue to drive to Boston to find more money for this project? Absolutely. Will this mayor be there when 200,000 people flood to the downtown and more businesses flourish? Absolutely. Will this mayor rejoice when people call this the best community in the world. Absolutely," Ruberto said.
According to Walto, the cinema would only benefit those who could afford to attend movies there, which is not the taxpayers of the city.
"The Beacon Cinema may be a good idea but it should not be on the backs of taxpayers," she said. "Without sound economic development, people are not interested in going to theaters or movies. They're interested in finding ways to put food on the table."
With the Nov. 6 election day next week, both candidates are hoping to gain the public's trust.
For Walto, that means going door to door in neighborhoods and educating residents on the importance of civic engagement.
"A vote for me is a vote for you," she said. "I want an open and honest government and I will practice democracy in my office. This city is our city and this government is our government and I will make sure everyone is treated fairly, not just the wealthy."
Ruberto said he plans to follow the city's values of creativity, innovation, compassion, tolerance and entrepreneurship, if re-elected.
"We've layed out a vision and we've begun to implement that vision and we will continue to do so. There is history and evidence that this administration has moved forward effectively and efficiently," Ruberto said. "I've seen all the difference."
News & Notes: "State Shortfall Could Mean Gas Hike"
By Larry Kratka - April 01, 2008, Berkshire News Network
"Gas Tax May Be Last Resort"
PITTSFIELD — There is a possibility that Massachusetts may raise the tax on gasoline if the state cannot close its $1.3 billion shortfall and a hike in the gas tax would not sit well with Massachusetts residents.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, told the Berkshire News Network that a hike in the gas tax is a possibility. However, he said that until the state gets all the savings possible out of the budget, no one will have an appetite for a gas tax.
On Monday, Gov. Deval Patrick said it was possible that gas could near $4 a gallon because of the high cost of oil. Prices across the state are averaging about $3.15, up 50 cents over last year at this time.
But if lawmakers save every last nickel and still don't erase the budget shortfall, the state would have to look at other options. Downing was careful not to predict that a hike in the gas tax would have a chance to be introduced. Patrick has refused to rule out the possibility of imposing a new tax at the pump and while legislative leaders have not embraced the idea publicly, few have rejected it entirely.
"Downing looks back at year one"
By Cara Hogan, (Berkshire) Eagle Boston Bureau
Monday, March 31, 2008
BOSTON — State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing defied expectations by becoming the youngest member of the Massachusetts Legislature at 26 years old, and he has continued to surprise the public with inventive and forward-thinking policy.
Downing is still a newcomer to Beacon Hill after serving his first year in office representing the Berkshires, but he has thrown himself head-first into economic and environmental issues since his election in 2007.
"Every issue is going to be an environmental issue in this century," said Downing, sitting behind a neatly organized desk. "The more forward-looking we are when it comes to climate change and sustainable development, the more jobs we're going to create."
He said he hopes to reinvigorate the Berkshire economy, and his bills, such as the Broadband Plan and Green Jobs Initiative, have found support in the Senate. His effectiveness as a freshman legislator defies those who thought he had little chance to make it to Beacon Hill in the first place.
The 2006 Berkshire Democratic primary echoed the race between presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, with youth and inexperience vying against an older veteran. Downing beat the well-established former state Rep. Christopher J. Hodgkins by 1 percent of the vote.
"The younger people whom he energized and brought into the campaign won it for him," said Downing's uncle, John F. "Jack" Downing Jr., who helped run his campaign. "Most of the Democratic power base in the Berkshires went to his opposition, but he didn't back down. The voters believed in him."
Youth 'a hurdle'
Benjamin Downing said he knew he faced criticisms about his youth and was prepared.
"We always knew from the first day I got into the race that my age was going to be a hurdle to go over," he noted. "We joked that, so long as I didn't show up on somebody's doorstep with a backwards hat, an iPod and chewing gum, then people would take me seriously."
After the close primary, Downing defeated the Republican candidate with ease and started working on the issues that matter to the Berkshires, including his work with the Biofuels Task Force.
"We want to bring on some renewable power generated locally, hopefully distributed locally, so that we can build a more sustainable economy in the Berkshires," Downing said. "We want to have an energy policy that not only reduces our dependence on foreign oil but also creates jobs and economic opportunity."
Downing enjoys a strong following in his home district. He has garnered awards including "Best Legislator of the Berkshires" and "Legislator of the Year" by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
And he doesn't lack a sense of humor, as exhibited during a meeting last month of the Joint Committee on Bonding.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick attended the meeting with a new and nearly bald hair style, and Sen. Mark Montigny suggested that he should talk to the balding Downing.
"Mine will grow back," Patrick said, and the crowd responded with laughter.
Downing quickly replied from the back of the room, "I just want to know if it'll grow back quicker if we get casinos."
Family history of politics
Downing's success in the Legislature may have surprised some, but not anyone who knows his family. Politics are in his blood. His father, the late Gerard D. Downing, was the district attorney in Berkshire County for 13 years and passed on a passion for politics.
"We always talked about politics around the kitchen table," Downing said. "And we always held signs for candidates. So I was lucky in that sense that politics wasn't a different path to take, it was something that was omnipresent in our lives."
Downing's father died in 2003, leaving a legacy for his community and his family.
"I've known Ben Downing his whole life, and he was always a very bright guy and very active in his father's campaigns," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "It didn't surprise me one bit that he went into politics. His father would be very proud of him to be in politics so young."
The lifelong connection between Pignatelli and Downing continues, with the two Berkshires legislators working together on issues that affect the region, including the Broadband initiative, which will bring the Internet to more communities in Western Massachusetts.
"We've worked very closely on the creative economy in the Berkshires and dealing with declining industry," Pignatelli said. "I think the world of Ben; he's a breath of fresh air."
With his father as inspiration, Downing attended Providence College and graduated in 2003 with a bachelor's in political science. He moved to Washington, D.C., to work for U.S. Reps. William Delahunt, Richard E. Neal and then John W. Olver, this area's congressman. Downing said he enjoyed Washington and learned firsthand the workings of government.
"I especially enjoyed working in Congressman Olver's office," Downing said. "It was a nice blend of being in Washington, gaining political experience, but also being able to serve the communities that I grew up in."
Returning home, Downing confided in his uncle that he wanted to go into public service, like his father.
"He continues to surprise me with his desire to serve people," Jack Downing said. "At such a young age, I wasn't that unselfish."
Even Benjamin Downing's former opponents now support his work. North Adams Mayor John Barrett III backed Hodgkins in the primary election and now has nothing but praise for Downing.
"He's doing a very good job," Barrett said. "I knew he was a very precocious young man, but the maturity and understanding of the legislative process in his first year has been remarkable."
Barrett said that Downing works hard for the people he represents.
"A lot of elected people go down to Boston and forget where they came from," Barrett said. "He knows the issues, and he's not afraid to take a stand and take on the governor. He's good; he just needs to stop telling jokes about how he's bald."
'A lot to do'
After one year, the future looks bright for Downing, although he will not reveal any of his goals.
"I still pinch myself every day," Downing said. "I can't believe I have the opportunity to do this. For now, I'm just looking at what's on my plate. There's a lot to do, and I don't feel like I've come anywhere near cleaning it."
His uncle, however, hopes that he'll keep dreaming big and go from the youngest Massachusetts senator to an even more illustrious position.
"His father was 5-foot-6 and spent his whole life saying it's not about the size of the person but the size of the heart," said Jack Downing. "For now, he wants to be the best senator Massachusetts ever had. I hope he wants to be president."
"Mass.: Cigarette tax has backers"
The Boston Globe Online, April 7, 2008
BOSTON—Senate President Therese Murray says a proposed $1 tax hike on a pack of cigarettes has strong support in the Senate.
more stories like thisMurray says the extra revenue will help cover the higher than expected costs of Massachusetts' landmark health care law.
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi proposed the cigarette tax increase. Gov. Deval Patrick said he wants to see the bill before deciding whether to sign it.
The cost of the health care law is soaring in part because more people than expected have signed up for subsidized care.
Republicans are planning a news conference Tuesday to oppose tax increases, including the cigarette tax hike. Murray, DiMasi and Patrick are all Democrats.
"How's this for a sweet tax?"
The North Adams Transcript - Letters
Monday, April 7, 2008
To the Editor:
Needed: new revenue The state taxes health-damaging items like tobacco and alcoholic drinks. Let's add sugar, candy and sweetened sodas to the list.
Besides increasing revenue, it would provide an opportunity to remind folks of how damaging sugars and artificial sweeteners are to everyone, not just diabetics, and, hopefully, not only encourage users to reduce their consumption, but also lessen the state's expenses for health care.
Marion P. Goodale
April 3, 2008
Team Downing (Left to Right): Heather Viola, Jonathan Butler, Bethann Steiner, Elizabeth Mahony & Allison Johnson
"Downing's Anti-Idling Bill Clears Senate"
iBerkshires.com - April 10, 2008
Boston - State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) is pleased to announce that today during its formal session the Massachusetts Senate passed his legislation prohibiting school buses, commercial and personal vehicles from idling on school property.
“This bill is an opportunity for Massachusetts to guarantee cleaner air on school grounds while saving our school districts significant fuel and maintenance costs and promoting positive climate change measures.” said Downing. “I am so pleased that my Senate colleagues joined me in passing this legislation.”
An Act to Improve School Campus Air Quality compliments existing programming administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). DEP’s Idling Reduction Toolkit aids cities and towns in their efforts to reduce idling and improve air quality. To date, forty communities statewide, including Egremont and Williamstown, participated in this campaign. Still other towns, such as Lenox, have developed their own response to unnecessary vehicle idling on school grounds.
After attending local Step It Up events last spring urging national action on global warming, Downing was inspired to craft this legislation by Rick Gregg, Lenox resident and Chairman for the “Idle-Free” Massachusetts Campaign of the American Lung Association. The bill, filed last September and co-sponsored by 48 legislators, has moved relatively swiftly through the legislative process thus far.
“More than one million children and teenagers attend school in Massachusetts each day,” said Gregg. “Motor vehicle exhaust is highly toxic to human health and the environment, and many chemicals found in these fumes are identical to those found in tobacco smoke. This bill will ensure that our children, teachers, staff, school bus drivers and visitors are able to breathe cleaner, healthier air. I applaud Senator Downing and his colleagues for passing this bill.”
“The air is a public trust- we must work to improve and protect it. By eliminating engine idling and the pollution that comes from it at our schools, we will be providing healthier air for our children to breathe. We applaud the passage of this legislation and its intent to improve public health,” said Jeffrey Seyler, President and CEO of the American Lung Association of New England.
This legislation addresses many pressing issues facing policy-makers in the Commonwealth, such as air quality, public health, environmental stewardship and transportation costs. Across the state, over 9,000 school buses and 770 school vehicles transport nearly 750,000 children to school each day. Children board idling buses that fill the air with dangerous emissions, running cars waiting to pick children up from school also contribute to this pollution. This unnecessary idling pumps added carbon dioxide into playground air, while school ventilation systems draw in these harmful fumes and re-circulate them throughout school buildings. Children breathe up to 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults, making them more susceptible to both acute and chronic respiratory problems including asthma, the leading source of chronic illness among children and leading cause of school absenteeism.
School buses “idle-away” an average of 1.35 million gallons of fuel annually. With fuel prices topping $3.00 per gallon, this legislation will save school districts statewide over $4 million each year.
Contrary to common belief, warming engines before driving does not improve fuel efficiency. Ten seconds of idling uses more fuel than turning the engine off. Idling increases maintenance costs because it leaves fuel residues that contaminate motor oil and clog fuel injectors. Vehicles idling 10 minutes per day waste more than 29 gallons of fuel each year.
This is the first bill drafted and sponsored by Downing to be engrossed by the Senate. The proposal is now before the House of Representatives for further action.
"Health care bill sails in Senate"
By Matt Murphy, (Berkshire) Eagle Boston Bureau
Friday, April 18, 2008
BOSTON — With the state's landmark health care reform law threatening to bleed state coffers, Senate lawmakers yesterday took a significant step toward reining in the long-term costs of providing health care in Massachusetts.
The Senate passed legislation, filed by Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, that would move the state toward electronic medical records by 2015 and standardized insurance claims for doctors by 2012.
The bill also imposes a ban on gifts to doctors from pharmaceutical companies carrying a $5,000 fine, eliminating a previous provision that would have imposed criminal penalties but requiring pharmaceutical representatives to be licensed by the Department of Public Health.
The law would make Massachusetts the first state to ban such gifts, seen by critics as driving up the cost of prescription drugs.
"This legislation is crucial to the future vitality of our health care system and our economy," Murray said.
"We need to get this legislation to the governor's desk as soon as possible, and I look forward to working with our friends in the House to get this done quickly. The cost of inaction is too great," she said, echoing a popular refrain of Gov. Deval L. Patrick.
The passage of the bill comes a day after Patrick filed a supplemental budget requesting an additional $153 million to cover the greater than anticipated cost of the state subsidized insurance program, Commonwealth Care.
More than 300,000 new people have signed up for insurance since the health care reform law was enacted.
"I'm not worried so much. On one hand it's been successful. We've insured a lot of people more than we expected, so our costs are higher now. We're victims of our own success, but we want to be the beneficiaries of that success down the road," said Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, chairman of Senate Ways and Means.
The transition to electronic medical records is estimated to cost $25 million — which the Senate is now committed to pay in its budget — but is expected to produce long-term savings. Part of the profits from a $1 hike in the state cigarette tax could be used to cover the initial cost.
The bill also includes a loan-forgiveness program for nurses, expands enrollment at state medical schools and allows patients to choose nurse practitioners as their primary care provider to increase access to medical treatment and reduce the burden on emergency rooms.
"Massachusetts senate president opposes proposed aircraft tax"
by The (Springfield) Republican Newsroom, Friday April 18, 2008, 2:43 PM
By DAN RING, firstname.lastname@example.org
BOSTON - Opponents now have a powerful new ally on Beacon Hill in their effort to block a plan to restore the 5 percent sales tax on aircraft and aircraft parts.
Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, opposes reinstating the tax, according to her spokesman, David Falcone.
"The president is not in favor of reinstating the sales tax on aircraft and aircraft parts," Falcone said. "She wants to keep the exemption in place. Removing the exemption would drive businesses out of the state."
In his version of the state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, Gov. Deval L. Patrick proposed restoring the tax, saying it could raise about $9 million a year.
House budget leaders are supporting Patrick's effort to bring back the sales tax on aircraft, part of a $166 million tax-increase package.
Members of the state House of Representatives could vote as soon as April 28 on the proposal.
A revival of a sales tax could hurt businesses such as AirFlyte and General Dynamics Aviation Services at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.
State legislators from Westfield in 2001 won a major victory at the Statehouse when they helped pass a law to eliminate the tax on the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts.
(More details in The Republican tomorrow: Saturday, April 19, 2008.)
State Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, opposes reinstating a 5 percent aircraft tax.
"Downing, Guyer Laud Pharmacist's Appointment to Board"
iBerkshires.com - April 24, 2008
DALTON — Dalton resident Stanley B. Walczyk, owner and president of O'Laughlin's Home Care Pharmacy & Medical Equipment, has been appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to the state Board of Registration in Pharmacy.
"When supporting Stan Walczyk's candidacy for appointment, I knew he’d be a natural fit for the Board," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield. "Having a longtime community leader from Berkshire County serving on this important body who understands the importance of providing the best in pharmaceutical care will be a tremendous asset to the people of the commonwealth.'
Walczyk has had a long and successful career in pharmacy. He has served in a leadership capacity on various commissions and boards, including his gubernatorial appointment to the Drug Formulary Commission; serving as president of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Alumni Association; and his membership to the Massachusetts Pharmacist Association and National Association of Retail Druggists. He has twice been honored by his peers with professional awards through his receipt of the Bowl of Hygea Award in Pharmacy (1984) and the Joseph P. Gagne Award (1992).
"I am very pleased that the governor has appointed Mr. Walczyk to the board. He is a well respected member of the community and very knowledgeable in the pharmacy field," said state Rep. Denis E. Guyer, D-Dalton. "He will bring a great deal of expertise and a strong voice from Berkshire County to the table. I am honored that I was given the opportunity to support his candidacy."
Walczyk said, "It's an honor to be appointed as a member of the Board of Registration in Pharmacy. I look forward to the opportunity to serve the commonwealth and bring the concerns of community pharmacy to the forefront."
The Board of Registration in Pharmacy serves the Department of Public Health to promote, preserve and protect the public health, safety and welfare by fostering the provision of quality pharmaceutical care to the citizens of Massachusetts through the regulation of the practice of pharmacy, the operation of pharmacies, and the distribution of prescription drugs in the public interest.
"Biofuels Could Be Boon for Bay State"
By Tammy Daniels -iBerkshires Staff- April 24, 2008
NORTH ADAMS — The biofuels industry could pump anywhere from $280 million to a billion a year into the state's economy, generate thousands of jobs and position Massachusetts as a leader in alternative energy development and research.
That was just one of the findings of the Advanced Biofuels Task Force, which released its final report on Wednesday.
One of the major points the task force made was the importance of developing a low-carbon fuel standard to frame the development of the state's biofuels industry.
Gov. Deval Patrick, along with Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, the state leaders who charged the task force to explore biofuel policies, endorsed the development of a standard that would set limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
"A Low-Carbon Fuel Standard is the next step in encouraging the growth of our clean energy sector," said Patrick in a statement. "We get our fuels from a regional market, so the best way to encourage alternatives to petroleum is through a regional approach.
"Developed and implemented with our neighbors, with whom we're already cooperating to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants, a regionwide Low Carbon Fuel Standard will have a profound impact on emissions from transportation and heating and spur the growth of the clean energy industry."
The report recommends a "technology neutral" approach to achieving the standard. That way, say task force members, the marketplace will "drive the development of alternative fuels and technologies at the lowest cost."
"The problem with some states that we've seen is that they're putting the dollar before the environmental resources," said Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, one of three state senators appointed to the task force.
An informed policy on biofuels has to take into account land use and food resources, he said.
For example, some Midwest states have invested heavily in ethanol based on their corn industry, which could have an impact on food resources — the more land used for biofuel the less there is for food production, which can lead to deforestation to clear more space for food crops.
Massachusetts can't compete on that level agriculturally and shouldn't anyway, said the report.
"We're looking at woody brush, we're looking at algae, we're looking at other cellulosic-based biofuels," said Downing. "Hopefully, we can create a market for non-food-based stocks."
According to the report, many of these biomass fuels could be derived from feedstocks on "agriculturally marginal lands" that would not need massive clearing or fertilizers, and would not compete with food production. It also advised researching waste products, such as vegetable oils from restaurants.
The report also advises more research into the use of waste products, tax incentives and credits, a temporary cellulosic fuel gas-tax exemption to make it more competitive, grants and loans to attract biofuel research facilities, private-public research and educational partnerships, regional cooperation and investment in a delivery infrastructure that is now geared "almost exclusively" to petroleum products.
California is the only state in the nation to adopt a Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, and is now developing regulations to put the standard into effect.
"I applaud Massachusetts and Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders for taking bipartisan action to fight global warming today by adopting a Low Carbon Fuel Standard modeled after California's," said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. "By requiring fuel providers to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels, our Low-Carbon Fuel Standards will reduce our dependence on oil, boost our clean technology industry nationwide and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Patrick has directed Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, chairman of the task force, to begin developing standard that other states and Canadian provinces could consider adopting. The governor also said he would reach out his peers on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to explore development of a regional standard.
The task force spent five months researching biofuels and taking testimony at four public hearings, including one held in Lenox earlier this year.
"Advanced" biofuels — fuels generally derived from non-food-based feedstocks and defined in federal law as those that yield a net lifecycle reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 50 percent compared with fossil fuels — offer the greatest potential benefit for both the environment and the economy in Massachusetts, the task force found.
"The task force recommendations will propel the commonwealth toward its goal of becoming a world-class center for the research and development of commercially viable advanced biofuels," said Downing. "Our report aggressively moves this sector forward while prioritizing the maintenance of the very highest environmental standards."
"Senate releases $28B state budget"
By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press
Thursday, May 15, 2008
BOSTON -- As Senate leaders unveiled a $28 billion budget Wednesday that relies heavily on new taxes and money from the state's "rainy day" fund, Republicans pledged to file Gov. Deval Patrick's casino bill as an amendment to the spending plan, saying the state needs new revenues.
The move, which could breathe new life into Patrick's plan, comes a week after the governor told a Brookline Chamber of Commerce audience that his legislation to legalize casino gambling in Mass-achusetts "may yet come back."
The House earlier this year overwhelmingly defeated the casino measure, essentially killing it for the year, but Republicans say they want to give the Senate, which has supported expanded gaming in the past, a chance to vote on the plan.
"We want to fortify the governor's efforts going forward if he intends to refile the bill in the new year," said Republican Sen. Mich-ael Knapik, R-Westfield. "Plus, we need the money."
It's unclear what kind of reception the casino amendment would get during the Senate budget debate, scheduled for next week. Democratic Senate leaders have indicated support for Patrick's plan in the past, but not as a budget amendment.
Patrick gave no indication he would support the Republican amendment.
"It's clear from the House's vote earlier this year that there appears to be little chance of final passage for casino legislation this session," said Patrick spokeswoman Rebec-ca Deusser. "The governor's focus for the remainder of the session will be on his economic stimulus plan including passage of the life sciences and clean energy initiatives."
Even if the Senate adopts the amendment, it would face opposition from House lawmakers as both chambers hammer out a compromise budget.
Like the House budget, the Senate spending plan relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues from a proposed $1-a-pack cigarette tax hike and the closing of so-called business tax loopholes. It also raids the state's rainy day fund for nearly $400 million.
Senate Ways and Means Chair-man Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, said the budget plan was fiscally responsible.
"These recommendations are a balanced, fair approach to addressing the most pressing needs of the commonwealth while remaining mindful of the declining economy," Panagiotakos said.
Besides the $400 million from the state's rainy day fund, the budget also relies on $175 million in projected revenues from the cigarette tax, $297 in added revenues from the business loophole closings and another $157 million from tighter enforcement by the Department of Revenue.
He also said the budget includes "tens of millions" in cuts.
The Senate plan also includes $5 million for a universal pre-kindergarten program, $5 million for a new program to keep those addicted to opiates out of jail, and $25 million to help create a statewide electronic medical rec-ords system.
One of the biggest question marks in the budget is funding for the state's 2006 landmark health care law. Senate budget writers used an estimate of $869 million to cover the law's subsidized health care program known as Com-monwealth Care.
But the administration's own, more current estimates -- based on the unexpected success of the program -- have added about $200 million to the cost. That's in addition to the $200 million above original estimates for Mass Health, the state's Medicaid program.
Critics say the $400 million in higher-than-expected health care costs on top of the $400 million the plan already draws from the rainy day fund and other, smaller cost increases could force the state to draw as much as $1 billion from the rainy day fund.
"If you look at the structural balance, meaning revenues coming in and spending going out, it's about a billion dollar gap," said Michael Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
Panagiotakos defended using the original Commonwealth Care estimate, pointing out the same estimate was used by the House when it drafted its budget. But he also expressed concern about drawing too much from the rainy day fund, meant to help the state weather fiscal slumps.
"We are going to need that rainy day account if we get into any type of major economic downfall," he said.
Panagiotakos, who also supports casino gambling, said there's nothing stopping Republicans from offering Patrick's bill as an amendment.
He wouldn't say whether he thought the amendment would pass.
"There are going to be a lot of amendments and we are going to take them up one by one," he said.
Asked last week during a Brookline Chamber of Commerce address about whether his casino plan was dead or not, Patrick said: "It may yet come back in the Legislature. I acknowledge it's hard."
Besides pushing the casino amendment, Knapik also said he was concerned with the spiraling cost of the health care law, saying it's siphoning money away from other pressing needs.
He said the Senate should consider restricting parts of the law, designed to mandate health care to virtually all Massachusetts residents.
"We ought to have that debate," he said. "We've got to put the entire discussion of the scope of the law on the table."
Photo of Senator Benjamin Downing, May 20, 2008
The North Adams Transcript, or, TheTranscript.com
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Senator Ben Downing, top, buses tables at the 'Wait-a-thon' at Bounti-Fare in Adams on Monday night, where local celebrities and pillars of the community serve the public. Proceeds from the dinner benefit the Adams Youth Center.
"Pittsfield to host Senate energy hearing"
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Monday, May 26, 2008
In Berkshire County, where three paper mills have closed and a water bottling company has balked on plans for a new facility all because of the high cost of power, small and medium-size businesses are reeling.
Local economic development officials are seeing the hills that they must climb to attract new businesses — and retain existing ones — grow ever steeper as Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECO) continues to increase its commercial rates for power.
This is the setting that U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry chose for a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, during which local business leaders will testify on the cost of energy and the effect it is having on their ability to make a profit and maintain employment levels.
The hearing, titled "The Rising Costs of Energy: Challenges and Opportunities for Small Businesses," will convene Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Berkshire Community College in the Susan B. Anthony Building's cafeteria, 1350 West St., Pittsfield.
"The Berkshires is facing a very tough challenge, as it has for a number of years," Kerry said during a phone interview from his office in Boston. "It's a concern, and the more we can build a record that shows what's happening in different parts of the country with regard to small business, we build a record for legislating and to find what remedies there might be."
Other field hearings held
Kerry said the committee has conducted field hearings in New Orleans, Maine and other locales, depending on the topic. Pittsfield was chosen for this one because the steep rise in the cost of energy has resulted in some acute problems for local businesses.
"This is a huge issue now, and it's growing in its importance because it has such a bottom line impact immediately," Kerry said. "All of a sudden, the products you're delivering cost you more money to produce. It's a real pressure on the economic structure."
He noted that, among all the factors involved in the rising cost of energy, the rapidly increasing worldwide demand may be the most important.
"One of the things we want to do is get committed to clean energies, clean technologies," he said.
He said Congress already has been trying to move the nation to renewable energy sources.
Kerry cited a bill that was passed by the Senate Finance Committee last year that included "major incentives for alternatives and renewables — it would have encouraged people to buy hybrid cars and retrofit their homes, but we got beaten back by the oil industry."
Six witnesses scheduled
There are six witnesses scheduled to testify to the committee so far: state Attorney General Martha Coakley; North Adams Mayor John Barrett III; state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian A. Bowles; Jef Sharp, president and CEO of SunEthanol Inc. in Hadley; Michael Supranowicz, president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce; and David J. Manning, executive vice president of U.S. External Affairs for National Grid.
"I'm going to basically tell them how it has an impact on our economy," Barrett said. "I don't care what anyone says, I think this is a direct result of futures trading in (oil) commodities contracts, and it's been allowed to go on unchecked. And I think there is gouging going on. It's a direct result of greed, and it's been allowed by the federal government."
Barrett said he is very concerned about local residents and businesses and what they'll do to heat their homes next winter.
"The free enterprise system is great, but when it's jeopardizing the country, something has to be done about it," he said. "It is a national crisis, and it will take severe action to make it right."
Supranowicz said that, in New England, the playing field is tilted more and more to other regions of the country because of the cost of energy for small and medium-size businesses.
"From a chamber standpoint, we want to talk about the fact that the electricity costs are way too high in Massachusetts and in the Northeast in general," he said. "It certainly puts our small businesses at a disadvantage. One main reason is competition — it's getting harder and harder to pass these costs on to the customers of these businesses, so they're forced to absorb more, and it's having a real bad impact on their bottom line."
A recent ruling issued by Coakley's office noted that WMECO poorly communicated a price increase of 55 percent for electricity used by local businesses in early 2007 — a cost increase that had catastrophic impacts on the local paper industry and on others — and noted that the company has requested another 30 percent midyear increase for local businesses.
Supranowicz said the chamber is encouraging all of its members to attend Wednesday's hearing. And although no verbal comments from the audience will be accepted, members of the business community are welcome to submit comments for the record in writing to the committee.
"We encourage them to do so," Kerry said.
To reach Scott Stafford: email@example.com, (413) 664-4995.
"Downing Announces FY09 Senate Budget"
iBerkshires.com - May 23, 2008
Boston - State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) announces that the Massachusetts Senate concluded its budget deliberations for Fiscal Year 2009. Downing successfully ushered the adoption of several amendments during the Senate debate, securing critical funding for programs important to his Berkshire, Hampshire & Franklin District.
“This budget is clearly focused on essential programs and government services. I’m pleased that the Senate’s spending plan includes funding I proposed for many key local initiatives,” said Downing.
During the course of its debate the Senate adopted the following amendments sponsored and supported by Senator Downing in its final budget:
$200,000 for Barrington Stage Company, located in the City of Pittsfield;
$100,000 for the costs associated with the use of the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Center by Berkshire Community College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to bring public higher education courses to a downtown Pittsfield location;
Authorization for the Berkshire Sheriff’s Department to retain and employ an additional $50,000 in revenues collected by the Department, for a total of $250,000 to support regional communication initiatives;
Language reinstating the ability of Regional Transit Authorities to borrow under the full faith and credit of the Commonwealth. This proposal will allow RTAs – including the Berkshire, Franklin and Pioneer Valley Regional Transit Authorities - to pay a lower interest rate on borrowed monies, ultimately saving them drastically needed funds;
Language directing the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy to create a new classification of nursing homes to exempt a Berkshire County nursing home that would otherwise qualify for the nursing home user fee exemption to be excused from charging residents the fee. This would open the exemption, pending federal approval, to Berkshire Place, based on their status as a non-Medicaid facility;
Language establishing a Dairy Farm Tax Credit to support the sustainability of the state’s dairy farm industry by creating a refundable income tax credit based on the amount of milk produced and sold;
$100,000 for Nutritional Assistance to provide legal Massachusetts immigrants with enhanced access to nutritional assistance benefits;
$650,000 for Citizenship Services for New Americans to assist legal permanent Massachusetts residents in becoming citizens of the United States;
$5,395,694 for the Mass. Family Networks Grant Program to support outreach programs for young families;
Language authorizing Massachusetts’ state and community college to establish tuition and fee retention rates to preserve affordability of these higher education institutions for all residents of the Commonwealth, and;
Language authorizing cost saving measures for the administrative practices of summer camps, to protect the safety of children by allowing the various state regulatory bodies to share CORI information for all employees.
Many of Downing’s local priorities were funded in the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s original spending proposal, and therefore were not subject to the budget debate.
$223 million increase in Chapter 70 Public Education aid from FY08;
$935 million in Lottery Aid for direct payments to cities and towns;
$250,000 for Berkshire Economic Development Corporation;
$75,000 for Berkshire County Housing Mediation in Pittsfield through the Berkshire Regional Housing Authority;
$150,000 for Berkshire County Drug Taskforce to combat drug and violent crime activity throughout the county;
$100,000 for United Veterans of America – Pittsfield to provide services to veterans in Berkshire County as well as $220,000 for United Veterans of America to provide services to homeless veterans at their shelter in Leeds;
$7 million transfer from the state reserve account to the Cultural Facilities Fund;
Budget language to increase the COLA base of state and teachers retirement systems and local retirement systems to $16,000- a policy Senator Downing advanced earlier in the session when he served as Chair of Public Service;
$42,000 for Turner House in Williamstown to fund veterans’ services;
$150,000 for Berkshire County Youth Development Project to fund youth intervention services;
$400,000 for Northern Berkshire Community Coalition to administer teen pregnancy prevention programs in Pittsfield and North Adams;
$75,000 for Samuel Harrison House to help restore and preserve the historical Pittsfield site;
$20,000 for Berkshire Theatre Festival;
$50,000 for Mediation and Training Collaborative of Franklin County;
$1 million to fund a statewide grant program for tourist information centers, such as the Adams Visitor Center;
$200,000 for Western Massachusetts Enterprise Fund;
$54,690 for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Berkshire County to fund programs that provide abused and neglected children with a voice in court;
$77,478 for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Hampshire and Franklin Counties to fund programs that provide abused and neglected children with a voice in court;
$50,000 for the Senior Farm Share Program;
$50,000 for Franklin Community Action Corporation;
$200,000 for North Quabbin Community Coalition;
$90,000 for Franklin Medical Center’s Beacon Recovery Program at the Orange Recovery House, and;
$14,800 for Franklin Regional Council of Governments.
The differences in the final House and Senate budgets will now be considered and resolved by a conference committee. FY 2009 begins on July 1, 2008.
More information on the House and Senate budget recommendations can be found at: http://www.mass.gov/legis/09budget/house and http://www.mass.gov/legis/09budget/senate/index.htm.
"Senate President Murray attacks proposed income tax question"
The Associated Press, Thursday, June 12, 2008
BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts is marching through the nation's fiscal storm, but its progress and future are threatened by a November ballot question proposing to eliminate the state income tax, Senate President Therese Murray said today.
The Plymouth Democrat told a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast that repealing the 5.3 percent rate — a proposal from Libertarian Carla Howell that nearly won approval in 2002 — would trigger property tax increases and sharp local aid cuts.
"People have to realize that it is a binding initiative that would lead to debilitating cuts in local aid, including education and public safety. That would mean laying off teachers, police and firefighters, closing schools and shutting down road projects," Murray said.
"All we have to do is look at Florida, for example: no income tax, but their property taxes are a cause for revolt," she added.
Chamber President Paul Guzzi quickly signaled his support, saying his group and others from the business community would voice their opposition to the question. The state derives $12 billion out of its roughly $27 billion budget from income tax receipts. Eliminating the income tax would cut the budget back to its 1995 level.
"It's irresponsible and it goes too far, and reasonable people understand that," Guzzi said.
Anti-tax activists are working to gather 11,000 signatures needed to get the question on the fall ballot after gathering 66,000 to clear a first legal hurdle. A similar question got 45 percent of the vote six years ago.
The question proposes to eliminate taxes on wages, interest, dividends and capital gains. Supporters say that would give 3 million taxpayers an average of $3,600 annually.
In a statement on the Web site of her group, the Committee for Small Government, Howell wrote: "This $3,600-a-year increase in your take-home paycheck means more family money to spend, save and invest. And, statewide, it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs."
Howell did not immediately return an e-mail seeking reaction to Murray's criticism.
In her speech, Murray revealed the Senate would pass Gov. Deval Patrick's $1 billion life sciences initiative today, allowing him to sign it before he, Murray and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi travel to San Diego next week for a national biotechnology conference.
"This is a very competitive business and I think we've got the best package," she said. "We have cash and we have bonds."
She said $120 million in film industry tax credits are generating about $500 million in business for the state, and she expects Massachusetts to be the site of at least one Hollywood sound stage soon. But Murray said she would not support any more tax breaks until construction has been completed and work is under way.
"I think if they get in the ground, they get up and running, they want to come back to us and talk about post-production tax breaks, I'll be all ears," she said.
On a political note, the state's first female Senate president gave voice to a challenge confronting Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting, as he seeks to gain votes from supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Murray, a staunch backer of Clinton, said she was disappointed Clinton had failed to become the nation's first female president.
Asked by Guzzi who she would support now, Murray refused to even utter Obama's name as she gave him a lukewarm endorsement.
"We thought that certainly in my generation that that glass ceiling would have been able to break by now, and it looks like certainly in my lifetime, I will not see a woman president, and that is not lost on me or on many other women of a particular age group, or younger, or men," she said. "So, yeah, I'm disappointed — but I'm a Democrat."
"City takes first steps at green: Pittsfield picked to take part in solar-lighting program"
By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, June 13, 2008
PITTSFIELD — The city of Pittsfield is taking its first step toward going green.
With the help of state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, Pittsfield has been selected to participate in the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative's solar-powered lighting system pilot program.
Yesterday, a solar-powered lighting system was installed to illuminate the flagpole at Herberg Middle School on Pomeroy Avenue.
"It's a permanent system," said James McGrath, Pittsfield parks, open space and natural resources coordinator. "It will illuminate the flagpole at the middle school forever."
Union members donating time
The system will be installed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers No. 7, whose members have donated their time, McGrath said.
It will provide seven hours of peak lighting. At night, the lights will dim to 30 percent of peak, with six hours of dusk and one hour of predawn light.
According to McGrath, Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, made the city aware that the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative was looking for pilot sites for solar-powered systems. City officials contacted the agency, which has an office on South Church Street, and were awarded the system.
The solar-powered system originally was scheduled to be installed last month to light the flagpole at Veterans' Memorial Park on South Street. But further testing revealed that solar power would be ineffective in that area year-round.
"No accountability on gay marriage"
The Berkshire Eagle - Letters
Friday, July 18, 2008
In its July 15 decision to repeal a Massachusetts marriage law prohibiting out-of-state persons from marriages in the Commonwealth which would be illegal in their home states, our state Senators took a voice vote, allowing them to escape going on record with their individual conclusions on these questions, a question at the center of our most momentous human understandings. News reports indicated that not even one state senator raised any debate prior to the voice vote. The political expedience of this maneuver — by which our senators evaded any and all accountability to the people who elected them — is completely unacceptable in a government of the people.
Marriage is the oldest and most vital social institution in human history, and the most critical to the nurture of children. Its implied and logical definition necessitates that it be comprised of only one man and one woman. By redefining this institution without regard to the gender of its participants, Massachusetts has embarked on a radical social experiment, using our established system of laws, our historic shared cultural agreements, and the future prospects of our children as its risk capital.
When our elected officials attempt to modify the very foundations of our human societal structures, and in doing so are unwilling to engage in thorough debate or a public record of their individual votes, they have reached an unprecedented pinnacle of imperial arrogance, and need to be replaced by legislators who understand that transparent accountability to the citizens who elect them, combined with honest and deliberate consideration of critical legal precedent are the highest responsibilities of their office.
From left to right: Sen. Downing; Daniel Dillon; Philip F. Mangano, Executive Director of the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness; Robert Pulster, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council on Homelessness; North Adams Mayor John Barrett III; and Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto.
"Downing Hosts Roll-Out of 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness"
As Co-Chairs of the Berkshire County Leadership Council, Senator Downing and Daniel Dillon hosted an event to unveil a ten-year strategic plan to end homelessness and housing instability in Berkshire County. Thank you to all who attended and showed support as we tackle this important issue.
The Berkshire Eagle - Editorials
Monday, July 28, 2008
"Back global warming act"
With the Legislature scheduled to end its session this week, we hope the House will join the Senate in passing the Global Warming Solutions Act, which would require greenhouse gas emissions to be 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below by 2050. The bill makes obvious sense environmentally, but it makes good sense economically as well, as it will prod the state to take the initiative in promoting alternative energy sources that pollute less and encourage the businesses that develop these alternative sources. Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has not taken a stand on the bill, which is endorsed by more than 100 House members who signed a letter to the Speaker expressing that support. No one on Beacon Hill has expressed sound reasons for opposition, and we hope the House will take up the Act and send it to the governor for his signature before the session concludes.
"Energy panel will help"
Beacon Hill is wisely using these hot weather months to get a jump on the coming winter with the creation by Governor Patrick and House and Senate leadership of a nine-member panel to find ways to help residents winterize their homes and to assure that the poorest in the state are connected with the appropriate social service agencies in getting heat for their homes. This effort will receive a huge boost if Senator Kerry succeeds in his efforts to win increased funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which President Bush has proposed cutting. The average Massachusetts household is expected to spend roughly $3,700 on heating oil this winter, a sum that will inconvenience many but could result in life or death decisions for poor families and the elderly if they don't get assistance from Boston and Washington, as well as from their community organizations.
Mark Your Calendars!
Thursday, August 21, 2008, Fundraiser for State Senator Ben Downing at the home of Mary Pat and James Akers, from 5-7, 170 Christian Hill Road, Great Barrington. Suggested donation $25. Info & details, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Breaking a myth: Senator's visit shatters perception of city"
By Jessica Willis, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday, August 29, 2008
PITTSFIELD — He looked upon the state's "unheralded jewel" yesterday and he found it good. Better than good.
"Your downtown is gorgeous," said State Sen. Steven C. Panagiotakos, D-Lowell. "This is my first time in Pittsfield, and what I knew was (General Electric). I read about Pittsfield as a 'down on your luck' place. The opposite is true."
Panagiotakos, who is the chairman of the state Senate's Ways and Means Committee, the legislative panel that considers all of the state's financial matters, took part in a round-table discussion yesterday with key players in the county's creative economy. He also visited some of the new gems in the city's crown: the Barrington Stage
Company, the Colonial Theatre, and the new public higher-education facilities at the Joseph R. Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center.
For the county's creative leaders, discussion and the tour was a way to tell — and show — one of the prime movers in the Legislature just how important cultural venues are in the Berkshires.
According to one round table participant, the visit was also a way to show Panagiotakos that Pittsfield's planning phase is over, the rebirth is well underway, and the county's cultural venues are more than just window dressing.
"We shouldn't think of these places as decorations," said Stephen C. Sheppard, director of the Center of Creative Community Development and a professor of economics at Williams College. "They are a viable and integral part of the community. The first steps have been taken, and we need a continuation of that."
Sheppard told the round table that Tanglewood added about $60 million a year to the Berkshire economy, and Mass MoCA another $15 million a year.
"Communities that have a robust creative sector are more attractive places to live, and it buoys property values," Sheppard said.
And when that robustness creates restaurants, museums, theaters, galleries and shopping, it's attractive to businesses considering a relocation to the county, said David M. Rooney, the president of the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation.
"When we go out and talk to companies, they always want to know what kinds of amenities we have," Rooney said.
Panagiotakos' visit was hosted by his colleague, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who pointed out that his city "had broken through the myth" that the good old days are long past.
"My generation was always told that we didn't know the golden age of Pittsfield," the 26-year-old Downing said. "We were always told how good it used to be, and to assume the worst."
Meghan Whilden, Pittsfield's director of cultural development, said that many of the city's young natives who left for Boston and New York were now coming back.
"We're sending out the message that Pittsfield is better than it's ever been," she said.
When conversation turned to finances and funding from the Legislature, Panagiotakos had good news to share: Fiscal 2008 turned out to be a good year for the state, with $42 million over the benchmark in July, the first month of the new fiscal year.
But he warned those numbers were somewhat misleading, Panagiotakos said, because the governor could make further cuts.
Furthermore, if the state doesn't get its Medicaid waivers from the federal government, it could cost the state $600 million, Panagiotakos said.
"It would be devastating," he said. "But if there are changes and things have to be scaled back, you can still push forward. Make your case plan, so if the (economy) turns, you'll be there right away."
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"Legislative gap widens between parties"
By Trevor Jones, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Monday, September 29, 2008
With election day a little over a month away, no one knows for sure what party will be in the White House this January.
The same can't be said for Berkshire County's state legislators though, as each race was over before it began.
That is because the five local representatives in the state legislature, all Democrats, are running unopposed by Republicans in November's election. And while Republicans have been outnumbered in the state for more than 50 years, the difference seems even more pronounced today.
"I've never seen it as bad as it is," said North Adams Mayor John Barrett III, a Democrat, about the state of the Republican party in the Berkshires.
Massachusetts' longest-tenured mayor, Barrett said the parties inability to field quality candidates is at an all-time high, and while there is a chance to regain seats down the road, he doesn't see it happening any time soon.
"The most glaring thing to me was Silvio Conte's passing in 1991. There wasn't anyone more dynamic. He kept the Republican party together in Western Massachusetts and Berkshire County, but they never replaced him with the next generation," Barret said.
The Democrats currently hold the Governor's office, each of the state's 12 seats in the U.S. Congress, along with a 141 to 19 majority in the state house of representatives and a 35 to 5 advantage in the state senate.
The Democratic domination has left some local Republicans feeling underrepresented in state's legislation.
"(State Republicans) can't do anything. They don't have the legal right to do a thing," said Peter Giftos, executive director of the Berkshire County Republican Association, about the GOP's inability to block legislation or have any of their own adopted.
Giftos believes the inability of Republicans to form a serious minority opposition is bad for everyone.
"I don't care what party it is, Republican or Democrat, no party should be in control for too long," Giftos said. "What history tells us is that when one party rules for too long you are going to have ultimate corruption and we've got it."
Voter registration numbers don't offer much hope for Republicans. In the state's presidential primary in February, the First District, which includes Berkshire County, 110,947 Democrats turned out, as opposed to only 43,766 Republicans.
The inability of Republicans to win elections and the party's large enrollment deficit has left potential candidates weary of running.
"We can't find good people willing to take the risk, because they know people aren't willing to vote for them," said Giftos.
Giftos himself said he was hesitant to get involved in local politics when party organizers asked him to head the local group.
"Why should I waste my time trying to rebuild the Republican party here?" Giftos said about his initial response to the job offer.
The Democratic stronghold on state politics has not always been the case though, as Republicans controlled state politics for most of the second half of the 19th century, even holding both U.S. senate seats and a majority of U.S. representatives seats as late as 1949.
"These things go through ups and downs. We hope for a strong roster of candidates next time out," said Matt Kinnaman of Lee, who has ran on the Republican ticket twice this decade. He believes Republicans will have a chance to retain more seats if they keep the focus on small government.
"People were very excited (when I ran)," said Kinnaman. "Local Republicans were thrilled to have a candidate being aggressive and enthused about their chances."
Despite the their status as an overwhelming minority, Republicans are better off with no candidate than a poor one, according to former GOP Gov. Jane Swift. "I don't measure success on if some we have someone running," she said. "To run anyone, just to fill up the ticket, is not good for the party in the long run."
After losing the governor's seat with the election of Deval L. Patrick in 2006, state Republicans have decided to regroup and start a grassroots campaign to put more Republicans on school boards and town administrations, according to Barney Keller, communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party.
"We're starting out small and developing quality candidates for the future," said Keller. "Is this going to happen over night? No."
Keller pointed to the fact that there are more unenrolled voters in the state than all the parties combined. He believes that if Republicans stick to a message of fiscal conservatism there will be room for advancement down the road.
Perhaps the greatest sign of the GOP's struggling reputation in the area would be the person Republicans have chosen to run for the U.S. Congress for Berkshire County's district.
Nathan Bech, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, may be on the Republican ticket, but is running more as an independent than anything else, according to Brian Murphy, Bech's press secretary.
"I think people are fed up with the idea of partisanship. You have to run on your own issues and your own ideas," said Murphy.
"State income tax to live or die?"
By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Monday, September 29, 2008
It will either be a budget apocalypse or an end to state waste.
For the second time in six years, Massachusetts voters will be asked to decide whether the state income tax should survive. Proponents say eliminating it will save the average taxpayer $3,700 that could be redirected into the economy. Opponents say it would force disastrous cuts in public spending, bringing the state to its fiscal knees.
The state will raise about $12.7 billion through its 5.3 percent income tax this year and will spend $28.2 billion on everything from police patrols to road construction to education.
Proponents of Question 1 argue the budget is far larger once other spending is added — including borrowed money, unemployment funds, and lottery sales, totaling $47.3 billion, a sum that could more easily absorb a $12.7 billion cut.
Carla Howell, the architect of Question 1 and a paid consultant of the Committee for Small Government, said the state could slash spending simply by rooting out waste and fraud.
"This ballot initiative will force (politicians) to streamline and cut waste from their budget," she said, and declared it "patently false" that cities and towns would have to raise property taxes to make up for lost dollars from the state government, or that the state would be forced to increase sales taxes and fees.
Asked several times to identify items in the state budget that could be cut, Howell offered no specific line items. But she said the state wastes money on unnecessary construction, police details at construction sites, too-rich pensions for state employees, and tax incentives for wealthy corporations.
"People have become more and more aware of government waste, and some of the long-standing processes of wasteful spending are coming to light," she said. "People are disgusted with what they see."
But if the state loses its income tax, said Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that studies state finances, the result would be "a calamity."
The state is constitutionally or contractually obligated to pay for things like Medicaid and debt service, Widmer said. Once that fixed spending is subtracted from the budget pie, the state would be forced to cut 70 percent from what's left to reduce spending by $12.7 billion. That would mean slashing budgets for the courts, prisons, state police, environmental regulators, parks, public colleges and universities.
"This would fundamentally be a tax cut for the wealthy," Widmer said. "No one likes to pay taxes, but the issue is what is the fairest tax system."
Widmer said the supporters of Question 1 radically inflate the state budget, counting things like lottery sales as part of state spending. "They are totally mistaken," he said. "They just don't understand the numbers."
If it passes with a majority of "yes" votes on Nov. 4, Question 1 would reduce the income tax rate from its current 5.3 percent on Jan. 1, and would eliminate the tax entirely in 2010. When the question appeared on the 2002 ballot, it won support from 45 percent of voters. In Berkshire County, 38 percent voted yes.
Matthew Kinnaman, a Lee resident and former Republican candidate for Congress, said he didn't support the question in 2002 but is backing it now, convinced that it will help the state's economy grow by injecting $12 billion in disposable income into people's pockets and attract new residents.
"That money doesn't disappear, it shifts into the hands of the workers," Kinnaman said. "They spend the money and generate new activity and new revenues through their spending. They build the economy bigger."
Howell and the Committee for Small Government often quote a study that states 41 percent of taxpayer dollars is wasted. The statistic, however, comes from a public opinion poll in which respondents were asked how much of their tax dollars was being squandered. It was not derived from an actual study of state spending.
Still, Howell said she is certain that waste and fraud consume a massive amount of taxpayer dollars. When the government is forced to find the fraud, it will, she said.
"They will have to open the books, which they have refused to do, and this is going to force them to cut government waste," Howell said.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing disagrees.
"When you hear people who support Question 1 talk about 'waste, fraud and abuse,' you would think there is a line item for it in the budget that we could just eliminate. Believe me, there isn't," said Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat. "Does that mean we can't do things better? No, not at all."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said the cut would be "devastating. I think it would shut down state government halfway through the fiscal year and cripple every city and town in Massachusetts."
Cutting 40 percent of any budget — be it a household checking account or the massive state budget — will hurt, Pignatelli said.
"Gov. (Mitt) Romney touted that he could find $3 billion of waste, fraud and abuse, and he failed miserably," Pignatelli said.
Proponents and opponents alike say they believe the question has a better chance this year, with taxpayers battered by high gas prices, job insecurity and a dire national economy.
Would the Legislature find a way to kill the law, despite the vote?
"There hasn't been any discussion about what would happen if Question 1 were to pass," Downing said. "We are going to go out and work as hard as we can, tell people why we think it is not a good idea, and why we think it is a reckless proposal. Should we have to have that conversation after the election, it won't be pretty."
To reach Jack Dew: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 496-6241.
District Aide Position
Senator Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield) is seeking applicants for a full-time District Aide position within his Pittsfield office. The responsibilities of the position include, but are not limited to, the following:
. Serving as casework manager for the office: coordinate constituent inquiries with executive branch agencies and offices. Work with constituents on matters related to public housing, RMV, DSS, transportation, family support matters, revenue, child support, etc.;
. Drafting official correspondence on behalf of the Senator;
. Planning the Senator's monthly "Coffee & Conversation" outreach events with local officials as well as other public forums throughout the district's 48 cities and towns;
. Staffing the Senator at various outreach events throughout the district;
Meeting with constituents, community leaders, legislative and executive agency staff on behalf of the Senator;
. Representing the Senator at district events and meetings as scheduled. Deliver and present Citations or accept awards on the Senator's behalf;
. Daily collaboration with the Boston staff, data entry using web-based case tracking system, and other duties as assigned.
. Successful applicants should possess strong organizational, analytical, and communication skills, able to work independently and as part of a team in a fast-paced environment. The person hired must be able to handle a number of tasks concurrently and be very detail oriented.
A Bachelor's Degree and excellent writing skills are required. Prior legislative experience/western Massachusetts ties preferred.
Interested applicants should send a cover letter and resume to:
Bethann Steiner, Chief of Staff
Office of Senator Benjamin B. Downing
State House, Room 413-F
Boston, MA 02133
Deadline to apply is Friday, October 31, 2008. For more information contact Bethann at (617) 722-1625.
"Berkshire County retains its blue streak: Berkshire voters had minds made up early"
By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Being a Democrat in the Berkshires means never having to say you're sorry.
As voters headed to the polls yesterday, it was nearly a settled fact that Democrats would prevail on Berkshire ballots. There would be no need to apologize for failing to get out the vote, for letting a key town slip across the aisle, or for falling down in a tight race.
When Gregory Cherin walked out of the voting booth on Stockbridge's Main Street yesterday afternoon, his daughter, Elinor, literally jumped for joy when he said he thought Sen. Barack Obama would win the presidency. Cherin was equally confident that Sen. John F. Kerry and U.S. Rep. John W. Olver — the only other Democrats facing a Republican challenge on Berkshire ballots — would return to office.
Does living in such a Democratic county make for a dull Election Day?
"I don't think it changes my experience (as a voter) because, as far as I'm concerned, the election could still go either way," Cherin said. "I think it makes it more exciting locally to have a camaraderie with your friends and family."
The numbers suggest Cherin has lots of company. Of the Berkshire's 90,434 registered voters, 33,821 — or 37 percent — are Democrats, versus 10 percent of Republicans.
While voters who aren't enrolled in either party comprise 51.5 percent of the Berkshire electorate, those voters lean Democratic overwhelmingly, as evidenced by the ballots they choose in primary voting: More than 26,000 people voted in the Democratic primary this year, compared to 6,000 in the Republican.
It was numbers like those that allowed state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing to predict yesterday afternoon that Kerry and Olver would "glide to victory" over Republican challengers Jeff Beatty and Nathan Bech, respectively. Both did.
"With a shortage of candidates or prospects in the Republican party, it's a difficult year for them," said Downing, who was uncontested yesterday as he sought a second Senate term. "It looks like Massachusetts will deliver a gigantic victory for Sen. Obama. Is that a race you want to run in as a down-ballot (Republican)?"
Still, while the Berkshires were safely Democratic last night, it was the nation that mattered. Members of the Berkshire Brigades — the countywide Democratic organization — gathered at Brew Works in Pittsfield to watch the presidential returns. The mood was edgy, and the words "cautious optimism" were on everyone's lips — until the presidential election was official.
Meanwhile, times have been hard for Berkshire Republicans.
This year, they were unable to muster a challenge to Downing or the four incumbent state representatives. And the party hasn't sent anyone to Boston or Washington, D.C., since former state Rep. Shaun Kelly of Dalton stepped aside in 2004.
The Berkshire County Republican Association will close its office in The Eagle's Clocktower Building in downtown Pittsfield at the end of the month, said Peter Giftos, the association's executive director. Giftos said the closure will happen partly because the membership doesn't like the way The Eagle's editorial page treats Republicans and partly because he is getting older and would like to spend more time working from home.
As Giftos surveyed the political landscape yesterday, he saw few bright spots, despite the fact that in four years he built the BCRA's membership from three dozen to 300 contributing members.
"Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have reached the point where it has almost become senseless to even try to beat this one-party government," he said. "Good candidates are not going to come out and run because they feel like they are going to waste time and money for nothing."
Outside the Stockbridge town offices yesterday, Chris Dutil was the lone Republican, holding signs for Beatty and Bech. She said she welcomed their anti-abortion stances and hoped they would win while suspecting they would lose.
"I'll take comfort in the fact that some people voted for them;that will be encouraging," Dutil said. "But I have this notion that things are going to get better. Maybe in 100 or 150 years, things will turn around."
"Downing Appointed To Municipal Relief Commission"
iBerkshires.com - November 17, 2008
Members to Examine Revenue-Generating, Cost-Saving Options for Municipalities
BOSTON, Mass - State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) has been appointed by Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) to represent the Senate on the Special Municipal Relief Commission to examine the feasibility of innovative local revenue-generating measures in an effort to provide revenue relief to municipalities.
“Just like every other sector in the economy, our cities and towns are feeling financial pressure as they seek to maintain current levels of essential services,” said Downing. “This Commission is tasked with assessing viable options to assist municipalities with new revenue sources and cost saving measures.”
“I asked Senator Downing to represent the Senate on the Municipal Relief Commission because, as the senator for 48 communities in the Commonwealth, he understands that every community across Massachusetts is struggling to make ends meet,” said Senate President Therese Murray. “I am confident that Senator Downing will bring an important voice to the discussion of how cities and towns can find some economic relief.”
Created in Section 97 of Chapter 173 of the Acts of 2008, An Act Relative to Tax Fairness and Business Competitiveness, the fourteen-member commission consists of seven state senators and seven state representatives, specifically the chairs of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government and the Joint Committee on Revenue, the Senate and House Committees on Ways and Means, the Senate and House Minority Leaders or their designees, three Senate members appointed by the President, and three House members appointed by the Speaker.
As the Senator of the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin District, Downing represents 48 western Massachusetts communities – more cities and towns than any other member of the Massachusetts Senate.
The panel is charged with studying the expansion of the meals tax; the extension of the rooms tax to other transient accommodations not currently covered under the rooms tax; and other methods of enhancing revenues or containing expenses. With a reporting deadline of December 15, 2008, Commission Co-Chairmen Senator Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) and Representative Paul J. Donato (D-Medford) have scheduled a meeting on November 18th to begin the panel’s work.
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) File Photo
"Patrick Administration Approves Pittsfield Bridges Project"
iBerkshires.com - November 14, 2008
The Patrick Administration has given formal approval to a $2.5 million project to rebuild a pair of bridges in Pittsfield.
"Repair and replacement of the state’s bridges is a top priority of the Patrick Administration," said Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen, "and this project also demonstrates a strong federal, state, and local partnership in Pittsfield.”
The project involves the demolition and reconstruction of two Hungerford Street bridges spanning the west branch of the Housatonic River. Detours will be set up for both bridge locations.
"The reconstruction of these two bridges will improve traffic flow in this residential neighborhood," said MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky. "This important work is linked to a number of ongoing downtown projects, some of which are funded with federal grant money."
“This transportation project will ease traffic congestion and improve circulation,” said State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield). “We must ensure critical resources are continually dedicated to road and traveler safety. I applaud EOT for recognizing the importance of these transportation projects and for allocating the necessary funds.”
"These are much needed improvements that will provide not only public safety but also will help kick start local construction projects," said State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli (D-Lenox).
The state's contractor on the project is Petricca Construction of Pittsfield. The projected completion date is July 2010.
Illustration by Mark Roessler
"Massachusetts Energy: Follow the Green Brick Road - Washington may not get it, but from environmentalists to entrepreneurs to tradespeople, green is gangbusters."
By Tom Sturm, Valley Advocate - Easthampton, Massachusetts, Thursday, January 15, 2009
This past August, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law two bills that have gotten a lot of people excited—and probably made some regional power companies groan. In truly savvy political maneuvering and creative management of both tax structures and environmental laws, the state has whipped up what could become a startlingly effective impetus for positive change, titillating the imaginations of a broad range of groups from environmentalists to entrepreneurs to organized labor.
The equation? It seems to come down to the basic tools of coercive action: the carrot and the stick.
The carrot: The Green Jobs Act of 2008. Written primarily by State House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, the Green Jobs Act will provide $68 million over the next five years through grants and other direct state funding for green jobs initiatives in Massachusetts. The New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC) has projected that implementation of the plan could create upwards of 20 new clean energy companies in the state and attract up to half a billion dollars in venture capital from myriad sources. Theoretically this would create more than 10,000 new jobs and around $50 million a year in new income tax revenue.
The stick: The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008. The law is aimed primarily at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts by requiring a reduction of 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, with a goal of 25 percent reduction by 2020. Specific target goals will also be set for 2030 and 2040 by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and will presumably implement the reduction requirements through mandatory industry technology upgrades and some form of carbon trading system.
"This legislation builds on the energy, oceans, and biofuels bills passed this session--all positioning Massachusetts as the clear national leader in creating a clean energy economy," Governor Patrick said upon signing the bills into law. "Massachusetts will lead the way in reducing the emissions that threaten the planet with climate change, and at the same time stimulate development of the technologies and the companies that will move us into the clean energy age of the future."
What most prospective players in this game are chomping at the bit for now is an answer to when and how the bills' pledged funding will begin to be injected into the state's economy. Certainly recent developments in state, national and global economies have made many state initiatives that seemed like rays of hope slip into a gray area of questionable fundability, perhaps pushing them back a few burners on the crowded stovetop of priorities. Still, many remain hopeful, and there exists both an organized, eager academic/industrial base in the sector with business plans already in place, and a hungry workforce just waiting for the day they can wake up and start installing solar panels and processing biofuels.
Nowhere was this sentiment more evident than at Springfield's recent Clean Energy Connections conference, which brought together hundreds of bright-eyed, forward-looking Bay Staters anxious to network, amass relevant information and carve out their own niches on the green frontier. Highlights of the conference included a keynote speech by author/activist Bracken Hendricks, a former special assistant to Al Gore during the Clinton administration. Hendricks is a co-author with Congressman Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) of the book Apollo's Fire (see www.apollosfire.net), which has been touted as a viable blueprint for reforming national energy policy.
Closing the all-day affair was Powershift: Massachusetts' New Clean Energy Landscape, a policy panel featuring overviews of recent Massachusetts energy legislation and a question-and-answer session with state Rep. Daniel Bosley, state Sen. Benjamin Downing and Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Energy Resources Phil Giudice. Exhibitors included locally based solar companies like Hatfield's Stiebel-Eltron and Adams' Berkshire Photovoltaic Services; "green" builders, whose mission is to incorporate green technologies like radiant floor heating into new construction and encourage the efficient insulation of existing structures; schools, including Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College and UMass-Amherst, that are increasingly offering courses in what they perceive to be a growth field; banks and green investment resources, including People's Bank and the intriguing non-profit broker New Generation Energy, various 'think tanks' and even a Home Depot booth, which was pushing the cream of its insulation products crop.
Stiebel-Eltron, a Germany-based company with its U.S. headquarters in Hatfield, is a wholesaler whose primary business is helping to design solar-thermal heat and hot water systems. It also sells new-generation technology items like tankless water heaters (www.stiebel-eltron-usa.com). Berkshire Photovoltaic Services designs solar-photovoltaic (electricity-producing) arrays for qualified candidate locations, and even offers to process applications for its clients to see if they qualify for federal and state tax incentives as well as a smattering of regional and private trust grants. Its perhaps most visible work to date is evident on the roof of Mass MoCA's Building 5 Gallery in North Adams (www.bpvs.com).
Another presence at the conference was Fraunhofer-U.S.A.'s partnership in contract research with M.I.T., founded in May, 2008 and dubbed the Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (www.fraunhofer-cse.org). Employing hordes of highly-qualified research scientists and well-equipped, test-versatile labs, it states its goal in the solar arena as "to significantly reduce the cost of solar over the next five years by employing advanced materials and 'smart' electronics to research, design and build better 'plug-and-play' solar modules." It also has a mission in the area of green building: to adapt advanced technology to reduce the energy consumption in new and older buildings.
In a similar but more local capacity, Holyoke-based Greendustry Park, LLC (www.greendustrypark.com) offers business planning and development, engineering, prototyping, marketing strategies, networking opportunities and even "back office" support (including things like legal and payroll services) to nascent businesses in the green sector. Companies like this will likely be key to the success or failure of many a hopeful startup, for though amongst the greenies there are certainly plenty of well thought out plans for potential businesses, the field may also suffer more than the average from an imbalanced ratio of idealistic vim to marketplace savvy.
Also in the mix of vetting new green-industry endeavors and perhaps helping to separate the wheat from the chaff are entities like Boston's New Generation Energy (NGE, www.newgenerationenergy.org), which describes itself as a "non-profit organization that supports community-based renewable energy projects." NGE's goal is to provide low-interest loans to qualifying applicants in New York and New England that produce or distribute renewable energy utilizing solar-PV, solar-thermal, wind, biomass and cogeneration capacity, as well as loans to support energy efficiency improvements. On its other end, NGE offers a safe place for conscientious investors to rest their capital resources, and provides guilt-free (if relatively modest) returns on its investments as well.
NGE's associate director Karla Franco explains that the organization raises the funds for its below-market-rate loan program through the sale of "Renewable Energy Investment Notes" (REINs). Sold in denominations ranging from $1,000 to $1,000,000 and up, they are basically fixed-interest, fixed-term debt notes. NGE hopes to make investing in renewable energy a less risky, more mainstream concept via the program, and if more entities like theirs begin to pop up, returns might even begin to rise significantly as borrowers' businesses start to take off and show profits. In many ways, ideas like NGE's could make the green revolution a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as the dot-com explosion of the late '90s created a multibillion-dollar sector of business virtually overnight.
The climax of the event was the Powershift panel discussion, which was skillfully moderated by professor of economics and director of the UMass-Amherst Center for Public Policy and Administration M.V. Lee Badgett. Here the panelists relayed, to the best of their knowledge, the progress of the brand-new landmark legislation and attempted to answer the slew of questions from detail-hungry listeners about how, where and when the bills' accompanying funds would begin to be distributed and how to apply for them. Net-metering was also a hot topic, and skeptics voiced their concerns about the possibility of such forward steps being bludgeoned to death on Beacon Hill by the big energy lobby like previous efforts of similar scope, both locally and nationally.
One local entity who interrogated the panel was Easthampton Mayor Michael Tautznik, whose primary interest seemed to lie in unraveling the specifics of the Green Communities Act. Signed in July of '08, this law got the state's green legislation rolling and appears to provide a number of incentives to municipalities to consider implementing green initiatives.
"We've started to look at qualifying for the GCA," Tautznik said in an email to the Advocate. "In terms of actually getting things accomplished, we conducted energy audits on our larger facilities using a DOER [Department of Energy Resources] grant, the Planning Board is looking at the required zoning changes, and we are applying to the PVPC [Pioneer Valley Planning Council] for assistance to develop a carbon inventory." Mayor Mike also had some well thought out suggestions on developing municipally-based/privately-owned solar "farms" on closed landfills:
"We [cities and towns] all have one or two [landfills], and they must be kept mown and maintained at fairly significant costs," he explained. "Trees cannot be grown on them for fear of damaging the cap, so there are no shading problems for solar panels. With the rack system in use on rooftops you don't need deep soil penetration for footings or foundations. If such systems can be fed into the grid at retail (using net-metering) they will make money. If they make money, Americans will invest in the technology and businesses will be formed to build them."
Still, Tautznik remains doubtful that many of these ideas can become reality without significant national leadership on the issue. He was recently quoted by MSNBC.com's Bill Dedman (from a post-election email query of 1,000 mayors that solicited their top two suggestions for President-elect Barack Obama's "to-do list") saying, "There needs to be a program through which assistance (financial, technical, and possibly legal) can be provided to local and regional governments to give us the capacity and opportunity to participate in the nation's energy independence efforts in a meaningful manner. Existing green energy programs rely on the actions of the for-profit marketplace, using income tax credits and private sector trading expertise to make the difference in successful implementation. Government energy use is significant and extremely visible. Making it the focus of such initiatives would go a long way toward instilling that same ethic in our constituents."
Robert Pollin is professor of economics and founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass-Amherst. He recently co-authored a report entitled Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy, which offers a detailed economic plan for implementing a rapid, $100 billion clean-energy stimulus package that could transition the U.S. into a low-carbon economy, creating 2 million jobs in the process.
According to the report, the six-pronged, infrastructure-focused plan could "create nearly four times more total jobs than spending the same amount of money within the oil industry," including "good" jobs (jobs paying at least $16 dollars an hour). It would be especially curative for the hard-hit construction and manufacturing sectors, where Pollin et al. predict that their proposed initiative could help restore most of the nation's 800,000 lost jobs in those areas. (Readers can download the report at www.peri.umass.edu).
Even if some aspects of a green revolution in New England (and the country in general) still appear painfully far off, there is no shortage of people preparing for its eventuality. From green-heavy curricula at academic institutions and regional labor initiatives to increasingly eager entrepreneurs and even hard-nosed venture capitalists, rank-and-file citizens are ready for it. One hopes that the grass-roots clamor will be loud enough to force progressive measures through the halls of American bureaucracy. Still, even if the K Street lobbyists manage to keep Congress dragging its feet through the dregs of the petroleum paradigm, the beautiful thing may be that if worse comes to worst, we may not even need them.
"The great thing about a green employment initiative," says Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board, "is that it isn't reliant on some big companies moving into the western region. It creates new jobs, creates new small businesses and creates new advancement opportunities within an array of existing businesses. Just as information technology trends, skills, and capacity cut across all industries in the '80s, a green initiative has the potential to affect work and jobs across the board.
"Our current partnership includes everything from HVAC [heating, ventilation, air conditioning] firms to architects and construction supply stores to electricians. Jobs being posted by partners range from a data entry clerk and sales assistant at places like Solarwrights to a residential energy specialist, energy auditor, and cellulose installation installer, as well as, of course, PV-installers and solar hot water technicians."
In academia, perhaps one of the best harbingers of employment and technological trends to come, the green writing is quickly beginning to cover more and more of the chalkboards as well. Richard Gottlieb, a stalwart of the solar industry since its infancy, teaches classes in solar PV technology at Greenfield Community College as well as the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Port Ewen, N.Y. Gottlieb teaches general overview courses and classes for more specific professional groups such as solar installers and electricians.
"We're doing double sessions almost everywhere we teach, as we're getting about twice as many people signed up for each class," says Gottlieb. "We're also getting invitations to teach at new locations every week. There is enormous interest in green technologies."
The solar guru does double duty as a private sector instructor and system designer, putting in time at Poughkeepsie's Atlantis Energy, Inc. and at his own Sunnyside Solar, Inc., a small company based in Guilford, Vt. whose tongue-in-cheek motto reads "The Gentle Electric Company. We bring good things from light." He is also involved with Tinmouth, Vt.'s upcoming Solarfest, a three-day festival of renewable energy and sustainability workshops that takes place on July 10-12, and will also feature music on 100 percent renewable energy-powered stages. For more information on the event, visit www.solarfest.org.
"Green is the new red, white and blue," chirps New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who, though his shift toward sensational globalist proselytizing has made him something of a caricature of himself, occasionally still hits the nail on the head. In this case, he's right about the writing on the global wall: if America doesn't get its collective ass in gear for the clean energy revolution, it will be left eating the dust of emerging economic powers who will—namely China and India, who currently boast labor forces and trade surpluses that are quite up to the task. In the absence of a competitive effort in the green sector, the United States' economy could quickly become a dinosaur in an age of sleek, streamlined mammals, which could ultimately render it not unlike the former Soviet Union—a society of poor, underemployed citizens, a nation both technologically and ideologically outdated. Hopefully, leadership from states like Massachusetts and California will help to avert this scenario.
Ben Downing: Leaner times loom on Beacon Hill
27 NOVEMBER, 2008
Ben Downing’s agenda for his second term as state senator differs dramatically from the campaign speeches he first delivered two years ago.
Completing his first term and facing the reality of a state government that can no longer afford to grow have led to refine priorities.
“If my two years has taught me anything, it’s that what’s constant isn’t necessarily your priorities, it’s your principles,” he said.
Downing will begin his second term in January after running for reelection without a challenger this autumn.
Asked about his priorities for the upcoming session, Downing cites three areas: coping with a budget that’s under siege; addressing transportation issues; and reassuring the public about the ethics of state officials.
“The economic challenges are first and foremost,” he said.
The state faces major difficulties as officials seek to balance the current year’s budget as well as craft the spending plan for the next fiscal year.
Downing’s take on the state finances focusses on one particular area. “We have been way too dependent on capital gains revenue,” he said.
The freshman state senator said that the state has seen increased revenue in recent years as residents paid taxes based on large capital gains. Income and sales tax revenue have been relatively flat.
“We have seen incredible increases on the capital gains side of things,” he said. “That should have been used for onetime things, specific projects, not programs.”
With the recent stock market turmoil, state officials are bracing for a precipitous fall in capital gains revenue. More than anything else, suggests Downing, this element is driving the budget challenges.
He hopes Massachusetts government, once it survives this challenge, learns not to repeat the mistake.
“No matter how we go, there’s something we should learn from that,” he said.
Downing also sees a beneficial side effect to the trimming that has already occurred and likely looms.
“If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of gray, it’s that no one’s pet project, no one’s special group or coveted interest will be left unexamined,” he said.
The economic concerns tie into another big issue for Downing: the status and management of the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Downing currently opposes increasing the state gas tax because he’s sees far greater needs to consolidate and better organize the state’s transportation system.
“I don’t think we can talk any raise in the gas tax until there is significant and substantial reform in the transportation agencies in Massachusetts,” he said.
The current system makes no sense, he said.
Downing is also concerned that regional transit authorities (RTA) outside the Boston area receive second-class status, including a Byzantine funding system that makes them borrow money then seek state reimbursement.
“Any debate about reform should recognize the increased importance of the RTAs,” he said.
Downing said that the gas tax hike idea “cannot be completely dismissed,” but should be discussed only after “we have wrung every inefficiency out.”
To help communities deal with frozen or possibly falling state aid, Downing is serving on a municipal relief task force that will review fees and local tax options. “We have set up a menu of possible action items that will hopefully blunt some of this,” he said.
Downing wants to see the state continue to invest in areas that grow the economy, including education. In particular, for the Berkshire region, “BCC and MCLA are critically important.”
The third wheel of Downing’s second-term focus is one that he didn’t anticipate, but which he now feels is vitally important.
“Ethics and public integrity are crucial to ensure we have the highest standards,” he said. “Everyone from Pittsfield to Boston has been rocked in one form or another by the recent scandals that have hit the senate, allegedly part of the House and Boston City Hall.”
Downing thinks public confidence is at risk unless strong action is taken to ensure elected officials and public servants are held to high ethical standards.
“We have to do everything we can to maintain the highest standards,” he said.
The danger of inaction, he believes, is that if residents think a culture of waste and self-benefit exists, “people believe their money is being wasted by corrupt people.”
By Jonathan Levine, Publisher of pittsfieldgazette.com
"Good choice by July 4 committee"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Kudos to the Pittsfield 4th of July Parade Committee for utilizing a photo of James Callahan marching as a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Pittsfield Chapter #65, on its billboard campaign throughout the city. I'm sure the committee had many photos of floats, balloons and so on at its disposal, but it chose to use a photo of Jimmy Callahan, a former Veteran of the Year in Pittsfield who passed in August of 2008, for its campaign.
It is a fitting photo for an Independence Day parade and I found it very classy of the committee. Jimmy served as a combat medic in Vietnam and his story and photos are memorialized there. Here at home, Jimmy spent immeasurable amounts of his time advocating the honor, dignity and welfare of our local veterans; living and deceased.
Sen. Benjamin Downing has committed to sponsoring legislation that would honor Jimmy and his work by dedicating the Hubbard Avenue bridge by Berkshire Crossing in honor of Jimmy Callahan. Please join the local veterans community and show your support for this fitting memorial by contacting Sen. Downing and letting him know that you support his effort to recognize this local hero. Sen. Downing can be reached at 20 Bank Row, Room 202, Pittsfield, 442-4008 or email@example.com
The writer is vice president, American Legion Riders, Post 155.
Guest Column: "Reform Today for a Better Tomorrow"
Sen. Benjamin B. Downing -iberkshires.com- February 10, 2009
If given a blank sheet of paper and asked to draw up the ideal transportation system in the commonwealth, no one would produce anything resembling what we have today.
The system is broken and before we ask taxpayers for any new revenue to support that system, we must repair it. Taxpayers and tollpayers across the commonwealth have little reason or evidence to trust that their hard-earned, scarce dollars are being spent in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Reform must come before any discussion of new revenues for maintenance of roads, bridges, RTAs and other transportation modes.
There are many straightforward reforms which, if enacted, would save the taxpayer and tollpayer millions, if not billions, and build public trust about how their resources are being spent. Currently, three agencies — Mass Highway, the Turnpike Authority, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation — are charged with operating and maintaining roads and bridges. Under a Senate proposal, these functions would be consolidated under one agency, resulting in significant savings and efficiencies.
Regional Transit Authorities, such as the BRTA in the Berkshires, are funded on a lag schedule, where state appropriations pay for the prior year's costs, plus interest. Instead of investing in new routes and expanded service, the state is paying to borrow money it knows it will spend.
RTAs should be forward funded. If this is too costly for an already ailing state budget, RTAs that are not also served by the MBTA (the T) should be given priority for forward funding.
Additionally, employees within the transportation system, in particular those at the T, should earn the same benefits as other state and municipal employees. The idea that anyone, in any field, could retire at 43 years old, with 100-percent state-funded health care, no matter if they choose an HMO or PPO, is outdated and unaffordable.
These are some, and by no means all, of the transportation reforms that should be considered, debated, and acted on, before any discussion of revenues moves forward. That being said, there will be a time when revenues must be debated.
Proposed Gas Tax
Recently, the Patrick administration leaked a proposal for a 27.5 cent raise in the gas tax. Such a raise is unacceptable, especially if the revenue raised is used to simply pay down debt from the Big Dig and the T. No doubt, there is a shared responsibility and obligation to pay for the operation and maintenance of our roads and bridges.
However, asking taxpayers and tollpayers that rarely, if ever, use or see benefits from such projects or agencies to bear a relatively large share of a burden is not the answer. Instead, we should look at a mix of revenue options that shares the responsibility of paying for the system proportionally among those who use it and benefit from it.
An effective, efficient and responsive transportation system is vital to the economy of Massachusetts. Real reform won't happen if the old broken system is given a new injection of revenue. Old habits will persist and costs will be passed on to future generations.
By putting reform before revenue, we can ensure that future generations won't end up where we are today – at a dead end. By putting reform before revenue we can build a better transportation system and that's the way to build a bridge to a better tomorrow.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, represents 48 communities in Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin counties.
"Downing backs transgender bill"
By Jack Nicas, Berkshire Eagle Boston Bureau, Thursday, February 19, 2009
BOSTON — Senator Benjamin B. Downing is spearheading an effort to protect transgender residents under the state's hate crime statutes.
The Pittsfield Democrat is the lead sponsor of a bill to classify offenses against transgender citizens as hate crimes and prevent transgender discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, including restrooms. The majority of his colleagues have already signed on as co-sponsors.
"The transgender community has long suffered very pervasive discrimination," said Arlin Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "And much of it is founded in misunderstanding."
Fellow lead sponsors, Reps. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, and Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, said the transgender community has historically been the target of violence and discrimination.
"(Being transgender) upsets a lot of people on the fringe of our society," Rushing said. "When there is violence perpetrated against (transgender people), it gets very extreme It escalates and can get very brutal."
Although 13 other states have passed similar laws over the past 15 years, Massachusetts would be the first state to both protect its transgender residents and offer gay marriage. Boston, Cambridge and Northampton have already passed city ordinances protecting transgender citizens.
The lead opponent of the bill, the Massachusetts Family Institute, maintains the transgender community is "confused."
"(The bill) fosters the illusion that their situation is normal and forces that view on the public," said Evelyn Reilly, public policy director for the Institute. Reilly was specifically worried about opening up public restrooms to transgender people.
"Men and women bathrooms have been separated for ages for a reason," she said. "Women need to feel private and safe when they're using those facilities."
She presented the scenario of a sexual predator using "the guise of gender confusion" to enter restrooms.
Sciortino called her example a "red herring."
"This bill does not condone or permit illegal activity," he said. "Illegal activity remains illegal."
Reilly pointed out the bill removes discrimination protection for veterans, married individuals and children, among others, in the state's existing laws.
Sciortino spokesman Daniel Glasser said the omission was the result of a "cut and paste drafting error."
"The intent of the bill is only to expand rights to the transgender community, not remove them from anyone," he said.
Sponsors may be able to fix the error before it is officially filed because bills have yet to be numbered and assigned to committees. If not, "there will be plenty of opportunities to work it out," Glasser said.
Sciortino filed an identical bill last session, garnering the support of Gov. Deval L. Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and 23 other lawmakers, but it died in the Judiciary Committee by year end.
This session, 104 legislators — 83 representatives and 21 senators — co-sponsored the bill. House Speaker Robert DeLeo pledged his support at a gay-rights "Gayla" at a Boston nightclub on Valentine's Day.
New committee assignments may also help the bill. The appointment of Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem atop the Judiciary Committee, the bill's first stop, greatly increases its chances for survival, Isaacson said.
"Now we have a real ally at the Senate chair level," she said.
Rushing is also hopeful.
"There is a surprising amount of support for this bill and it seems to go all the way up through leadership," he said. "If those people maintain their support, then we will have this bill passed in this session."
"Renewable Power: [Berkshire] County energy sites named"
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Friday, February 27, 2009
In analyzing the potential for renewable energy production on state-owned land, officials have identified 37 potential Berkshire County sites for wind power development, including high-profile tourist destinations such as Mount Greylock, Pittsfield State Forest and Mount Everett.
Among the 37 locations, there are three in the Mount Greylock Reservation, three in Pittsfield State Forest, four in Savoy, four in Florida, and three in Peru. Also on the list are Mount Everett and October Mountain, plus six wildlife management areas.
The site capacity estimates range from 80 megawatts at Pittsfield State Forest to a 7.5 megawatts in the Eugene P. Moran Wildlife Management area.
The state has listed 44 potential wind turbine projects in Western Massachusetts. The projects would have an estimated capacity of 946 megawatts.
Last month, Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick set a statewide goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind-power capacity by 2020, enough to supply electricity to 800,000 homes.
Today there is only one wind turbine operating in Berkshire County — the 1.5-megawatt machine at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock.
The ultimate goal is to use green energy to reduce the cost of power used by the state and the carbon footprint of state operations. The document is an early step in a planning process required by state law to achieve that goal. But, as the report notes, some such installations could raise the ire of environmentalists and scenery buffs.
In analyzing such sites, wind data, current land use, available acreage and nearby structures were taken into account.
However, "site-specific development studies have not been undertaken on these sites, making it possible that further analysis will determine some sites unsuitable for development for environmental or other reasons," the report states.
In a letter introducing Monday's report on "Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Potential at State-Owned Facilities," Ian Bowles, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said the state already has saved $25 million a year by reducing energy use.
"Of great significance," he also wrote, "is the potential for 946 MW (megawatts) of wind power that could be located on state lands."
He explained that many of the sites are preserved as habitat refuges and others are in use for sustainable forestry and active recreation.
"For those lands that we treat as resources to be managed productively and sustainably, clean, renewable wind energy should be considered for its rightful place among those productive uses," Bowles wrote.
Narain Schroeder, acting president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said the state is right to begin a statewide planning process for the development of renewable energy, and also is right to make a significant effort to reduce its impact on global climate change.
"I commend the governor for his commitment to tackling climate change," Schroeder said. But he also expressed concern about some sites that have been identified as having potential for wind power development.
"The Resources Council does not believe that dedicated conservation lands are appropriate sites for development of wind turbines — these conservation lands already serve an important purpose," Schroeder said. "In fact, some of the lands were (donated to the state) with that in mind, so this would border on a breach of trust in some of those lands."
According to Tyler Fairbank, CEO of EOS Ventures, a renewable energy development company based in Hancock, four criteria must be acceptable before a wind project can move ahead: wind resource, electrical grid connectivity, community acceptance, and a sound financial structure.
"If there is a big red flag in any of these four areas, there is a pretty low probability that anything is going to happen," Fairbank said. "You can very easily have a project that makes sense from a wind resource and electrical environment perspective, but the community is not going to accept it. That is a key evaluation that really needs to be looked at."
The report also identifies potential sites for 57 megawatts worth of small-scale wind projects on the grounds of state facilities, and 32 megawatts of potential solar installations on state-owned structures.
"What the reports shows regarding solar generation capacity is very positive," said Christopher Kilfoyle, president of Berkshire Photovoltaic Services based in Adams. "We're going to see (solar energy generation) keep doubling year after year. We've already seen a 300 percent uptick in business since 2003. And statewide, different colleges have been developing curriculum to gear up for the jobs in clean energy."
Fairbank said the report makes it clear that the state is serious about actively seeking renewable energy generation, reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, and increasing the number of jobs associated with the green energy industry.
"A balanced approach"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, Saturday, February 28, 2009
The state has identified more than three dozen sites in Berkshire County that could make viable homes for wind turbines. But the report issued this week by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is only an early step along the road toward generating renewable energy in Massachusetts. As we go forward, state leaders and Berkshire residents must remember that, as in all things, moderation is a virtue.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick has called for the state to generate 2,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020, enough electricity to power 800,000 homes. That ambitious goal looks even more challenging when we consider that Berkshire County's lone wind turbine, atop Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, produces 1.5 megawatts.
But there are proposals in various stages of development that would add 35 turbines to the county. These have already generated controversy among residents, some of whom fear that turbines will spoil our scenic ridge lines and intrude on the rustic beauty that helps make the Berkshires a tourist destination and a wonderful place to live.
In that light, the state's report will only add to controversy. Certainly, any plan to erect windmills on top of Mount Greylock should be dismissed out of hand; the mountain top is already cluttered with antennas that dwarf the noble War Veterans Memorial Tower. But it is reasonable to consider turbines in Pittsfield State Forest, Savoy, Peru and Florida, among other locations.
Any turbine project must balance the needs to the community with the needs of the power grid. And any community that hosts a turbine on state land must be compensated for it, either in the form of significantly increased payment in lieu of taxes from the state or in significantly reduced electric rates.
We haven no choice but to embrace alternative energy, and wind is a promising frontier. If the state takes a reasonable approach and listens to the concerns of Berkshire communities, we should be able to strike a balance that preserves the character of the Berkshires.
"Murray: No revenue before transportation reform"
boston.com, March 12, 2009
BOSTON --Senate President Therese Murray says she will not support any increase in the Massachusetts gasoline tax until the Legislature passes a comprehensive transportation overhaul.
That means Massachusetts Turnpike tolls and MBTA fares may go up, although Murray says she hopes the House and Senate can move swiftly enough to avoid that.
Murray made the vow during and after a Statehouse transportation hearing on Thursday.
She notes U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently ruled out a hike in the federal gasoline tax. In a veiled shot at Massachusetts Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, she also says "reform before revenue" is not a slogan.
Aloisi derided the Senate president's mantra last week, labeling it a "meaningless slogan.
"School districts to study regionalization"
By James Vaznis, Boston Globe Staff, February 27, 2009, 11:00 A.M.
Financially strapped communities from Cape Cod to the Berkshires will receive state grants to study the possibility of regionalizing their school districts, which state education leaders say could lead to greater cost efficiencies.
At a press conference this morning at the public high school in Greenfield, state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester announced that Greenfield's schools, along with other districts across the state, would receive the first batch of grants from a new state program that is urging regionalization. Each grant ranges between $15,000 and $25,000.
"This funding is meant to jumpstart a movement across the state to find ways for our smaller communities to work together, learn from one another and share expenses in a manner that makes sense fiscally and educationally," Chester said in a statement. "I am pleased that in a year when money is so tight we have [been] able to maintain this effort as a priority."
Greenfield, located in the western part of the state, is looking to merge its 1,500 students and eight schools with the neighboring Gill-Montague Regional School District, which has 1,000 students and five schools. Both districts have fallen upon tough financial times.
Merging the state's smallest school districts into larger entities is one of the many initiatives Governor Deval Patrick laid out in his sweeping state education overhaul effort known as the Readiness Project. The proposal calls for "dramatically reducing the number of school districts in the state" so less money is spent on administrative services and more can be spent in classrooms. All but 41 of the state's nearly 400 school districts serve fewer than 5,000 students.
Districts do not need to fully consolidate with a neighbor to yield savings. Districts could maintain independence while forming partnerships to run school buses, lunch programs, or special education services. The districts could even share superintendents and other central administrators, while keeping their districts as separate entities.
"In light of the current fiscal climate, this type of a collaborative effort is a key step towards finding a more manageable way of funding our public education system, and achieving the goal of providing all students quality education in the classroom," said state Senator Benjamin Downing.
In addition to Greenfield, districts receiving grants include: Ayer, Berkshire Hills Regional, Frontier Regional, Hadley, Harwich, Holland, Mahar Regional, Mohawk Regional, Nauset Regional, Westfield, and Boxford.
"Fast Lane future eyed"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Monday, March 16, 2009
PITTSFIELD — A bill submitted by a member of the Berkshire legislative delegation could save the state millions in transportation costs — but would also act as an additional expenditure for thousands of Berkshire County drivers.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, filed a bill last month with the legislature that, if passed, would mandate that all drivers registering their cars in Massachusetts would have to sign up for the state Fast Lane program.
"With this (bill), there will be less labor needed at the Turnpike Authority, and more resources can be devoted to repairing our roads and bridges throughout the Commonwealth," said Downing.
The Fast Lane program installs a transponder onto each car's windshield, which allows for faster circulation through toll roads on the Massachusetts Turnpike as well as Route 95. Currently, 744,000 drivers have enrolled in the program, totaling more than 1 million transponders on the road.
Yet this initiative does bear additional costs to some Berkshire County drivers: according to MTA officials, while transponders are now free of charge, drivers also have to pay a $20 entry fee to start a Fast Lane account, as well as pay a 50-cent administrative fee each month.
According to statistics from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and the MTA, this proposed bill would absorb an additional 3.5 million drivers into the system, resulting in more than $92.4 million in additional funds. There are more than 55,000 registered drivers in Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Dalton and North Adams.
When asked if this could be considered a hidden tax for Berkshire County residents that don't necessarily use toll roads, Downing replied, "it's understandable. I think, first, the bill was a starting point — it wasn't a final solution."
Downing said he felt that this particular avenue would be only one of several, and would save more than it would cost, simply due to cutting toll jobs as well as minimizing driver's environmental impact by shortening driving time. "One of the major costs in the transportation system are labor costs," he said.
Downing added that much of his deliberation for the bill came before the MTA announced in January that transponders would now come free. The main focus now is reform of the state transportation system. "I think anyone who files a bill and says its perfect, they're trying to take a little bit too much credit for their work," Downing said. "It can be, in many ways, preempted by things the Turnpike has done in recent months."
"Possible Fast Lane solution"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Legislation filed by state Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, requiring drivers registered in Massachusetts to sign up for the Fast Lane program could generate revenue and cut down costs for the financially struggling state. The entry and administrative fees for Fast Lane, which enables drivers to go through tolls quickly via a transponder attached to the windshield, would raise money, and the cutting of positions for toll collectors, some of whom are highly paid, would reduce labor costs. The proposal does raise some concerns. Should Berkshire drivers who never use the Turnpike be required to get a transponder? Most drivers sign up for Fast Lane with credit cards, which would handicap those who don't have credit cards or those who don't trust the state bureaucracy with credit card information. No solutions to the state's financial problems come without potential drawbacks, however, and Senator Downing is to be credited for actively seeking an answer.
"Biodiesel project on hold"
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, March 18, 2009
PITTSFIELD — A $50 million biodiesel plant planned for Dalton and Pittsfield is on hold due to the economy, according to a company official.
"The project is under review," said Lee Harrison, executive vice president of Berkshire Biodiesel. "The global financial situation has put things on hold. We will probably have an announcement in the spring, but for right now, there is no news."
The Berkshire Biodiesel plant, planned for the 45,000-square-foot former Beloit structure at 448 Hubbard Ave., which sits on nine acres of Ashuelot Park, would be one of the largest operations of its kind in the country.
With engineering and design plans completed and much of the permitting process done, investors have already invested time and money in the project.
"We're not actively spending money on engineering or anything else," Harrison said. "We've spent a lot of money on engineering and permitting — it's significant. Everyone has been enormously helpful, but right now everything is on hold. We're reviewing everything."
The construction process, which was originally expected to begin in mid-2007, was projected to provide work for about 100 people. Officials had hoped the plant could be up to its full capacity of 50 million gallons per year by the end of 2008.
Once operating, the plant will employ about 30 full-time workers, with a ripple effect of creating 100 to 150 other jobs in the region, according to its backers.
Construction of a 2,500-foot rail line would provide rail access for raw materials and shipping. A $3 million grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation to Dalton and Pittsfield, announced in 2007, is meant to fund about 75 percent of the cost of the rail line to the biodiesel plant.
A total of 6,400 feet of rail is planned for the industrial park to provide rail access for other future businesses. Pittsfield is seeking $53 million from the federal stimulus package to pay the cost of rail construction and to speed economic development in the park.
The raw material, mostly refined vegetable oil, will be brought in by rail, and the end product would be shipped out by both rail and truck.
The market for biodiesel today, Harrison said, is solid and growing.
The Massachusetts Legislature passed a measure mandating that, by 2010, 2 percent of every gallon of diesel fuel and home heating oil be biodiesel. The mandate would increase by one percent through 2013, eventually creating an estimated demand for 50 million gallons of biodiesel a year.
"It's a significant portion, so the market is there, and will be there," Harrison said. "We see it as strong and growing. And this country can't continue to ship boatloads of currency to the Middle East both from an economic standpoint and a national security standpoint."
To reach Scott Stafford: firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 664-4995.
"Don't burden pike non-users"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, Friday, March 20, 2009
What makes Sen. Downing think every car owner in the state wants a transponder in his car? I can't see being forced to buy one at $20 to set up a Fast Lane account and pay a monthly fee for something I do not need or want.
I haven't been across the state in five years so if this idea had been enforced five years ago it would have cost me $50 to this date for nothing.
Please Sen. Downing, do not try to spend your constituents' money. I'm sure it is something they can handle very well for themselves.
Re: Ben Downing is a failure both in politics and economic development!
Ben Downing is a puppet for former Berkshire State Senator Andrea F. Nuciforo II, aka Luciforo! Downing does Luciforo's bidding on Beacon Hill in return for a start in his ambition to be a big government career politician. Luciforo had to step down from Downing's current hack seat due to his CORRUPTION in the INSURANCE industry!
Ben Downing is part of the disturbing pattern of local and state Pittsfield politics staying within a familial network.
This is my Blog page on Mr Downing.
I also have a Blog page on his non-Veteran, Uncle Jack:
The local economy Ben Downing poorly represents is completely tanked.
Ben Downing is a failure both in politics and economic development!
- Jonathan A. Melle
"Comeback bid for biomass plant"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The plan to construct a local biomass renewable power plant was too good to let go, and happily it won't be. We're pleased to see that Doug Crane, a vice president at Crane & Company, and Stephen Sears, a local land-use consultant, have formed Berkshire Generations Inc. to revive the project.
The $100 to $175 million project announced by Tamarack Energy in 2007 was targeted for 18 acres of land on the 80-acre Ashuelot Park parcel in Dalton and Pittsfield owned by Crane & Company, and was sold to Mr. Crane and Mr. Sears for $1 after it stalled. (Crane & Company supports the reincarnated project but is not actively involved in it.) The plant as designed would burn raw wood surplus and by-products to power a steam turbine that would generate electricity for nearby businesses and to sell power to the grid. The 350,000 megawatt hours of electricity the facility would produce annually would power the equivalent of 44,000 homes. As many as 300 construction jobs would be created.
This may not appear to be the ideal time to undertake such an ambitious project given the economy, but with environmentally friendly leadership in place in Boston and Washington it could prove to be ideal. Federal stimulus funds and state and federal financial incentives for green projects are becoming available, and this renewable energy project would be an obvious candidate for this assistance. The plant would also be a good fit for the Berkshires, where concern for the environment was of importance before it belatedly began to catch on elsewhere in the nation.
READER's Comment - Chris Matera, Malden, MA - 3/24/2009 -
The Berksire Eagle Editorial on the Pittsfield biomess power plant is just more blind boosterism by the compliant media of more green-washing by industry.
Cutting and burning the forest for minimal amounts of cheap Biomess power is not green nor clean. Watch out Berkshire county, if this plant and others like it are constructed, clearcutting will spread across the landscape which has already started on public lands.
Current proposals for building 5 taxpayer subsidized biomass plants would:
1. Burn 2.4 million tons of wood and release 3 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, an 11% increase over current statewide power plant CO2 emissions. The proposed Russell biomass plant would release 50% more CO2 per mWhr of energy produced than the worst CO2 emitting power plant in the northeast. These plants are not carbon neutral despite such claims by proponents and the media.
2. Target public lands to provide 532,000 green tons of wood annually, requiring clear-cutting 6,200 acres, or partially cutting between 11,000 and 31,000 acres each year. Historical 1980-2006 public land logging averaged 1,250 acres, mostly selectively cut. 1.8 million green tons of additional trees, or 8 million more trees, would have to be cut annually, meaning forest cutting volumes would have to more than triple on all Massachusetts forests, public and private. At this rate, all Massachusetts forests could be logged in 25 years. Clear-cutting would spread across the landscape and is already occurring on public forests, Increase air and water pollution in already polluted regions of Massachusetts
3. New power produced from these 5 plants would only increase generation capacity 1% more than today's capacity. Basic conservation measures could reduce electrical use 33% Conservation measures cost 3.2 cents per kWhr versus 8.9 cents per kWhr for new production.
4. Require about 600 logging truck trips per day, or more than 184,000 trips per year, at about 6 miles per gallon for trips up to 100 miles, mostly on narrow rural roads
At this time of ecological and economic crisis, there can be no reasonable argument for forcing taxpayers to subsidize new polluting, CO2 emitting, forest devastating carbon based fuels for minimal amounts of cheap power. These policies will worsen air pollution, increase greenhouse gas emissions, deplete forests and drain our public coffers, the exact opposite of what we need to be doing right now. These tax-payer subsidies and other incentives should be redirected toward truly green technologies to produce clean, non-carbon emitting energy, and local jobs
Additionally, Massachusetts has committed to reducing global warming emissions and burning millions of tons of forest will fly in the face of this landmark legislation and cause a double whammy by releasing currently locked up carbon as well as degrading the forests ability to absorb CO2
The proposals to use these fuels will add to our problems, not help them. Imagine the folly of faithfully recycling paper products to save trees while 2 million tons of trees are being cut and burned each year
"Ehrlich attends first Beacon Hill briefing on tax policies"
Swampscott with news from the Swampscott Reporter, By Gintautas Dumcius, MA State House News Service, Thursday March 26, 2009, 12:14 P.M. EDT
Swampscott - As state tax collections spiral downward, federal funds pour in, and talk persists of raising taxes — the gas tax, sales tax and several others — state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, who represents Swampscott, and about four dozen lawmakers and aides met Wednesday, March 25, in the first of a series of briefings on issues surrounding the state’s complex tax policies.
A hand-out distributed by Committee on Revenue aides starts with basics, like what is a tax (an “across-the-board levy on a base, such as income, to which a specific rate applies and which no modifications exist”) the types of state taxes (personal income, corporate excise, property, sales and use), and miscellaneous excises and taxes (annual motor vehicle excise, transfer of hotel/motel rooms, sale of gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol and decedent’s estate).
“There is no topic that is off-limits for these seminars,” Rep. Jay Kaufman, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Revenue, told the small crowd gathered in the House Lobby.
That includes Proposition 2-1/2 Kaufman said, calling the voter law a “third rail” in politics. That law limits the total taxes that can be assessed every year on the real and personal property of each municipality to not more than 2-1/2 percent of the “full and fair” cash value of the property.
The law also limits annual increases in local property tax levies to an aggregate total of 2.5 percent, plus the taxation which is produced by new construction and remodeling during the previous year, so-called new growth.
Communities are able to exceed the limit or deny pushes to raise property taxes beyond the threshold through so-called override votes.
Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat, said the seminars were an effort to educate himself and other committee members as he considers tax policy reforms.
“Most of us are not experts in tax policy,” said Kaufman, a veteran House member who is serving his first term as chair of the panel.
He added that the committee, co-chaired by Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, will invite experts to the briefings, which will be generally held Wednesdays in Room B-2.
“We’re casting a fairly wide net,” he said.
The seminars come as the committee prepares to formally accept input on Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed tax hikes on candy, sugared drinks, and alcohol.
The committee will also consider Patrick’s re-filing of state and local options taxes on meals and hotel rooms, and eliminating an exemption for telecommunications companies, proposals that failed to advance last session.
The committee has scheduled a hearing on Patrick’s tax plans for April 7 in Gardner Auditorium at 10 a.m.
Kaufman said he expects Patrick’s proposals will be taken up by the House before the House debates the fiscal 2010 budget the last week of April.
“We’re assuming a short leash,” he said.
Other lawmakers who attended the Wednesday briefing included Democratic Reps. Steven D’Amico of Seekonk, Jim Arciero of Westford, Jim Cantwell of Marshfield, Carl Sciortino of Somerville and Alice Peisch of Wellesley and Republican Jay Barrows of Mansfield.
"Cheshire Woman Recipient of Downing Award"
By Tammy Daniels - iBerkshires Staff - April 07, 2009
PITTSFIELD, Massachusetts — Terri Cooper's always starting something.
The soft-spoken, if not downright self-effacing, Cheshire resident has been responsible for establishing programs ranging from soccer teams to raising funds for playground equipment to Brownie troops to the hugely popular Father/Daughter Dance held annually in North Adams on Valentine's Day that's raised $40,000 for summer camp scholarships since 1995.
In reading about what she's done, said Berkshire District Attorney David E. Capeless, you have to "focus on the words: started, organized, started ... "
That selfless volunteerism and focus on children has made her this year's recipient of the Gerard D. Downing Service to Children Award.
"Terri's not just somebody who joins ... when something needs to be done, she doesn't wait for somebody else," said Capeless to friends, colleagues and officials gathered in the Crane Room at the Berkshire Museum on Monday afternoon. "She is a worthy recipient of the Gerard D. Downing Award."
The award, named for the late district attorney who died in 2003, was established in his memory to recognize his commitment to service and improving the lives of children. Cooper is the sixth recipient; last year's was probation officer Nancy Macauley.
"This award means a tremendous amount to me because helping to improve the lives of children is my life's mission," said Cooper, an art teacher at C.T. Plunkett Elementary School in Adams, adding her colleague's were equally deserving. "When I see a need, the ideas start to flow and I need to make a difference."
Cooper, a Clarksburg native, began volunteering early in life said husband and childhood friend Jay Cooper, who recalled she "started at 13" working with kids on the playgrounds and never stopped. "When she gets a vision in her head she has to take the next step ... It's not just a couple things it goes on an on."
Indeed, Terri Cooper joked that "when we married 21 years ago he didn't know he was signing up for a lifetime of fundraising."
That volunteering spirit has been embraced by her family: daughters Emily, 14, and Megan, 17, are members of the Hoosac Valley High School Leo Club. "We're very proud of her," said Megan. "We help out with the Father/Daughter Dance and everything." Even son Jaiden, 6, has pitched in.
"She genuinely cares about each and every student," said Adams-Cheshire Regional School Superintendent Alfred W. Skrocki.
"The most important thing we can do in providing safety for our kids besides being good role models is being involved in their lives," said Capeless. "Give them good positive enriching outlets for all that energy. ... That's why people like Terri are so important to us."
The award presentation has become the centerpiece of the district attorney's office efforts to raise awareness of child abuse locally. Attendees were handed small blue ribbons signifying the problem of child abuse and urged to take more to hand out.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and Mayor James Ruberto read an proclamation recognizing it as such in Pittsfield. Downing's son, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and his widow, Pamela Downing, also attended.
The senator said Cooper was a fitting recipient and signified the many people making a difference in Berkshire County who don't get the recognition they deserve. The Senate had approved a citation for Cooper, he said, "but it's in the mail."
Each day, said Capeless, four American children die of child abuse, three-quarters of them under age 4. In Massachusetts, of the 35,000 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect each year, half are under age 7.
Three Berkshire County towns — Adams, North Adams and Pittsfield — are among the top five municipalities in the state with high reporting rates of child abuse. And Massachusetts has the third highest rate for reported cases, twice the national average.
While the numbers are chilling — reported cases are up 47 percent — they're also indicative of a broad awareness of the importance of reporting child neglect, said Capeless and Katherine Bierwas, executive director of Berkshire County Kids' Place and Violence Prevention Center.
"People not only know about it, they're concerned about, and they feel confident that we'll do the right thing," said Capeless.
Photos by Tammy Daniels
Terri Cooper is presented the Downing Award by District Attorney David E. Capeless.
Capeless and Cooper pose Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, Mayor James M. Ruberto and Katherine Bierwas. Right, Bierwas holds a new plaque with the names of the first six Downing Award recipients; colleagues from Plunkett School.
Top, Cooper and husband Jay, daughters Emily and Megan and son Jaydin.
"Downing Appointed to Special Commission"
iBerkshires.com - April 07, 2009
BOSTON, Massachusetts - State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) has been appointed by Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) to serve on the 1,000 Great Places in Massachusetts Commission.
“Travel and tourism and the creative economy are important economic drivers in Massachusetts,” said Downing. “This Commission will identify 1,000 special assets throughout the state that make our Commonwealth unique. Local attractions tagged as ‘great’ will remind us why we’re proud to live in Massachusetts, and serve our economy well by drawing the attention of local and out-of-state travelers who will come to see, learn from and enjoy our greatest places.”
“From the tranquility of Provincetown to the charm of Williamstown, Massachusetts has some of the most incredible places to visit and experience. Senator Downing represents a wealth of those great places,” said Senate President Therese Murray. “I know he will make sure the entire Commonwealth is represented in our 1,000 great places.”
Downing represents the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin District, comprised of 48 western Massachusetts communities, the geographically largest district in the Massachusetts Senate.
Authorized by Chapter 9 of the Resolves of 2008, this Special Commission has been tasked with identifying, cataloguing, evaluating and designating 1,000 great places in Massachusetts. The 13-member Commission will be made up of six legislators, the executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, and six gubernatorial appointees representing the Commonwealth’s Regional Tourism Councils and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) will chair the Commission. Chang-Diaz also serves as the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.
The Commission will file the results of its investigation and any recommendations with the General Court no later than 120 days after its first meeting.
(Photo) State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield)
Bonded Concrete Inc., a Colonie, N.Y.-based company, is looking to build a second Berkshire County plant on this piece of land at the end of Downing Industrial Park.
"Cementing new plans: A New York-based concrete company would like to build a facility at Downing Industrial Park."
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Tuesday, April 7, 2009
PITTSFIELD — A century old family-run cement company based in the Albany, N.Y., area wants to build a processing plant at Downing Industrial Park on land once targeted for a waste-transfer station.
Bonded Concrete Inc. of Colonie, is seeking to lease the 12 acres at the end of Downing Industrial Parkway from Valley Mill Corp. of Lee, which bought the property three years ago for its proposed construction and demolition debris facility that was never built.
The cement company proposes to erect a 2,000-square-foot building to house the cement making, or "batching" process, and a 3,200-square-foot office/garage for its employees and vehicles.
Company engineer Andrew Clemente, one of eight brothers operating the firm started in 1910, said his company needs a cement plant closer to ongoing projects in the Pittsfield area. He noted for example, "The town of Dalton has a dam that needs replacing."
Right now, Bonded Concrete is hauling cement from either its plant in Sheffield or West Sand Lake, N.Y., some 30 to 40 miles away. Clemente said a Pittsfield facility means cement trucks spending less time on the road thus having a positive impact on the environment.
"I expect eight trucks in use on a busy day," he added.
However, Thomas Grady of 55 Hubbard Ave., doesn't want to increase the truck traffic already generated by Covanta Energy Crop. waste-to-energy facility and County Concrete Corp., both on Hubbard between Downing and Dalton Avenue.
"I don't think it's in the best interest for the citizens of Pittsfield to have another concrete plant nearby," Grady told the city's Conservation Commission, which began reviewing the project last week.
The commission and the Community Development Board must make recommendations to the Zoning Board of Appeals, the permit granting authority for this project. The Community Development Board will start its site plan review tonight at 7 at City Hall, while the ZBA's public hearing process regarding a variance and special permit for the project begins April 16.
The Conservation Commission has already continued its review until April 30, after asking officials of Bonded Concrete for more information regarding the chemicals used in the batching process, water use and assurances waste-water will not get into the city's storm drain system.
Project engineer James Scalise of SK Design told the commission a "state-of-the-art approach" is being used to recycle water used to wash down the trucks at the end of the day — which will be done inside the cement making building.
"No water will end up in the storm water system," Scalise said. "The gray water collected will be used to batch new concrete or wash out the trucks again."
Clemente noted most of the water used will actually leave in the concrete being delivered to customers.
In addition, Scalise said the stone and sand washed from the trucks will be also be re-used.
While the project avoids the wetlands and floodplain, Grady said he's concerned the acidity of the wastewater is still a threat and could be "lethal to aquatic life" in the area.
City planners have written the proposed cement plant meets site plan review requirements, but stated Bonded Concrete must seek state and city permits and pass muster with Western Massachusetts Electric Co. The buildings need to be sited such that they are away from the utility company's high voltage service lines running through the site.
Clemente is anxious for the approval process to move quickly.
"We've been (in Pittsfield) eight months seeking a site," Clemente said.
Earlier this year, Bonded Concrete had hoped the cement plant could be built by simply going through the city's building inspector, but city planners ruled the project required a special permit from the Zoning Board.
To reach Dick Lindsay: email@example.com, or (413) 496-6233.
"Town administrator chosen in Adams"
By Ryan Hutton, North Adams Transcript, 4/09/2009
ADAMS -- The Selectmen have decided to offer the long-vacant town administrator position to Cheshire native Jonathan W. Butler after a limited debate at Wednesday night’s work shop meeting.
Butler, 27, is a budget and policy director for state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D- Pittsfield, and was previously a legislative aide to the senator.
Selectman Mike Ouellette said that Butler’s intelligence and enthusiasm are what pushed him toward voting to hire the youngest of the top three candidates.
"He’s very smart, well educated, ambitious and hard working," Ouellette said. "I’ve spoken with Sen. Downing about him and [Town Counsel Edmund] St. John because he used to work for him and they both say he’s very hard working. Š What he lacks in administrative experience, I think he’ll more than make up for in drive, intelligence and ambition. That’s what we need right now. He can pick up experience."
Butler also worked as a paralegal at the law offices of Town Counsel Edmund R. St. John III in 2004 and 2005 and he has master’s degrees in public administration and political science from Suffolk University and a bachelor’s degree in history from Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H.
"If you ask people who the best town administrator we ever had was, I think a lot of people will say Henry Hill," Ouellette said. "He was 26, just out of Harvard and he was energetic, intelligent and driven but he lacked experience."
"Ask people who the worst town administrator we’ve had was and you may get different answers, but we’ve had a few administrators whose resumes have looked great and they really didn’t work out for us."
The only vote against Butler came from Selectman Edward MacDonald who said that Butler’s lack of experience in public administration was not something to be overlooked.
"I actually think the decision should be between [Scott] Nichols and [David] St. Pierre because this is no time for someone to pick up on the job experience," MacDonald said. "The other two have management experience, they have negotiation experience. And personally, I’m offended by someone that comes in here and doesn’t know what Chapter 30B is."
MacDonald asked all the candidates in their interviews what Chapter 30B was -- referring to the procurement act of the Massachusetts general laws.
MacDonald did not directly endorse either Nichols or St. Pierre, saying he could literally flip a coin to pick between the two.
Selectmen Chairman Joseph C. Solomon said he thought Butler’s direct experience was not as important as his intelligence and his attitude. He also pointed out that he thought Butler had a lot of "transferable skills" that relate to running the town.
Selectman Donald Sommer said Butler reminded him of himself at a younger age.
"When I think of Jonathan, I see me at 26," he said. I was young, I was on the school committee and I had the desire to do it all. I think he has that same fire in his belly."
The board still has to enter into negotiations with Butler if he accepts the position to discuss salary and a contract. Solomon said that will likely happen in the coming weeks.
Selectman Joseph R. Dean Jr. said it was a tough decision to pick between all three candidates but in the end voted for Butler.
"I think the search committee did a wonderful job," he said. "They gave us everything we wanted, they just gave it to us in three different people."
Butler beat out David St. Pierre and Scott Nichols for the position. St. Pierre, a native of North Adams, is currently in his sixth term as a selectmen in Southwick and is a correctional officer in the special operations unit of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department. He worked in various management positions for food companies, including Try-Angle Foods Inc. and John Morrell and Co. He also worked for Hillshire Farm in the 1980s. St. Pierre took business administration courses at North Adams State College (now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) and is pursuing a master’s of management degree at Cambridge College.
Nichols is a former Adams selectman and the current athletic director of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Nichols served on the board from 2003 to 2006 and chose not to seek reelection to focus on his family.
"Berkshire Community College energized with green"
By Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Wednesday, April 15, 2009
PITTSFIELD — A state grant will help fund a new program for an energy conservation certificate at Berkshire Community College, and school officials hope it will set the foundation for establishing a degree program in green energy.
BCC received a $200,000 grant Tuesday from the state's Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs ' Pathways Out of Poverty program, a gift that was awarded to only two other state community colleges.
The certificate in energy conservation will be offered in both the fall and spring semesters of the 2009/2010 academic year at both the Pittsfield and the Charles H. McCann Technical School campuses.
Classes will be 15 students each and will include 45 hours of math instruction, 100 hours in power tool operation and carpentry, and 120 hours in renewable energy education.
The training will be free for the students, and there will be an emphasis on offering the program to low-income or unemployed workers.
Bill Mulholland, BCC's dean of workforce development and lifelong learning, said the certificate will make students desirable employees for construction firms and contractors looking for workers who know how to make building projects energy efficient.
"Green jobs will be substantial in the future, and we know that the people who learn these skills will be employed," he said. "Contractors are embracing these skills."
Students will learn how to insulate homes and businesses and how to limit energy loss. They'll be trained to use power tools necessary for "green" jobs. They'll study theories in energy conservation and the math behind them.
BCC is collaborating with the Center for Ecological Technology on the program, and the school is also working with the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, BerkshireWorks, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, were key supporters of the Green Jobs Act, which pledged $48 million for green job programs in Massachusetts, and have led the call for making Berkshire County a leader in green industry.
"Green jobs are the future of our economy and the future is now in Berkshire County," Downing said. "Giving our workers the skills needed to succeed in the clean energy economy is good economic, environmental and energy policy."
And with local energy costs averaging 37 percent above the national average and with Massachusetts and other New England states averaging the most expensive energy rates in the nation, businesses are starting to focus on saving money with green ideas.
Mulholland said officials believe these circumstances will lead to new practices in the building industries. The certificate program, he said, could be the start of something bigger — a full curriculum of green energy courses and degrees.
"We're going to explore building a full curriculum in everything, wind technology, biodiesel, photovoltaic, geothermal, solar," he said. "What we're doing is building a green jobs handyman for the future."
To reach Benning W. De La Mater: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 496-6243.
"Patrick trims an extra 750 jobs: 3d emergency cut in seven months; 5,000 will take unpaid furloughs"
By Matt Viser, Boston Globe Staff, April 15, 2009
Governor Deval Patrick cut an additional 750 jobs from state government yesterday and said he will furlough 5,000 executive branch employees for up to five days, a response to relentlessly plunging state revenues that have forced the governor to make an unprecedented series of spending reductions.
It was the third time in seven months Patrick has announced emergency budget cuts, and there was no indication it is over. Patrick's actions yesterday are part of a plan to close a $156 million deficit, but he said that gap could grow by another $400 million before July 1.
"The economic downturn is hitting state government especially hard, leaving us with tough choices among miserable options," Patrick said during a State House press conference.
The 750 positions he eliminated yesterday are in addition to 1,000 positions already cut this year. They will come through layoffs, attrition, and hiring freezes.
All managers in the executive branch, from the governor on down, will be required to take the unpaid furloughs. Patrick, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, and most members of Patrick's staff said they would still come to the office and work for free, rather than take the days off.
Patrick has also asked Leslie Kirwan, secretary of administration and finance, to begin negotiations with the state's unions over a range of concessions. Patrick would not disclose the concessions, and union representatives declined to comment.
Patrick's grim demeanor yesterday presaged more bad news today, when the House unveils a budget for fiscal 2010 that is expected to reduce spending even further. The House budget is not expected to include any new revenue, relying instead on deep cuts, the Globe reported last week. It is expected to include cuts to local aid that go beyond what the governor proposed, according to a State House source briefed on the budget.
The Legislature has still not acted on Patrick's requests for a range of new revenue, including sales taxes on alcohol and candy and higher fees at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Some lawmakers outside of leadership say tax increases need to be seriously considered, including a sales tax increase, but there does not appear to be any momentum.
Increasing the sales tax by 1 percentage point could raise about $750 million, according to some estimates.
"We've talked about [a sales tax increase] in individual groups," said Representative Cory Atkins, Democrat of Concord. "Given the options, where would you go? A sales tax is a decent choice."
The House budget has been shrouded in secrecy, with conflicting rumors spreading about how deep the budget cuts will be. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Representative Charles Murphy, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, have declined multiple requests for comment.
"I've heard more about the New York state budget than the Massachusetts House budget," said Senator Benjamin Downing, Democrat of Pittsfield and chairman of the Senate Committee on Revenue.
As they formulate their spending plans, the lawmakers have also been raising campaign money, a Beacon Hill tradition at budget season. Murphy hosted a fund-raiser last week at the Liberty Hotel ballroom, complete with meatball sliders and lamb chops. DeLeo held a fund-raiser last night at Tecce's, and House lawmakers were rushing to wrap up debate on pension reform to trek over to the North End restaurant.
Patrick has been displaying increasing frustration with legislative leaders, which recalls 2008, when he butted heads with former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi over casino gambling and the pace of lawmakers' deliberations.
This time, Patrick has waited until later in the budget-writing season before expressing his impatience, but he vented on Monday over what he sees as inadequate attempts at transportation reform. He was also critical of top lawmakers who have not yet acted on some of his emergency measures to fill the growing budget gap.
The governor laid out a series of tax proposals in January, but House and Senate lawmakers have avoided them entirely.
"There's clearly an urgency on his part," said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts. "The idea is, presumably, that by deflecting some of the heat that's been coming his way over the last couple of weeks he can emerge a bit stronger."
The announcement yesterday was the third time the state has had to adjust to financial shortfalls. With residents earning less and spending less and business profits falling, the state is collecting less in taxes on income, sales, and business. Patrick was forced to close a $1.4 billion shortfall in the state's $28.1 billion budget in October and an additional $1.1 billion shortfall in January.
Most of the budget gap the governor moved to close yesterday will be plugged using $128 million in federal stimulus funds that were part of the package set aside for Massachusetts.
Yesterday's job cuts will save $7.5 million this year, but will save $40 million in the next fiscal year. In addition to layoffs and furloughs, which combined will save $12 million, there will be $16 million in cuts to programs and other departments. The mandatory furloughs will affect about 5,000 executive branch managers.
Those whose salaries are above $75,000 will be required to take five unpaid days off, while those who make less will take three days off.
Administration officials would not disclose contingency plans for an additional $400 million deficit for the remainder of the fiscal year, saying only that it would come through a variety of proposals that need legislative approval.
Patrick also said it could involve further withdrawals from the state's reserve account.
The Massachusetts Republican Party criticized the governor yesterday, accusing him of failing to implement broad changes during good fiscal times and relying on tax proposals during bad times.
"Sadly, under the current Beacon Hill leadership, the only way we will see smaller, more efficient government is when the flow of tax dollars is reduced either through a tough economy or tax cuts," Jennifer Nassour, the state GOP chairwoman, said in a statement.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.
"'Coffee and conversation'"
By Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Sunday, May 3, 2009
PITTSFIELD — It's the last Friday of the month, and the staff of state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing knows that means one thing.
But this road trip isn't of the Bluto Blutarsky type. No, it's part of Downing's regular routine: A visit to any one of the two dozen or so small communities in his district, for what he calls "coffee and conversation" for an hour or so with local residents and town officials.
The Pittsfield Democrat has the largest legislative district of any state senator or state representative in the Massachusetts — a total of 48 communities: All the towns in Berkshire County, nine towns in Hampshire County and seven in Franklin County. His district comprises more than one-seventh of the 351 cities and towns in the state.
And, said Downing, his philosophy has been to be as inclusive as possible when it comes to the smaller towns in his district.
"I'm from Pittsfield, and Pittsfield is the largest community in my district," said Downing. "It would be very easy to get sucked into Pittsfield every day of my job.
"But when I was on the campaign trail," he continued, "I heard from a lot of people that it was important to look past Pittsfield and remember that I represent more than just one city. And I agree with that."
Hence the "coffee and conversation" meetings. In March, it was Sandisfield. In April, it was Florida. This month, it's Chesterfield.
"What we try to do is hit the smaller communities in the district," said Allison Krol, Downing's district director and the person who generally schedules Downing's day. "It's a conscious effort to get to these little towns. You won't see us scheduling a 'C and C' for, say, Lenox or Great Barrington. This is for smaller towns in the district."
But, said Krol, these "C and C's" are usually scheduled around Downing's day, not in place of anything else.
On a recent Friday, for example, Downing was in Williamstown for meetings at the Williams Inn at 7:30 a.m. and at the Williamstown Pre-School at 8:30 a.m. Then it was off to the Florida Senior Center for the "C and C" with Florida residents at 10 a.m., and back to City Hall in Pittsfield at 1:30 p.m. for a press conference on child abuse. At 2:30, he was scheduled to meet with officials at Sabic Innovative Plastics, and then he had another meeting in his office at 3:30.
"I gave him the rest of the day off," joked Krol. "But very often, on a Friday night, there is another event and one on Saturday. We try not to schedule anything for Sunday."
And Krol conceded that from time to time, there are Sunday events, and Downing attends them.
It is a job that puts a few hundred miles on Downing's car on a slow week. On a busy week, it is considerably more. Berkshire legislators get a $90 per diem, but that is only if they go to Boston. Downing doesn't get anything extra if he takes a side trip to, say, Sandisfield or Chesterfield.
"I have a very good job in a not-so-good economy," said Downing of his mileage costs. "I'm not complaining."
Downing drives himself around his district.
"The senator is pretty independent," said Krol. "He likes to drive himself."
Sometimes, according to Annie Kirkpatrick, Downing's district aide in Berkshire County, it is a challenge to find a venue in some of the smaller towns. Many town halls in these communities operate on a part-time basis. Sometimes, very part-time.
"In Sandisfield," she said. "We had a 'C and C' at Tucker's Pub. That was a fun one."
In case anyone gets the wrong idea, that 'C and C' started at 9 a.m.
Downing said the individual towns have individual issues. Several Florida residents, for example, asked him Friday about alternative energy projects.
But, said Downing, he has discovered that there are also universal issues with which even the smallest towns grapple.
"Energy costs and education," he said. "There are a few others, but even though I represent a district that varies widely, from very rural towns to the city of Pittsfield, those are the two main ones."
It is a job, he said, that is exhausting — but exhilarating.
"I love this," he said. "I have a job that allows me to see every aspect of the community. I get to see how Berkshire County ticks."
"Massachusetts Senate leaders prepare bare-bones budget"
By Associated Press, Sunday, May 10, 2009, www.bostonherald.com - Local Politics
BOSTON — Massachusetts Senate leaders are saying little will be spared when they release their version of the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
With $1.5 billion less to play with than the House version of the budget, few disagree deep cuts are inevitable.
Beacon Hill leaders originally estimated the state would collect about $19.5 billion in taxes during new fiscal year.
Just last week they lowered that number to $17.9 billion.
That means that even if the Senate agrees with the House to raise the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent they still won’t be able to avoid making deep cuts to state services, including local aid to cities and towns.
The tax hike was expected to generate $900 million.
"State Senate rejects plan to allow slots at racetracks"
By Matt Viser, Boston Globe Staff, May 21, 2009, 1:06 PM
The Senate this afternoon voted resoundingly to defeat a proposal to allow the state’s four racetracks to install slot machines – for now.
The plan would have allowed the tracks to add 2,500 slot machines each, which could have brought in new revenues to help cities and towns offset cuts to local aid.
"You have a local aid vote before you right now," said Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat and chief proponent of the proposal. "Here it is."
The proposal, which came as an amendment to the state budget, was defeated by a 31-6 vote.
The Senate also voted, 29-8, against a proposal to delay by two years the implementation of a new law banning dog racing on January 1, 2010. The law, approved by voters in November as part of a ballot initiative, will effectively close two racetracks, Wonderland Greyhound Racetrack in Revere and the Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park.
The three-hour debate on both issues was a prelude to a much more vigorous discussion expected to take place in several months. The state’s top political leaders – House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, and Governor Deval Patrick – have all agreed to address the issue again in the fall.
And while almost every Senate Democrat voted against the slots proposal, they made clear that they weren’t against gambling, only against dealing with it quickly as part of the budget.
“Make no mistake,” said Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat. “We are very close to turning the corner here and having the final real debate, at which point we are going to have to come to grips with a whole series of policy questions.”
Rosenberg has been tapped by Murray to study the issue of expanded gambling, and he said it would take at least 12 months from the time a law was signed before the state would start reaping any revenue from slot machines.
Opponents to gambling also polished their arguments, saying expanded gambling would exploit vulnerable residents and would not bring in as much revenues as proponents claim.
“The benefits here are paltry, the costs are overwhelming,” said Senator Susan Tucker, an Andover Democrat and chief gambling opponent. “Gambling revenue is regressive. You can’t find a more regressive form of taxation.”
"How senators voted"
Boston.com - May 21, 2009, 1:05 PM
How Massachusetts senators voted on whether to allow racetracks to install slot machines:
Steven A. Baddour
Stephen M. Brewer
Stephen J. Buoniconti
Gale D. Candaras
Harriette L. Chandler
Cynthia Stone Creem
Kenneth J. Donnelly
James B. Eldridge
Jennifer L. Flanagan
Robert L. Hedlund
Joan M. Menard
Michael O. Moore
Richard T. Moore
Michael W. Morrissey
Robert A. O’Leary
Steven C. Panagiotakos
Stanley C. Rosenberg
Karen E. Spilka
Steven A. Tolman
Susan C. Tucker
Thomas P. Kennedy
Michael R. Knapik
"County immigration center facing spending cuts"
By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Saturday, May 30, 2009
PITTSFIELD — The only institution in Berkshire County that helps immigrants become citizens is facing a major cut in its budget as the state continues to slash spending in the face of the prolonged recession.
The Senate, trying to trim $1.5 billion from the House version of the state budget, has cut half the funding for the Citizenship for New American's Program, slicing it to $250,000.
For the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield, that cut means it will likely lose about 12 percent of its annual budget at a time when most of its other funding sources have already been trimmed.
Brooke Mead, co-director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, said the nonprofit organization already runs with an annual deficit of $20,000 to $25,000 and relies on the Berkshire Community Action Council to fill in the gap. Now that gap is widening, and Mead said the center may have no choice but to reduce services.
"We would have to see fewer people, but there is nowhere else to send them," Mead said. "This is not the level that the Berkshire Immigrant Center should be operating at. ... We really believe in this program, but, in general, we are concerned about the future of the center."
This fiscal year, the Berkshire Immigrant Center has helped 36 people become American citizens, helping them fill out forms, understand the rules, and enrolling them in English-as-a-second-language and civics classes. Total, the center has offered citizenship counseling to 102 people Since July 1.
Statewide, said Franklin Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, or MIRA, a number of smaller agencies rely on the citizenship funds to help immigrants navigate the citizenship process, which can be confusing and intimidating, particularly to those who aren't fluent English speakers.
"Just about everything we are working on has received some sort of cut," Soults said. "Any social service agency you speak with will talk about the cuts they are facing this year, but immigrants don't have a huge voice, and they are being pretty adversely affected, as people at the bottom are often hurt by these sorts of things."
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said it will be "exceedingly difficult" to put money back.
BEACON HILL ROLL CALL: See how your legislators voted
"Tax breaks: Senators say we can’t afford them"
By BOB KATZEN
May 30, 2009
BOSTON — Beacon Hill Roll Call recorded local senators’ votes on six roll calls from prior legislative sessions. The roll calls are from recent debate on the Senate version of an estimated $27.35 billion fiscal 2010 budget.
MAKE MORE SENIORS ELIGIBLE FOR TAX BREAK (S 3)
The Senate (11-28) rejected an amendment making changes that would allow more seniors over 65 to qualify for the state’s “senior circuit breaker” tax credit. Current law offers up to a $930 state income tax credit for qualified seniors whose annual property tax combined with 50 percent of their water and sewer bill is more than 10 percent of their total income. (A yes vote is for allowing more seniors over 65 to qualify for the $930 tax credit.)
Sen. Robert Hedlund Yes
Sen. Brian Joyce No
Sen. Thomas Kennedy No
Sen. Michael Morrissey No
Sen. Therese Murray President
Sen. Marc Pacheco Yes
Sen. James Timilty Yes
REPEAL PRIVATIZATION LAW (S 3)
Senate 11-28, rejected an amendment repealing the 1993 so-called “Pacheco Law” that regulates the privatization of state services which cost more than $200,000. The law includes several requirements including mandating that a state agency compare the cost of using a private company to the cost of the services if state employees were to work in the most cost-efficient manner – rather than to actual cost. The state auditor also has the final say and can reject a contract that he determines has not met all of the requirements or is "not in the public interest." (A "Yes" vote is for repealing the Pacheco Law that regulates privatization.)
Sen. Robert Hedlund Yes
Sen. Brian Joyce Yes
Sen. Thomas Kennedy No
Sen. Michael Morrissey No
Sen. Therese Murray President
Sen. Marc Pacheco No
Sen. James Timilty No
EASIER PRIVATIZATION OF STATE SERVICES (S 3)
The Senate (24-15) approved an amendment to the “Pacheco Law” that applies to contracts valued at more than $200,000. The amendment would apply the law to contracts worth more than $2 million. Amendment supporters said that raising the cap to $2 million would result in more privatization and a savings of up to $20 million. (A yes vote is for raising the cap to $2 million to make it easier to privatize.)
Sen. Robert Hedlund Yes
Sen. Brian Joyce Yes
Sen. Thomas Kennedy No
Sen. Michael Morrissey Yes
Sen. Therese Murray President
Sen. Marc Pacheco No
Sen. James Timilty No
ABOLISH CORPORATE TAX BREAK (S 3)
The Senate (7-32) rejected an amendment to halt the scheduled lowering of the corporate excise tax rate from 9.5 percent to 8.75 percent Jan. 1. The planned reduction was approved in 2008 as part of a package passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick. The 2008 package was expected to raise $482 million in tax revenues by both increasing and decreasing various corporate taxes. (A yes vote is for the higher 9.5 percent rate.)
Sen. Robert Hedlund No
Sen. Brian Joyce No
Sen. Thomas Kennedy No
Sen. Michael Morrissey No
Sen. Therese Murray President
Sen. Marc Pacheco Yes
Sen. James Timilty No
TAX CREDIT FOR JOB CREATION (S 3)
The Senate (7-32) rejected an amendment that would provide a tax break to small businesses for each job that they create in Massachusetts. The money would come from a transfer of $100 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Fund to a newly created Massachusetts Job Creation Fund. (A yes vote is for the tax credit for job creation and for funding it with $100 million from the life sciences industry.)
Sen. Robert Hedlund Yes
Sen. Brian Joyce No
Sen. Thomas Kennedy No
Sen. Michael Morrissey No
Sen. Therese Murray President
Sen. Marc Pacheco No
Sen. James Timilty No
DELAY SALES TAX BREAK FOR CAR BUYERS (S 3)
The Senate (35-4) approved a measure that would delay the implementation of a proposed reduction from 5 percent to 3 percent in the sales tax on automobiles and other motor vehicles purchased in the next six months. The delay would prevent the reduction from taking effect until the Department of Revenue studies the economic impact of the freeze and submits a report. (A yes vote is for the amendment replacing the tax cut with a study.)
Sen. Robert Hedlund No
Sen. Brian Joyce Yes
Sen. Thomas Kennedy Yes
Sen. Michael Morrissey Yes
Sen. Therese Murray President
Sen. Marc Pacheco Yes
Sen. James Timilty Yes
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
FEDERAL STIMULUS MONEY (S 2047):
The Senate approved and sent to the House a bill changing some state laws to help Massachusetts comply with federal requirements in order to receive the maximum share of federal stimulus money. A controversial change would allow notices soliciting bids from companies seeking contracts to work on federally funded projects to be posted only on state-owned and operated Internet sites instead of in local newspapers, as required for projects under current law. The Patrick administration says that the change would save the state time and money and ensure that it is able to meet all deadlines for spending the estimated $8.7 billion that the state is expecting. Critics say that the change will hurt many newspapers that are already struggling. They argued that this misguided move is unfair and decreases openness and transparency because not every business and individual has Internet access.
Other changes include extending from 18 weeks to 26 weeks the time period a person can receive unemployment benefits while participating in a training program; expediting procedures that must be followed by companies bidding for state contracts and requiring that any jobs created with federal money be abolished when the federal funding ends. Critics said that the bill loosens too many state regulations that are designed to ensure a fair bidding process and prevent fraud. They argued that the bill does not create sufficient oversight and watchdogs to prevent fraud and abuse.
REQUIRE SCHOOLS TO STERILIZE BAND INSTRUMENTS (H 111): The Education Committee heard testimony on a bill requiring that all public and private schools sterilize any musical wind instrument before giving it to a student to use. Wind instruments include the flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, trumpet and trombone. Supporters said that most schools do not sterilize these instruments and pointed to studies showing that bacteria that cause strep and staph infections can thrive for months inside. Opponents argued that the bill is an example of overreaction to a problem that may not even exist. They said that there is no proof that anyone has ever contracted an infection from a musical instrument and that most schools already clean the mouthpiece – the only part that touches a student’s lips. The measure was given initial approval in the House last year but never advanced to the Senate for action.
EDUCATION LEGISLATION: The Education Committee’s agenda listed several proposals including requiring all public high school students to study and demonstrate a general knowledge of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the use of automatic external defibrillators as a prerequisite for graduation (S 208); mandating that all public school students receive an electrocardiogram before participating in an interscholastic athletic program (S 274); requiring all public schools to teach detection and prevention of skin cancer (S 284); and requiring all middle school students to receive a minimum of five hours of substance abuse and addiction awareness education during each middle school year (S 294).
MEDICAL MARIJUANA (H 2160): The Committee on Public Health is considering legislation allowing the medical use of marijuana by qualified patients. The measure would allow patients to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana and 12 marijuana plants for medical purposes. The state would issue identification cards to qualified patients and to caretakers who could grow and provide marijuana for a severely disabled patient. Doctors would be allowed to issue prescriptions for marijuana use by patients fora debilitating medical condition including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s, Alzheimer’s and any disease or treatment that produces severe pain, nausea or seizures.
POSTING GAS PRICES (S 1502): The Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy’s agenda included legislation that would require the price on the marquee at gas stations to be the per gallon price if the consumer paying with a credit card. Supporters say that consumers are often lured into a gas station with a misleading large sign that states a lower cash price for gas only to discover that the credit card price is higher.
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK'S SESSION?
During the week of May 25-29, the House met for a total of 1 hour and 54 minutes while the Senate met for a total of 4 hours and 31 minutes.
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Onota board seeks advice"
By Tony Dobrowolski, The Berkshire Eagle, 7/18/2009
PITTSFIELD -- Frustrated by state agencies' response to zebra mussels in Berkshire County, the Lake Onota Preservation Association has turned to the Legislature for guidance.
During the association's annual summer meeting on Saturday morning, President Robert Race said the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has used a state grant to provide information compiled regarding zebra mussel enforcement procedures in other states to state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.
Downing filed legislation last week that would prevent vessels that were previously contaminated with zebra mussels from re-entering state waters within 30 days unless the owner shows proof of decontamination.
"I filed the legislation this week," Downing said on Saturday. "But we've been working on it for three months now."
Downing's bill was crafted with assistance from state Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and Denis E. Guyer and it has received support from Reps. Christoper N. Speranzo and Daniel E. Bosley.
The bill provides escalating fines beginning at $50 for each violation. But Downing said the key to the bill is the determination of decontamination. That provision is something that the county's legislative contingent has been "struggling with," Downing said.
Guyer said the joint committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture is looking into previous legislation that has been filed on invasive species to see if it pertains to any current issues involving zebra mussels in the Berkshires. Guyer is the vice chairman of that committee.
An invasive species of zebra mussels was discovered July 2 in Laurel Lake in Lee, the first documented case in Massachusetts. A species native to the Black and Caspian seas, zebra mussels can cause damage to aquatic species and manmade structures and property once they enter a body of water. They are nearly impossible to eradicate.
Following the Laurel Lake discovery, the state Department of Fish and Game shut down its boat ramp. But other Berkshire communities, including Pittsfield, have been ordered by the state not to close access to their lakes and ponds. Only Stockbridge has gone against the order by keeping Stockbridge Bowl closed.
On Saturday, Race said the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has been "sympathetic" to concerns regarding the possible transportation of zebra mussels from one body of water to another, while the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife has not.
While the state has not allowed other Berkshire County boat ramps to close, it did shut down the boat launch at Quabbin Reservoir, the water supply for Boston, he said.
"The state has not gotten its act together on this thing," Race said. "The same day that they asked us not to close, they announced that they were closing Quabbin."
On Friday, city officials put out a call for volunteers to help monitor the boat ramps at both Onota and Pontoosuc lakes to inspect watercraft to see if they are free of zebra mussels before entering the water. LOPA members are monitoring the boat ramp at Onota Lake. On Saturday, LOPA's board voted unanimously to authorize a $1,000 expenditure to help the city devise a zebra mussel correction plan.
Race said LOPA has already notified local fishing clubs that inquiries will be directed to their members regarding zebra mussels on their boats. But except for asking questions, there is little that boat launch monitors can do.
"You can only hope that they're being truthful," Race said, referring to boat owners.
Joining the meeting following a stint manning the lake's boat launch, LOPA member Jerry Krupka suggested that the organization find a place to conduct a boat wash.
"This is not going to work," he said. "Sooner or later, we will have zebra mussels in there."
Race said it's possible that Lake Onota is already infested with zebra mussels brought in either by a boat or an animal such as a goose.
He said the Lake and Ponds Association of Western Massachusetts (LAPA-West) has discovered high PH and calcium levels in Berkshire County lakes that make those waterways "perfect incubators" for zebra mussels.
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: TDobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com - (413) 496-6224
"Share cost of health care reform"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters to the Editor, Thursday, July 23, 2009
If a sick man came to your door, would you help him? If you see a hurt child, would you give first aid? If a health problem faces your community, would you join with others and assist in prevention? For most people, the answer is yes. We would help the "stranger at the door." So let's do it.
But helping those who are sick does not mean just giving first aid. Today, medical care is very complicated and expensive; first aid is only the proverbial "Band-aid." So what can we do to really help?
The answer is clear and it's upon us right now: Ensure that everyone has health insurance so they can avail themselves of the care they need. That's how we can really help. So how do we do that?
First, recognize the problems:
* The cost of health care in this country is enormous, and rising at double-digit rates.
* Millions in our nation are without coverage.
* Health insurance bills are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy.
* Pre-existing conditions, i.e. being sick, prevent thousands from getting insurance, or restrict coverage.
* Health insurers have promised change and cost controls for years and years, with no success. They love the premiums, then fight the claims.
* Because costs are so high, thousands and thousands of companies become totally uncompetitive (read GM and Chrysler), or limit their coverage, or simply don't carry it, leaving millions uninsured.
* Many Americans must choose between food on the table and maintaining health care insurance.
* Primary care physicians are in short supply because the salaries are disproportionately high for specialists.
* Physicians are reimbursed by the number of patients they see, not the quality of care they give, so good care often suffers.
Don't these problems inspire us to find solutions?
Second, support the solution. Congress and the president are working hard to fashion a universal health care bill. One of the key, if not the key provision, is to provide a so-called "Public Option Plan." This option would provide that our government -- yes, the same government that protects our senior citizens from health care disaster through Medicare -- provide an insurance policy that citizens could choose to take, as one option, along with the many options our health insurance companies provide. Such a Public Option Plan would, for the first time, provide us with real competition in the market place.
Third, know who you are helping. Would a universal health care system help the poorest or the oldest in our country? No. They are already being helped by Medicaid, or Medicare.
You would be helping the "strangers (or friends and family) at the door" who are:
The long term unemployed crushed by this economy.
The millions who are working without coverage because their company cannot provide health insurance.
Those who have limited policies, who are told their insurer will not cover their costs because of a pre-existing condition or some other restriction.
Fourth, stand up for sharing the cost. No matter what the proposed solution, it will not be inexpensive. To the president's credit, he emphasizes that we must pay for the solution now. Adding the cost of health coverage to the deficit just passes the burden of paying to future generations.
We must be willing to help pay for the cost of universal health coverage -- just as we would provide first aid to the "stranger at the door." It takes a community to raise a child. Today, it takes a nation to provide health care.
The debate on how we pay for universal coverage is raging. All proposals require new savings measures, but the new revenue suggestions, which must also be included, range widely:
* Taxing employees on the value of their employer provided health benefits, or maybe just the most expensive plans. We are taxed on our salaries, but not on the cash equivalent (say $10,000) of the health insurance we receive.
* Taxing the very wealthy, those individual with incomes over $250,000, couples with $325,000, which means that most of us wouldn't even be affected.
* Taxing soda and other sugary drinks, some of which help contribute to health problems.
* Limiting charitable deductions -- and many other proposals. Maybe a new "health care bond" campaign, like the "war bonds" in WW II, would do it.
For those of very moderate income who have trouble even paying the bills now, the cost will be minimal and in most proposals, none at all.
In any case, the multitude of provisions for paying the costs will be hard fought. You may, of course, weigh in on your favorite, or least favorite, solution. But do not get lost in the quagmire of "your" favorite payment solution.
Nothing will get done, nothing will get passed, we will fail again, unless we all lead a national conversation on why we need to step up, demand change, and agree to share the cost. We must find common ground on the concept of a shared contribution, in accordance with our ability -- now, not later. We need our leaders to speak out. We need the president to exhort us to meet the challenge.
Aren't we tired of being the only industrialized country in the world not to have universal health insurance? Aren't we tired of our two class society, composed of those with health care coverage and those without? Aren't we tired of seeing people go bankrupt or choose between food and medicine? Aren't we tired of seeing our sick suffer twice: once with the disease, then with the inability to pay?
It's time to open the door. It's time we took responsibility. It is time we said yes to sharing the cost. And in the famous words of President John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"
An attorney, Sherwood Guernsey is a former state legislator and vice chair of the health care committee.
Sherwood Guernsey II inherited real estate and hotels worth many millions of dollars in Los Angeles, California. He is a multi-millionaire who practices law in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He runs the Berkshire County Democratic Party group titled "Berkshire Brigades". He backs insider, hack Pols like Luciforo:
Luciforo wants to run for US Congress in 2012, even if he weakens the Democratic Party!
Sherwood won't stand up to Luciforo because he is closely connected to one of Luciforo's #1 backers:
"Affordable housing units in jeopardy"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 7/27/2009
PITTSFIELD -- With the clock ticking on more than 23,000 affordable housing units -- including units in Pittsfield, North Adams, Dalton, Lee, and Great Barrington -- the state Senate passed a bill this week that would attempt to keep these apartments within the public sphere.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing explained that more than one quarter of the state's 90,000 affordable housing units are in danger of "expiring use." These buildings, some of which were built by private developers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, were built with 25- to 40-year contracts mandating affordable rent. In addition to structural financing, several units have had their rents subsidized by Section 8.
Yet a concern of some affordable housing advocates is that these developers, with their contracts ready to expire, would sell these properties to create more expensive condominiums.
"Without [these units], what you would ultimately really have is a waste of taxpayers resources," Downing said. "You would have gotten a one-shot deal, and you wouldn't have the affordable housing stock... even if people are able to keep a job, their ability to make those rent payments are dwindling."
This bill, which will now make its way to the House of Representatives, would mandate property owners to give state officials several notices of intent during the two years before they sell their property, as well as to give the Department of Housing and Community Development the first chance to make an offer to purchase the property back.
Perhaps most important in this legislation is preventing high rent increases in these properties for three years after the affordability restrictions expire. Berkshire Housing Development Corporation and Housing Services Inc. president Elton Ogden speculated that this was to keep landlords from trying to quickly expel their low-rent tenants, as well as to keep the affordable housing market from being flooded with new buyers.
According to Ogden, there are more than 500 such units in Berkshire County. But he felt that while this measure would certainly keep government officials in the loop on expiring units, it might not dissuade property owners from trying to sell big.
"There still will be cases where ... in very high housing value market rent areas, the incentive is going to be very strong to try to cash out to a market buyer," Ogden said.
Still, Downing said that if developers had ideas that would make their properties be of better use to the local economy, that they should bring their plans to government officials. But for the majority of the properties, he felt affordable housing was the best use in the face of the economy recession.
"That isn't to say market rate housing shouldn't be out there -- I think there needs to be a balance for developers to invest in both," he said. "But if we were to not act [on these units] we could expedite some of the problems that we've seen around rising homelessness, whether temporary or permanent."
"Ride Works to end service: BRTA, which funds the program, must focus its revenue on fixed bus routes."
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Tuesday, July 28, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- Ride Works, the program administered by the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority that provides rides to work for the transportation-challenged, is slated to end on August 30, 2009.
Cutbacks in state and federal funding to BRTA is forcing the organization to concentrate their revenue on their primary service -- fixed bus routes, according to BRTA officials.
So those who work before or after the buses run and can't afford a car will be forced to:
. Seek rides from friends
. Take a taxi for between $17 and $60 per trip depending on the destination (roughly $85 and $300 a week, one way -- double that for both ways)
. Find another job with different hours or closer to home.
In Northern Berkshire County, Berkshire Rides provides a similar service, and will not have to curtail its work because of budgetary constrictions, according to project manager Jana Hunkler Brule.
But the folks who use Berkshire Rides and Ride Works are among the most financially vulnerable, she noted.
"The people who use these services in this type of rural area are really people who can't afford to do it on their own," Brule said.
There have been preliminary conversations about providing their service further south into the central and southern parts of the county, Brule said. But if it happens, it is still some years away, as it depends on more funding and possibly working in cooperation with other transportation agencies.
For those in the lower income brackets, the demise of Ride Works could prove to be perilous.
‘No buses, no way to get home'
"There are a lot of people who depend on that program," said Ride Works user Michelle Bateman, who gets out of work from her job at Verizon in Pittsfield at 10 p.m., when there is no bus service to get to her home near Onota Lake. "If there are no buses, there is no way to get home."
But she worried that if she can't find another way home, she might be forced to find other employment.
"It took me a long time to get [a job at Verizon], and I'm trying to stay," she said. "I'm trying to better myself and just when things are going well, they stop the program."
According to Gary Shepard, BRTA administrator, the $243,000 grant used to fund the program will have to be diverted to the agency's fixed bus routes after funding from the state was reduced to 2004 levels.
"We raised fares last year already, and I'm not sure the next two years are going to look any better," he said.
BRTA officials are working to transfer as many of the 50 Ride Works users to the bus routes as they can, but for some, it just won't work.
Some, he said, could be forced to take a taxi or find another job.
At County Rainbow Taxi, which BRTA paid roughly $150,000 to provide the service, the end of the service could result in some layoffs.
"It's going to mean maybe some layoffs of drivers unless I can find somewhere else to put them," said Jim Regan, general manager of County Rainbow Taxi.
"The Ride Works experience showed that that the demand is there and that it meets the needs of the employers and the workforce," noted State Sen. Ben Downing.
Long range plans for BRTA include moving from large buses to smaller vehicles and expanding the times and bus routes, Downing said. Another strategy is to forward-fund the agency, rather than borrow money to pay its costs until the state provides revenue after the budget year ends. This could save enough money in interest fees to fund a program like Ride Works, but for now, there does not seem to be any practical alternative.
"It's a shame it has to end because it's worthwhile," said Regan. "It is getting people to work who wouldn't be able to get there without it. I don't know what they'll do now."
To reach Scott Stafford: email@example.com.
"On the side of the road"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorials, Wednesday, July 29, 2009
The apparent demise of the Berkshire Regional Transportation Agency's Ride Works program because of cutbacks in state and federal funding testifies to the poor transportation funding priorities that begin in Washington. Public transportation, in particular for those who are most in need of it, should be at the top of the priority list, but in car-crazy America, it is lodged at the bottom.
Ride Works serves rural residents and those with lower incomes, many of whom work the second shift when transportation is not readily available. Regular taxi service would take a substantial bite out of modest paychecks. Many county residents may have to surrender hard-to-find jobs if they have no way to get to and from work, which is a decision they would not have to face in a society with its transportation priorities in better order.
The BRTA, which is focusing its revenue on its fixed bus routes, is in a bind because fare hikes to save Ride Works would put a burden on riders who don't have much money to spare either. County Rainbow Taxi, which provided the Ride Works service with $150,000 paid by the BRTA, may have to lay off some drivers in a domino effect caused by the cutbacks.
When economic times are tough, as they are now, it is invariably those who can least afford to be hard hit who are hit the hardest. In the case of Ride Works, this is compounded by the second class status accorded public transportation that is a top priority in nations around the globe. Generous funding of public transportation cuts down on traffic congestion and pollution while assisting those who cannot afford private vehicles and insurance.
If Ride Works cannot be rescued, we hope it can be revived soon with state or federal funding in a forthcoming budget cycle. This is money well spent on those who need it most.
"Government tells poor to take a hike"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters, Sunday, August 2, 2009
The July 29 Eagle editorial "On the side of the road" was absolutely on target. The Eagle deserves a tremendous amount of credit for its blunt statements on transportation funding priorities coming out of Washington and Boston. The Eagle is also to be commended for making it clear that discontinuing the "Ride Works" program is not what the BRTA and its general manager, Gary Shepard, wish to do. This, by the way, was re-inforced in a segment on the issue that aired early Wednesday afternoon on WAMC. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a subscriber to "Ride Works."
The unfairness of discontinuing this program is staggering. The message coming out of Washington and Boston is loud and clear. "If you do not, for any reason whatsoever, own a car, you are worthless. We don't care about you."
It's not just in Berkshire County where this inequity is being played out. Transit riders in the Boston metropolitan region are being socked with a 20 percent fare increase while the legislature shot down toll increases for the drivers commuting on I-90 and I-93. The Legislature is basically saying it fears a backlash by motorists, some of whom could probably go by transit, but won't. They don't seem to feel threatened by a backlash from the transit riders.
But at least the T riders still have their buses and trains. The Patrick administration, in combination with federal funds from the American Recovery and Re-investment Act (ARRA), is lavishing huge amounts on MassHighway for road projects across the state, some of which I expect have no urgency to them. The highway men and their political enablers in Washington and Boston have quickly kicked off these projects,. -- witness 7A in Lenox -- while most, if not all, public transportation infrastructure projects proposed remain in the proposal stages.
Discontinuing "Ride Works" makes a mockery of the ARRA. Endangering the ability of these users of this service to remain in the workforce, in a city that desperately needs its poor to have jobs, is a pretty sorry way to foster "recovery" and "re-investment."
Those who voted, in 2006 and 2008, to change the political balance in Washington and Boston, believed that change would protect the segments of our society most in need, like the 50 or so subscribers to "Ride Works." The Republicans will tell you up front that they are skeptical of social programs and public transportation. The party of Gov. Patrick and President Obama tell us they are for those things and then stab us in the back.
Town administrator Jonathan Butler cuts the cake celebrating the 35th year of the Adams Aggie Fair, as, from left, Selectman Mike Ouellette, state Sen. Ben Downing and state Rep. Dan Bosley watch. (Ryan Hutton / North Adams Transcript)
"What rain? Aggie Fair opens for the weekend"
By Ryan Hutton, The North Adams Transcript & The Berkshire Eagle, August 1, 2009
ADAMS -- Just because it was the 35th anniversary of the Adams Agriculture Fair didn't mean mother nature wanted to cooperate. In what has become a kind of joke for the event organizers, it rained most of the day on Friday -- soaking the fairgrounds but stopping just before the event began.
"It's become a tradition for us," Fair President Patricia Wojcik joked. "It's what we're known for. But the field drains very well and the Forest Warden has been here pumping out the deeper parts for a while which we're very appreciative of that."
While the weather kept the crowds away from the opening ceremony and only a couple dozen people were in attendance, the celebration of the fair's milestone featured a special commemorative cake and appearances by state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley as well as local officials. Bosley pointed out that the fair continues a long tradition of celebrating agriculture in the area.
"Thirty five years. That's quite an accomplishment," he said. "The first agricultural fair in America was held right here in Berkshire County, down in Pittsfiled in 1807. A gentleman had two sheep and put on a show with them and that was really the first such fair in America. The first organized fair in America, 1814 right here in Berkshire County, we have always led the way in agriculture as are each of you every year by having this fair."
Downing said events like the Aggie Fair serve an important function -- keeping people connected to where their food comes from. He said, all too often, people say their food comes from the supermarket, not a farm.
"They don't realize all the work that is put in by local, family farmers in places like Western Mass," Downing said. "They also don't realize the people that are behind it either. It's such a great thing when you can meet the person that raised the chickens that your eggs came from and the person that helped produce the meal on your plate."
Also in attendance were Selectman Mike Ouellette and new Town Administrator Jonathan Butler. Since it is his first Aggie Fair as town administrator, Butler got to cut the ceremonial ribbon to begin the fair and he told the crowd coming to the fair is one of his best memories growing up in town. Ouellette told the crowd he wished he could claim such a thing.
"I'd like to say I used to come here as a kid but I was a kid more than 35 years ago," he said. "It's more like 50 years ago."
While Ouellette was the only Selectman at the fair, event organizer Elizabeth Randall said the Selectmen used to serve a very specific function during the fair's opening -- cow milking.
"There used to be a milking contest they would participate in," she said. "They would have to milk cows but that kind of went away. We don't have the milkers and its hard to get the cattle because it's such a hard time for farms."
Wojcik said she hoped attendance would pick up later in the weekend and said the fair always dries out after Friday, leaving some mud but little water. She also said she wanted to thank all the volunteers and attendees for making the fair a success year after year. Just before the cake was cut, Bosley encouraged everyone to have a good time this weekend.
"I'm going to enjoy myself," he said. "I'm going to have some of this great looking cake. I'm going to have some of the cotton candy. I'm going to have some of the fried dough. I'm going to have a little bit of everything, but please don't tell my wife. If she asks, I didn't have anything."
"Bill would protect lakes"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, Saturday, August 8, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- When state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing filed a bill in June regarding invasive species in lakes and ponds, it might have seemed quaint.
But two months later, with zebra mussels in Laurel Lake, Downing suddenly seems downright prescient.
Downing, along with state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox and lake association members from central and western Massachusetts, testified on the bill on Thursday at the Statehouse. From there, it could move on and eventually become law.
The bill would target anyone launching a contaminated boat -- or someone who fails to disinfect their boat within 30 days of launching into contaminated waters -- into the state's lakes and ponds.
According to the proposed legislation, penalties could entail a fine between $50 and $300, imprisonment for up to 60 days, or both.
"[Senate Bill] 2113 aims to halt the spread of aquatic, invasive species throughout our lakes and ponds," Downing said in his testimony. "The bill is especially timely due to the recent discovery of zebra mussels in Laurel Lake, resulting in public boat ramp closures throughout the Berkshires."
The discovery of the zebra mussels in the Lee lake last month has worried many town officials. Up to 700,000 zebra mussels can occupy a square yard, and the razor-sharp organisms can cripple a boat's motor or intake pipes. Furthermore, the infestation overtakes a lake's ecosystem, as the mussels quickly suck up all the water's nutrients.
Downing told The Eagle that when crafting this bill, he looked to states such as Maine, Connecticut, and Minnesota for reference. That said, with Maine's fines reaching up to $5,000, Downing said that he aimed for the lower end of the spectrum.
"The goal is not to fine people, it is to let people know of the challenges we face and to induce people to use our lakes in a sustainable fashion," he said. "It's about sharing in the responsibility of keeping our lakes and ponds as clean as possible."
Yet with resources stretched thin -- and the Massachusetts Environmental Police, the entity most likely to pursue offenders, only having 83 personnel statewide and just six officers operating in the Berkshires -- Downing admitted that the bill was only the beginning.
"Enforcement is probably the biggest challenge, both with the proposal we've put forward but also more generally when it comes to invasive species," he said. "Minnesota has enforcement officers at all public boat ramps, but public boat ramps is only one of many access points."
"Pittsfield YMCA, Berkshire Community College hatch an idea"
By Matt Murphy, Berkshire Eagle, Tuesday, August 18, 2009
BOSTON -- Camp Sumner, run by the Pittsfield Family YMCA, could soon have a more permanent home on the city campus of Berkshire Community College under a bill approved Monday morning in the state Senate that would allow the two organizations to enter a long-term lease agreement.
Two years ago, the YMCA gave up property that for years had housed Camp Sumner. Then in 2007, the YMCA partnered with the community college with year-to-year rental agreements to operate Camp Sumner on the Pittsfield campus.
The legislation approved by the Senate Monday would allow the college and the YMCA to enter into a lease of up to 20 years. It would give Camp Sumner extended security and give campers access to all of Berkshire Community College's facilities, including soccer fields, pools, classroom space and the cafeteria.
"Collaboration and resource sharing are important in maximizing the ability to deliver quality services with limited funding. This partnership between BCC and the YMCA is a winning proposition for the campers, the YMCA, BCC, and our community at large," said Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, in a statement.
Downing filed the legislation along with his his House colleague Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
Berkshire Community College President Paul Raverta said the partnership will not only solidify a home for the camp, but expose hundreds of youth to a college campus as they begin to think about their futures.
"This arrangement allows us to introduce 130 youngsters every day, all summer long, to the positive aspects of higher education in their lives with the intention of expanding their dreams and aspirations," Raverta said.
In addition to the normal summer camp programs, YMCA Executive Director Randy Kinnas said the camp experience will also include workshops taught by college faculty.
The bill is now waiting for approval from the House of Representatives.
"Beacon Hill Roll Call"
By Bob Katzen/Correspondent via Wicked Local - Westwood, Massachusetts - with news from the Westwood Press & Daily News Transcript, Sunday, September 20, 2009
THE HOUSE AND SENATE There were no roll call votes in the House or Senate last week. This week, Beacon Hill Roll Call examines the salaries and other benefits received by the 40 state senators.
$3,203 PAY HIKE FOR LEGISLATORS - Legislators received a pay raise of $3,203 or 4.8 percent from $58,236 to $61,439 beginning in January 2009. The hike was required under the terms of a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1998. The new $61,439 salary represents an increase of $15,029 or 32 percent over the $46,410 salary that legislators received following approval of the constitutional amendment in 1998.
BONUS PAY FOR ALL 40 SENATORS - Over the past few years, the Legislature has increased the total number of legislators who receive annual bonus stipends of $7,500 to $35,000, beyond their annual base salary. All 40 senators receive bonus pay for their service in Democratic or Republican leadership positions, as committee chairs or vice chairs and as the ranking Republican on some committees. The senators include 35 Democrats and five GOP members. Supporters say that legislators in these important positions should be appropriately compensated for their many responsibilities and hard work. Critics say that the base salary is sufficient and is already automatically increased every two years.
PER DIEMS - Legislators are entitled to collect "per diems" to reimburse them for mileage, meals and lodging expenses for travel from their "place of residence to the Statehouse and return therefrom, while in the performance of their official duties." The amount of the per diem varies based on the city or town in which a legislator resides and its distance from the Statehouse. These reimbursements are not taxable income and range from $10 per day for legislators who reside in the greater Boston area to $82 for Western Massachusetts lawmakers and $100 for those in Nantucket. Bay State senators in 2009 so far have received a total of $51,685 in per diems that range from $410 to $7,470 for individual members. The Legislature in 2000 doubled these per diems to the current levels. Supporters of the per diems say they are a reasonable reimbursement for legitimate expenses. Opponents say that the idea of paying a per diem is outrageous. They note that other state workers and most private workers are not paid additional money for commuting.
$7,200 FOR GENERAL EXPENSES - Each legislator receives a $7,200 annual general expense allowance. The Legislature in 2000 doubled this allowance from $3,600 to $7,200. This separate, flat rate expense allowance is not based on a lawmaker's geographical distance from the Statehouse. It is designed to pay for some of the costs of legislators' Statehouse and district offices and to pay for other expenses including contributions to local civic groups and the printing and mailing of newsletters. Legislators are issued a 1099 from the state and are required to report the $7,200 as income but are not required to submit an accounting of how they spend it.
PARKING SPACE - Lawmakers are entitled to a parking space inside the Statehouse garage or at the nearby McCormack State Office Building. Some of the value of the space is a tax-free benefit under federal and state tax guidelines that apply to all public and private employees - not just state legislators. The first $205 in monthly value of the space under 2009 federal and state regulations is tax-free. Any value of the space above those amounts is treated as income and legislators are required to pay taxes on it. The value of the parking spaces in 2009 was determined by the Bureau of State Buildings to be $394 per month. Based on that figure, legislators would be taxed on the excess $189 monthly by the Internal Revenue Service and the state.
HEALTH INSURANCE - Legislators are eligible to choose from nine health insurance plans offered by the state's Group Insurance Commission that manages the plans for 330,000 current and retired state and municipal workers, their families and dependents. Monthly premiums for family plans range from $971 to $1,786 while individual plans are available from $404 to $755. Lawmakers elected prior to June 30, 1993 pay 20 percent of the premium and the state pays 80 percent. Legislators elected to their first term after June 30, 2003 pay 25 percent while the state picks up only 75 percent. State and federal privacy regulations protect this information and it is not possible to obtain records about which plans individual legislators have purchased.
LIFE INSURANCE - Legislators who purchase a regular health insurance policy from the state are also required to buy the state's basic $5,000 life insurance policy. The policy costs $6.85 per month. Lawmakers elected after June 30, 2003 pay 25 percent of the premium and the state pays 75 percent. Legislators elected to their first term before June 30, 2003 pay 20 percent while the state picks up 80 percent. Legislators also have the option to buy additional life insurance with a value of up to eight times their salary. The entire premium for the optional insurance is paid by legislators.
LONG TERM DISABILITY AND HEALTH CARE SPENDING ACCOUNT - Legislators also have the option to open a Health Care Spending Account (HCSA) and to buy long term disability insurance. The HCSA allows legislators to pay for out-of-pocket health care expenses with pre-tax money and reduces their federal and state income taxes. The entire premium for both of these optional plans is paid by legislators.
DENTAL AND VISION INSURANCE - Legislators are eligible to choose one of two dental/vision insurance plans. Monthly premiums for family plans range from $79 to $111 while individual plans range from $25 to $36. Lawmakers pay 15 percent of the premium and the state pays 85 percent.
SOME LEGISLATORS DO NOT PAY FEDERAL TAXES ON THEIR LEGISLATIVE SALARY - Legislators who live more than 50 miles from the Statehouse are eligible for a special federal tax break. A 1981 federal law allows these state legislators to write off a daily expense allowance when filing their federal income tax return. The complicated system determines a daily amount, ostensibly for meals, lodging and other expenses incurred in the course of their jobs, which can be deducted for every "legislative day."
Under the Massachusetts Legislature's system and schedule, every day qualifies as a legislative day. The Legislature does not formally "prorogue" or end an annual session until the next annual session begins. This allows legislators to take the deduction for all 365 days regardless of whether the Legislature is actually meeting. Legislators do not even have to travel to the Statehouse to qualify for the daily deduction.
The amount of the deduction is based on the federal per diem for Massachusetts. It varies from year to year and changes on October 1 of each year. The daily per diem for legislators from October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009 is seasonal and ranges from $267 to $320 per day or between $87,455 and $116,800 annually. It is estimated that more than one-third of the state's 200 legislators qualify for this deduction and are eligible to pay little or no federal income taxes on their legislative salaries.
HOW MUCH WILL YOUR SENATOR BE PAID IN 2009?
The dollar figure next to the senator's name represents the amount of compensation that he or she will be paid in 2009. The amount includes the base salary of $61,439; leadership stipends ranging from $7,500 to $35,000; $7,200 for general expenses and any per diem money that the state has already paid the legislator through August 24. Only 20 senators have so far taken per diems. The dollar figures will increase between now and the end of December for legislators who take additional per diems over the remaining four months of the legislative session.
The senator with the highest compensation so far is Senate President Therese Murray who earns $103,639. Rounding out the top five are Sens. Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell) $95,719; Frederick Berry (D-Peabody) $92,219; Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) $91,379 and Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield) $91,139.
Sen. Marian Walsh - $84,049
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
DELAY RACING BAN (S 2041) - The Committee on Economic Development heard heated and sometimes emotional testimony on legislation that would delay for two years the voter-mandated dog racing ban that would effectively close Wonderland and Raynham Park - the state’s two dog racing tracks. The proposal would move the ban from January 2010 to January 2012. The 2008 election results show that the ban was approved with 1,662,352 votes in favor and 1,303,708 opposed.
Opponents of the delay said that it would violate the will of the voters who clearly favored banning dog racing beginning in 2010. They argued that workers at the tracks are being retrained in order to find other job. Supporters of the delay said that it would not overturn the will of the voters but simply delay its implementation. They argued that if the tracks are forced to close in January, some 1,200 people will lose their jobs.
CHANGE STATE SEAL AND MOTTO - The Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight held a hearing on a bill that would create a special commission to examine the state seal and motto and develop a revised version of it. The current state seal includes a Native American holding a bow and arrow. The motto is “By the sword we seek peace, but only under liberty.” The commission would “determine whether the seal and motto accurately reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the Commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality, and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.”
Supporters of the revisions say that the current seal is politically insensitive and historically inaccurate. They note that it depicts a Native American who represents a tribe from Lake Superior rather than Massachusetts and argued that the bow and arrow depict violence. Supporters of the current seal say that it is appropriate and noted that arrow is pointing downward which is known as a Native American symbol signifying peace.
MORE PROPOSALS - Other measures that were part of the State Administration hearing include banning alcohol advertising on any state-owned or operated property (H 1113); requiring most state agencies and departments to accept credit cards as a form of payment for all licenses, services, fines, and other transactions (H 2997); requiring that all telephone voice mail system used by any state offices, boards and agencies give all callers the option of speaking with a live operator (S 1462).
SHHHHHHH (S 1919) - The Transportation Committee held a hearing that included a proposal which would require all repavements of state highways within 200 feet of residential homes to use a special type of quiet pavement material.
APPOINT TEMPORARY SENATOR - The controversy continues over whether the Legislature should approve a bill that would give Gov. Deval Patrick the power to appoint a temporary replacement to fill the Senate seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy until a special election is held in January (H 656).
Hundreds of people showed up to express their opinions on the proposal at a hearing that lasted several hours. Sen. John Kerry led the charge for passage of the bill while Rep. Paul Frost led the GOP effort to stop it.
Supporters of giving the governor the power to appoint a temporary replacement said that in light of Kennedy’s death, the state under current law would not have a second senator for some five months. They argued that the appointment power is necessary in order to ensure full and continuous representation for Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate and ensure that the state has a second pro-health care reform senator in place during any future vote on changing the nation’s health care system.
Opponents said that the governor should not have this power that should be reserved for the voters. Some GOP legislators are crying foul and pointing out that many Democrats in 2004 voted against giving the then-Republican former Gov. Mitt Romney this appointment power that they now want give to Democratic Governor Patrick. These opponents note that the Democrats in 2004 were concerned that if Kerry won the presidency, Romney would appoint a Republican.
“The issues that my wife Tina and I deal with, trying to raise and educate four daughters, are the challenges that families across our state face every day.”— State Treasurer Tim Cahill at the launch of his independent campaign for governor of Massachusetts. Cahill was elected as a Democrat but has since left the party and is running as an independent.
“So we need to make sure that Gov. Patrick can appoint an interim senator until a special election can be held.”—John Spears, Massachusetts state director for Organizing for America, Barack Obama’s political organization
“With all due respect to President Obama, perhaps he should be building a bipartisan consensus on health care reform instead of forcing an unpopular health-care reform bill upon the American people by stacking the deck in the U.S. Senate.”— Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Jennifer Nassour
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK’S SESSION? Beacon Hill Roll Call tracks the length of time that the House and Senate were in session each week. Many legislators say that legislative sessions are only one aspect of the Legislature’s job and that a lot of important work is done outside of the House and Senate chambers. They note that their jobs also involve committee work, research, constituent work and other matters that are important to their districts. Critics say that the Legislature does not meet regularly or long enough to debate and vote in public view on the thousands of pieces of legislation that have been filed. They note that the infrequency and brief length of sessions are misguided and lead to irresponsible late night sessions and a mad rush to act on dozens of bills in the days immediately preceding the end of an annual session.
During the week of Sept. 7-11, the House met for a total of 51 minutes while the Senate met for a total of 25 minutes.
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Successor bill clears Senate"
By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, September 23, 2009
BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Senate has approved a bill allowing Gov. Deval Patrick to name an interim replacement to fill the late Edward Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat.
The Senate backed the measure Tuesday on a 24-16 vote after a spirited debate, with 11 Democrats joining all five Republicans, who had twice delayed debate. The House approved the bill on Friday.
The bill now goes back to both chambers for a final vote today before heading to Patrick. The governor's aides have said they expect him to act quickly to sign the bill and name an appointee.
The interim senator would serve until voters pick a permanent replacement during a Jan. 19 special election.
Supporters said an interim senator would help lobby for the state, cast votes, and keep Kennedy's office open for constituent services until January.
"The people deserve full representation. They deserve two voices in the US Senate," said state Sen. Thomas Kennedy, D-Brockton, no relation to Sen. Kennedy. "If every other state has it, we should have it."
Republican lawmakers faulted Democrats, noting they voted to change the succession law in 2004 to create a special election and block then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming a temporary replacement if Sen. John Kerry had won his presidential bid.
"The law is being manipulated to give one party a strategic advantage over another," said Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who is also a candidate in the special election. "The majority party in Washington wants a rubber stamp."
Not all Democratic lawmakers backed the bill.
Sen. Brian Joyce, D-Milton, said that in 2004 lawmakers decided that an appointed senator should not be allowed to serve, and they shouldn't give into political pressure now.
"It was not something we were dealing with in the abstract," said Joyce, arguing against the bill. "Republican or Democrat, I think we do ourselves and our constituents a disservice when we change the rules ... depending upon who is in power."
Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, one of top lieutenants of Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee also opposed the bill.
Lawmakers have come under pressure from Washington to pass the bill so Democrats can regain a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in the U.S. Senate to help pass President Obama's health care overhaul.
Patrick said President Barack Obama personally spoke with him about changing the law. Obama presidential counselor David Axelrod and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada have also contacted Massachusetts officials to press for the change.
Sen. Kennedy, in a letter sent to Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo shortly before his death from brain cancer last month, also advocated for the change.
Some Democratic lawmakers conceded their vote Tuesday amounted to an about-face.
"I made a mistake then," said Sen. Steven Tolman, D-Boston, who voted in 2004 to deny Romney a chance to name an interim senator.
During the debate, the Senate rejected a series of Republican sponsored amendments, including one which would allow the governor to name an interim appointee, but only apply it to future vacancies.
Critics also said they were concerned anyone appointed to the seat could gain an unfair advantage in the special election.
Lawmakers originally considered putting language in the bill barring an appointee from also being a candidate, but that was deemed unconstitutional.
The Senate instead approved a resolution expressing its intention that the appointee not run in the special election.
Republicans said supporters still need a two-thirds majority vote for the law to take effect immediately.
Murray said the governor can instead send a letter to the secretary of state's office declaring it an emergency situation, allowing him to immediately appoint a successor.
"Western Massachusetts State Senators Divided on Interim Replacement for Kennedy"
By Nate Walsh, Local news from abc40, Springfield, Massachusetts, 9/23/2009
BOSTON (WGGB) -- In a 24 - 16 vote, the Massachusetts Senate passed a measure that will allow Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint an interim successor to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, which had Western Massachusetts state senators divided.
Four senators from Western Massachusetts, Stephen Buoniconti, D-Springfield, Gale Candaras, D-Wilbraham, Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield and Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, voted in favor of allowing the governor to appoint an interim successor.
However, two senators from the west opposed the measure: Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, and Michael Knapik, R-Westfield.
Republican-led opposition to the measure said it would be hypocritical to allow for an interim appointment now that a Democratic governor is in power when the state legislature had moved to take away the power from Republican Gov. Mitt Romney in 2004 when Sen. John Kerry was running for president.
The state House of Representatives has already passed the measure and both chambers of the state legislature are expected to again take up the measure Wednesday.
"Berkshires a top destination"
By Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff, November 14, 2009
Think of all the destinations treasured by the globe-trotting elite.
Tuscany. The French Riviera. The Great Barrier Reef.
The Berkshires beat them all.
In this month's edition of National Geographic Traveler magazine, the region tied for 7th out of 133 vacation destinations ranked by a panel of 437 experts in fields such as historic preservation, sustainable tourism, travel writing, food, photography and archaeology.
In the article, one unnamed expert writes that the area "seems to have the right balance of picturesque towns, arts offerings, and well-protected natural beauty."
Lauri Klefos, president of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, said businesses and cultural venues have been ecstatic about the recognition, which she views as the best free advertising possible.
"This is one of the premiere travel magazines in the world," Klefos said. "People pick up this magazine when they're looking to find a destination that they never considered before."
Michael Supranowicz, president of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, predicted that the acknowledgment will be used as a "selling point" for the local tourism industry.
"This is a feather in our cap, and we deserve it," he said. "We have a beautiful place here, and a lot of people know it. But what was interesting about this survey is that it wasn't based in stats and numbers. Their experts had personal knowledge of the places.
"These people had their feet on the ground."
While representatives from the magazine did not return phone calls Friday, the article's author, Jonathan B. Tourtellot, explained that editors came up with a unique way of ranking the destinations.
They asked the experts to submit anonymous points of view on each place. They reviewed each others' remarks and then filled in their final scores based on six criteria, which ranged from environmental quality to cultural integrity, condition of historic buildings and quality of tourism management.
It's a variation of a research tool called the Delphi method that helps groups reach a consensus.
Points were docked for reckless development and commercialization.
The Berkshires earned a score of 76.
Norway's Fjords topped the list with an 85. Vermont scored a 78, Germany's Bavarian Alps a 77, and Tuscany a 72.
Cape Cod? 58.
Tourtellot wrote that the annual survey, the magazine's sixth, "isn't a popularity contest. It is an assessment of authenticity and stewardship, evaluating the qualities that make a destination unique and measuring its integrity of place."
"When people care about the condition of a place, its score tends to go up ... The condition of any destination is a mix of what local governments, residents, and businesses can control -- pollution, cultural quality, authenticity."
One expert wrote that the area was "still undiscovered enough, and with a tradition of slow-growth tourism to add cultural pizzazz to the lush scenery."
Another said that "some complain it is becoming too ‘gentrified,' with boutiques pushing out the mom-and-pop establishments."
One commented that "a balance must be maintained to preserve the area."
Klefos said she valued one of the expert's compliments above all the others.
"Authenticity," she said. "That's one of the characteristics that we care about most. We're not fake. We're not manmade. This is a unique area with a wide variety of venues across the county. Everyone who lives here should feel proud."
To reach Benning W. De La Mater: email@example.com, (413) 496-6243.
"Meet challenge of homelessness"
By Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, The Berkshire Eagle (Online), Op-Ed, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009
At a time when many of us are planning to celebrate our annual Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, an unprecedented number of our neighbors and fellow citizens will be spending the holiday in emergency shelters or out in the cold. In Massachusetts, more than 3,000 families are homeless, the highest count ever.
With shelters full to capacity, over 1,000 of these homeless families are living in motels across the state, costing the commonwealth more than $3 million each month. Right here in western Massachusetts, there are 519 homeless families, with another 20 to 30 projected to become homeless each week.
Some of this can be explained by our current economic condition. Job loss and foreclosure are putting more households at risk, and despite best efforts these pressures are not likely to disappear anytime soon. The good news, however, is that a change in approach to the problem, as well as resources to support it, provide the promise of long-term solutions.
The change is called Housing First, which proposes what it sounds like: preserve or provide housing first, with the appropriate support services to go with it, to effectively reduce the number of homeless families and individuals. Housing First aligns well with Berkshire County's long-standing approach to ending homelessness, which focuses on programming that promotes early intervention and prevention initiatives. The new approach is also in sharp contrast to the old bureaucracies, built up over a 25-year period, which unintentionally drove at-risk households to shelters as the quickest resource for housing and social service support.
The Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, one of 10 regional networks funded by the commonwealth, is helping spearhead the change to a Housing First approach in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties. The Network includes dozens of service providers, municipalities, state agencies and the Western Division Housing Court. It offers a foundation for the collaboration that is necessary to maximize resources and discover best practices for greater success.
Here in Berkshire County, the Berkshire Leadership Council to End Homelessness, comprised of a cross-section of community stakeholders including business and banking entities, neighborhood groups, faith based organizations, local and state government officials, health care organizations, private and public housing organizations, and human service providers has offered support and leadership in the formation of the Network. With a pool of local, state, and federal funding and some additional funding support from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, service providers across the four western counties are looking to engage families and individuals before they become homeless, and provide them with the assistance they need to prevent their homelessness.
This strategy includes assistance such as payment of rent arrears, mediation to maintain an existing tenancy, or financial assistance to move quickly to a new tenancy.
Key to this strategy's success is targeting the funds to those most at risk of actually becoming homeless. Surely many households in today's economy would be helped by an extra $1,000 paid toward housing costs, but most families -- even most families living in poverty -- do not become homeless.
Instead, they rely on the informal support of family or friends, and look to boost income and reduce expenses wherever possible. The Network's goal, in partnership with service providers, is to ensure that limited resources are used to help the most at-risk families avoid homelessness.
The combination of homelessness prevention, Housing First, effective targeting of resources and use of good data to plan and assess progress has already shown results in other communities. In Columbus, Ohio, family homelessness dropped 40 percent over the period 1995 to 2004; in Hennepin County, Minnesota, family homelessness declined 43 percent over a four-year period. New York City experienced a 19 percent decline over three years.
In just the last year, Berkshire County has utilized the early intervention/prevention model, which includes a housing first approach, to preserve the tenancies of over 300 imminently at-risk households, and over 150 households have been placed into appropriate, permanent housing, avoiding placement into a homeless shelter. The collaborative opportunities provided through the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness will significantly increase Berkshire County's successes.
We truly believe that we are on our way to finding out just what it means to best meet the challenge of homelessness. We trust that by this time next year, more families and individuals will have a Thanksgiving table to call their own. They deserve nothing less.
Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) represents the 48 western communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin Senate District. He serves as the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue and is Co-Chair of the Berkshire Leadership Council to End Homelessness. Brad Gordon is the Executive Director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority. November 15-21 is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
"Bill supports town's redevelopment: State passes legislation declaring Dalton manager may continue appointing Authority members"
By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff, December 13, 2009
DALTON -- The town of Dalton has received legislative support in its effort to improve unused sites and boost economic development in the community.
State Rep. Denis E. Guyer, D-Dalton, and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, announced the Legislature's passage of a bill that allows the town manager to continue to appoint members to the Dalton Redevelopment Authority, contingent on the approval of the Dalton Selectboard. The bill now moves to the desk of Gov. Deval Patrick for final approval.
A public board was formed after a unanimous Special Town Meeting vote June 29 to aid in economic development. The legislative bill was also created at the request of the town at this meeting.
The Authority now has access to public grants and low-interest loans to finance improvement and development projects, and it will allow the town to acquire and redevelop brownfield sites and create jobs.
Current Authority members, appointed in August, include Charles J. Dooley, David L. Kalib, Stephen A. Sears and Town Manager Kenneth E. Walto.
In a press statement, Guyer said the Authority will "be integral in helping the town transform unused sites through projects that benefit the community and facilitate job creation."
"Authorizing Dalton's municipal leaders to empower truly engaged and committed members to serve on the Redevelopment Authority's board will yield long-term benefits to residents of this community and the surrounding region," Downing said.
On Saturday, John Boyle, chairman of the Dalton Selectboard lauded the legislation.
"The goal was to establish a separate authority in attempt to channel federal funds to help local business in abating local issues such as pollution remediation and to assist with economic development. The town supported this measure at a special town meeting, so I see it as a positive," he said.
Neither Walto nor the other members of the Authority board could be reached at home for comment on Saturday.
However, in a press statement released just before the weekend, Walto said that creation of a Redevelopment Authority is a critical part of the town's economic development strategy to improve blighted open space and buildings, remedy sites that pose health and safety risks to the public and environment, and conserve such spaces for the public good.
"It will allow the community to undertake those projects not usually undertaken by small towns such as the redevelopment of brownfield sites," said Walto. "In so doing, the Authority will stimulate local business development leading to the creation of new jobs and increased property tax revenues."
"Ed. board taps Sen. Downing"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 1/9/2010
PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire County was pushed to the forefront of the statewide education debate last week, as State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, was named acting chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.
"I think we’ve done a good job when it comes to providing the resources for K through 12 in these tough economic climates," Downing said. "Where I think we’ve failed for too long ... is when it comes to funding higher public education."
Downing had previously served as Senate vice-chairman of the committee since 2007.
His new appointment comes after the resignation of State Sen. Anthony Galluccio, D-Cambridge, who pleaded guilty to an Oct. 4 hit-and-run and then was sentenced to a year in jail after failing subsequent sobriety tests.
Among other things, Downing helped bring in funding for the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ new science center complex, as well as energy-efficient buildings and other renovations at Berkshire Community College.
"Those have been sort of the accomplishments I’ve taken the most pride in," Downing said, saying that he planned on focusing on MCLA’s science center as well as bringing in training for green jobs at BCC. "There’s a lot we’ve been working on and I hope to continue and amplify that work as chair of the committee."
In addition to his new appointment, Downing also serves as chairman of the Joint Committee on Revenue and the Senate Committees on Ways and Means, Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and Veterans and Federal Affairs.
"I think the connection between Ways and Means and Higher Education is fairly strong," he said. "The focus for all of us is job creation -- and when you talk about higher education, we’re talking about the highest job creation system that we have in the commonwealth."
Downing said that Massachusetts should look to states such as North Carolina and Connecticut, who have put in massive investments into community colleges and public universities.
"We’ve woefully underfunded higher public education in the community for the better part of a generation," he said. "It’s an unfortunate trend and an unfortunate position we’re in. ... You can’t just look at education as just K through 12."
Keynote speaker Eleanore Velez discusses the U.S. Census on Friday at the Pittsfield local Census office open house ceremony. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff).
"Making sense of Census: 'Power and money is what it's all about.' -- Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto, on the U.S. Census"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 1/16/2010
When you ask Brad Spear what he does for a living, he won't describe it as managing the U.S. Census office in Pittsfield.
Instead, he considers his efforts just one part of a national effort to take, as he calls it, "the American Snapshot."
"This is such an important event, having a Census office," Spear said at the office's open house on West Housatonic Street on Friday. "It's all about having an accurate count."
Once a decade
The U.S. Census, which takes place every 10 years, is a study designed to gauge an area's population. These figures are used to determine wide-ranging items such as district size, representation and federal funding. Current estimates from 2008 show that Berkshire County has had a population decrease of 4.1 percent since April 2000.
In addition to cookies, coffee and pastries, supporters of the census office such as Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto and State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, spoke before the more than 50 people that attended the event.
"The census to Pittsfield, and to the Berkshires, means everything," Ruberto said. In addition to possibly maintaining our level of representation in Congress, he said that the other importance for the Census was that "we're bringing up more and more safety net issues for our population... we have to have sensitivity to these issues."
Downing agreed. "Power and money is what it's all about," he said. "[The Census] is to make sure we get the voice we deserve in Washington, D.C."
Spear said that establishing the Census bureau in Pittsfield last October allowed workers to "concentrate on problems in our own backyard."
A particular challenge the Pittsfield office had, Spear explained, was reaching out to the immigrant community, some of whom are recent transplants and might not have full command of the English language. To alleviate this situation, the Census office is hiring enumerators from these neighborhoods, in order to achieve better outreach.
Additionally, Spear said, the Pittsfield office will begin reaching out to communal living institutions ranging from colleges to convalescent homes to the Berkshire House of Correction, in order to gain an accurate count from those who might not think that they are eligible to be counted.
When asked about his number of staffers, Spear said he currently had 20 people on staff, and that another team was en route. He said he was not certain how much funding his office would receive in total, attributing this to the "diffuse" nature of the government's Census efforts.
Recession helped Census
Spear said that by hiring enumerators for the project, the U.S. Census has been able to help inject funds into communities. "In a lot of ways, the recession has actually been kind to [the Census]," he said. "The quality of people we've been testing is higher than ever before."
"There are a great variety of people who have been here a long time, who are invisible, too," said the event's keynote speaker, Berkshire Community College Multicultural Outreach Counselor Eleanore Velez. She said that the Census was an opportunity for the community to show "that we count, that we matter... that's the only way we can prepare."
"Bus fund protected: Local reps successfully file amendments"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, 1/17/2010
PITTSFIELD -- With a hard-fought education reform bill poised to become law next week, Berkshire County schools will get additional protection against transportation cuts, even as a number of local school districts may be ineligible for the stimulus funds that could come with it.
"Today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts stepped up, in a big way, to the unfinished business of education reform," Gov. Deval L. Patrick said recently.
One victory in particular came from State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and State Rep. Denis E. Guyer, D-Dalton, who successfully filed amendments to the Senate and the House to protect Regional School Transportation funding.
This amendment stipulates that the state cannot cut regional school transportation funds by a greater percentage than Chapter 70 state aid.
This comes as a relief for legislators and educators, after Gov. Patrick attempted to slash $144 million from that funding last October, before restoring the money in late December.
"The debate on the regional school transportation was a huge win for regional school districts," Guyer said Thursday night. "When there's an economic crisis, Chapter 70 may, on average, get cut by tens of thousands of dollars -- but regional school district might lose hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Downing said that the adoption of the amendments was at times an uphill battle, but was pushed on by the help of the Berkshire delegation, aided by State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, and State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
"On more than one occasion, we were told it was beyond the scope of the bill, but I think we made a clear case," Downing said. "One of the smartest things we could do is make sure we aren't going back on promises made to regional schools at a different rate than we're cutting local aid."
Superintendent James Stankiewicz of Central Berkshire School District, said that he had been eyeing the success of that amendment more than anything else. "Anything that will help us avoid those swings in funding would be helpful," he said. "We've been planning our budget, and we have no firm numbers on transportation revenue."
Another potential boon granted by the bill is that the state can be eligible for federal stimulus "Race to the Top" funds, which many school districts see as a potential back-fill when the current round of stimulus funding subsides.
"There are so many elements for the Race to the Top funds that could really be positive for kids, in terms of developing intermediate assessments to ways we could extend the school day and the school year," said Pittsfield Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, whose school system could receive up to $224,192 a year with these funds. "We think is going to be very helpful in terms of helping us to support kids in our neediest schools."
That said, while the funding is tantalizing to many educators, a number of Berkshire County school districts may not be eligible for the funding.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, a superintendent, school committee chair, and educators' union president must sign a "Memorandum of Understanding" agreeing to commit to the governor's education reform plans in order to be eligible for the funds.
Currently, districts such as Adams-Cheshire, Central Berkshire and Mount Greylock have only been able to get the superintendent and school committee president to sign the memorandum. Meanwhile, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless confirmed in an e-mail that no parties from Lee had signed the memorandum. Respectively, these districts stand to lose a yearly boost of $44,382, $27,358, $6,106 and $10,556.
Officials from each district said they press on with the application and hope they would still receive the funding, even without their unions' support.
"I don't know if we're going to get the money at all... but I sent it in anyway," said Adams-Cheshire Superintendent Alfred Skrocki. "Regardless of whether people apply for money, we have to be working on those things anyway."
While members of the legislative delegation could not speak to the possible ineligibility of some of the county's school districts for the Race to the Top funds, they were quick to respond that the education reform would only help student growth.
"This is always going to be a sort of an evolving issue -- you can't just change it one year, you have to keep working at it," Guyer said. "This isn't the end of the road -- this is about making sure that every child in Massachusetts has a chance to get a first-class quality education."
"Solar panels coming to Berkshire Community College: A $3.5 million project will help produce more than 400,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually."
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff, January 26, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire Community College officials announced that work will soon begin on a $3.5 million project to install more than 1,800 solar panels on six campus buildings -- making it the largest roof-mounted installation of its kind at any educational institution in the state.
The solar array is expected to generate more than 400,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, or roughly 25 percent of the school's total electricity.
BCC President Paul Raverta said Monday the installation will save the college more than $2 million in utility costs over 20 years.
He said 25 percent of the project's cost will be financed from the anticipated energy savings, and the school will still enjoy a reduction in the school's overall cost of utilities. The money for the rest of the project is being provided by federal stimulus funds.
The solar installation, which is expected to be in use by the fall, is one of six projects being put out to bid as one package by the Massachusetts Department of Capital Asset Management. "It's already out to bid, so it's going to move very quickly," Raverta said.
Mark Nelson, deputy commissioner of DCAM, said the project at BCC seemed a natural since the roofs are in great shape, having been recently replaced.
"When you get new roofs, it's a good time to go solar," he said. "And these roofs are in good shape -- nice, new and flat."
Between 2005 and 2008, the state spent $2.4 million on roof replacement at BCC.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing said that recent closings of paper mills in Berkshire County was partly due to the fact that "we hadn't done enough to secure our energy future. Now we're starting to turn the tide."
He said money saved on energy costs at BCC can now be "put directly into achieving the mission of this college."
State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley praised Raverta for his collaborative instinct. "Because he's so innovative, he clearly understands the mission, and now this installation will be a model for other institutions around the state," he said.
"Downing speaks At PNA about the state’s finances"
By Susan Bush, The North Adams Transcript Correspondent, February 22, 2010
ADAMS -- When citizens seek change, they must initiate the process, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said Sunday during an appearance at a monthly meeting of the Maple Grove Civic Club.
"We can’t hear you unless you make yourselves heard," Downing said in response to a question posed by town resident Jeffrey Lefevbre. He asked Downing what citizen actions will serve to assist legislators as they tackle tough economic decisions affecting all 351 state municipalities.
"Don’t hesitate to reach out to us," Downing said. "It helps make us accountable. I’ve always tried to be available to everyone and anyone. Too often, people think of government as something separate and distant. Don’t think that once we get elected, that you lose your power over us."
Downing’s remarks followed an informational talk about aspects of the state’s finances and the current state budget deliberations. The town is presently constructing a tentative Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal based on a 5 percent cut in state aid.
This will mark the 12th consecutive year that the Adams-Cheshire School District has endured state aid reductions, school district Superintendent Alfred W. Skrocki said. Skrocki and Town Administrator John Butler attended the meeting to listen to Downing.
"It’s very difficult. It’s a challenge, and it’s even more difficult because of the accumulating effect of the continuous cuts," Skrocki said.
Although the state coffers have been affected by the economic downturn and unemployment rates, Massachusetts seems to be weathering financial storms better than other states, Downing said. He credited a state stabilization fund for much of the ability to offer funding to programs such as Meals on Wheels and local school transportation.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s current FY 2011 budget proposal level funds regional school district transportation aid, Downing said, and he noted that $18 million cut from the regional school district transportation fund during the previous budget cycle is expected to be restored during FY 2011.
Downing said he is focused on job creation and a more effective, efficient state government, he said.
"I will be arguing for two simple priorities, putting people to work and making government work better," he said. "We are looking to ramp up some of the tax credits [for businesses that create jobs], and we are looking at the cost of providing [employee] health insurance for small business."
Job creation must be bipartisan effort, Downing said, and added that he and other legislators are aware of the frustrations of those seeking employment.
"There is no one who is unemployed right now who is saying, ‘I am an unemployed Democrat,’ or ‘I am an unemployed Republican,’ " he said.
Many small business owners state-wide report seeing 40 to 50 percent hikes in their premiums, and Downing said he would support a mechanism that would force health insurance carriers to face state officials and explain the cost spikes. Small business owners need more negotiating power when health care providers attempt to increase premium costs, he said.
Citing the 600 jobs lost when a Southern Berkshires-based paper mill closed in 2009, Downing said there must be a focus on finding ways to cut business energy costs. A proposed Pittsfield-based solar facility could be part of the solution, he said.
"This is on a site that we thought we couldn’t do anything with because of the contamination of [General Electric]," Downing said.
Downing pointed to a consolidation of several state transportation agencies, including the Massachusetts Highway Department and the state’s throughway authority, as evidence of a more efficient, less costly state government.
Curbing abuse of the state pension is a priority, Downing said, but he emphasized that many state retirees are not wallowing in taxpayer-generated wealth.
"The average state pension is about $26,000 annually," Downing said, and explained that after the death of his father, Berkshire District Attorney Gerald Downing, his mother was able to benefit from her husband’s pension.
"It was not, and is not, an exorbitant check," he said. "My mother works 40 hours a week."
Downing spoke of his support for struggling dairy farmers and said that more needs to be done to help farmers combat rising energy and feed costs.
While he enjoys being a state senator, there is a frustration that he believes he shares with most constituents, he said.
"The frustration that I have is the inability to make straightforward and obvious change as quickly as it should happen," he said.
"Library funds a must for rural towns"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, March 12, 2010
The following letter was sent to Gov. Deval Patrick, state Sen. Benjamin Downing and state Rep. Denis Guyer:
We are the trustees of the Becket Athenaeum, located in the rural hill towns area of Berkshire County. Our athenaeum has been serving the residents of Becket and Washington since 1879. The residents want, deserve and depend upon this local library for a breadth and depth of services that might well surprise you.
A rural library provides not only materials such as books, movies, magazines, but also serves as the crossroads of the community. We provide high speed Internet access to the many residents for whom this service is otherwise unavailable; we offer free coffee and a place to meet on Saturday afternoons in a community that has no other gathering area; we offer afterschool programs, family events, resources for residents in crisis, rich historical archives, and much more.
All of us are very concerned about the unprecedented budget cut to libraries in FY2011. If this cut is implemented, and the state library system is forced to merge the present six regions into one organization, small rural libraries like ours will be seriously hurt without our regional hub. The Western Massachusetts Regional Library System (WMRLS) staff personally knows us and our particular community needs. The staff is ever present to come in person or give knowledgeable advice over the phone regarding a plethora of technical, procedural, legal, and other issues. The classes for certification and other invaluable workshops are within reasonable driving distance. If the regional hub is located farther away, small libraries with small voices like ours will find it much harder to provide our patrons with the services they deserve.
Again, we wish to stress that rural communities need their libraries in a unique and profound way, and we rely heavily on our regional library to supplement and support the important work we do to serve our community. We ask that you insist upon restoring regional library funding 7000-9401 so we can best serve our citizens.
Eve Cholmar is chair of the Becket Athenaeum trustrees, Purr McEwen is vice chair and Robert Podolski is treasurer. The letter was also signed by Mary White, secretary, of Becket; Kathie Casella, co-secretary, of Washington, and trustees Roberta Rubin, Peg Goss, Steve Schatz and Marcia Parnell, all of Becket.
"Bill vilifies state's senior drivers"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, March 12, 2010
I was saddened to see the passing of the state Senate bill requiring senior citizens over the age of 75 to pass physical and cognitive tests and pay additional fees in order to obtain a drivers license. The passing of this law unfairly targets senior drivers, making them feel the government considers them a liability. These feelings, paired with the added cost involved, may deter many able seniors from obtaining a drivers license, leading to active, healthy seniors becoming homebound when they otherwise would not have to be.
As a community health nurse working primarily with the elderly population, I know all too well the negative effects of being homebound, as well as the financial struggle seniors are facing in these difficult economic times. Many homebound elders in our county suffer from depression due to isolation, deteriorating health conditions from physical inactivity and the inability to partake in social activities they once enjoyed. Why force our active seniors into being homebound? The effect is detrimental to them physically and emotionally.
This new law, I feel, only works to vilify senior drivers and places an unnecessary burden on an already suffering population.
"New law doesn't vilify seniors"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, March 16, 2010
It was the word "vilifies" in the March 12 letter titled "Bill vilifies state's senior drivers" that got my attention. Simply and to the point, I don't agree.
As one who will be approaching the age of 75 sooner than later, I find the writer completely misses the mark. It is not unfair to cause drivers in this age group, 75 and older, to be reviewed by their doctor as to their physical and cognitive fitness (S.2290).
It is surprising that the writer, a health care professional, doesn't realize that Type 1 diabetics already have to do this to renew their license. Is that unfair? Why does this requirement not "vilify" diabetics? Does she really want a unfit senior driver on the road? If they are in such dire economic straits, how would they pay for the excise tax, insurance, registration fees and license fee anyway? The doctor's exam would be covered by Medicare or other insurance plans.
Our state senator and our state representatives have done an excellent job of looking out for the welfare of all and have done it in a very appropriate manner.
"Don’t devastate regional libraries"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letter to the Editor, March 23, 2010
A 29 percent cut in state funding for libraries has been proposed for next year’s state budget. With this would come the merger of all regional library systems into a single statewide organization. The results could potentially be devastating, especially to smaller Western Massachusetts libraries.
At the present, any Western Mass. Regional Library System member library has access to nearly two million materials at other libraries through the inter-library loan system. Because of the inter-library loan system, a patron can go to any library and have virtually anything from any other library in their hands within a week. Should the cuts and merger of regional library systems occur, the state headquarters would likely be located near Interstate 495 rather than in Deerfield. As a result, instead of having inter-library loans completed within a week, the process would almost certainly take much longer.
Budgets for individual libraries would be affected as well. Smaller libraries operate on a tiny budget that is already barely enough for them to survive. Staffing is often made up of mostly volunteers, and they must rely heavily on state aid and any donations that they can get.
What libraries manage to do with their already-small budgets is nothing short of amazing. Western Mass Regional Library System’s efficiency is praised as being nearly impossible to beat. They return over $8 in services for every dollar of funding they receive. With library use at a peak, it would be foolish to cut a system as productive and community-oriented as this one.
"State releases $6M in Chapter 90 funds to county"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, April 3, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire County’s highway funds have escaped the economic downturn this year -- and even managed an increase in funding -- as Gov. Deval L. Patrick released more than $155 million toward local road projects across the state on Friday.
"That’s certainly welcome news," said Pittsfield’s Department of Public Works and Utilities Commissioner, Bruce Collingwood. "Certainly we will be applying it on the roads."
All 32 cities and towns in the Berkshires received a boost to Chapter 90 funds, totaling more than $6 million being dispersed throughout the county. Pittsfield, Lenox and North Adams received the greatest increases in the county, with respective payouts of $1.1 million, $236,221 and $358,765. The statewide $155 million is a $5 million increase from last year.
Chapter 90 bonds are prized by cities and towns because they have almost total discretion over how it is used, unlike other state or federal highway dollars. Most use it for road, bridge and sidewalk repairs, but some use it for capital projects like sheds to store road salt. Others set it aside for several years to pay for big-ticket projects.
"What we’ve done the past few years is accumulate," said Williamstown’s Director of Public Works, Tim Kaiser. "$247,000 by itself doesn’t tackle a very large project, but when you put it together with a number of years of appropriations, you can do some sizable work."
In Great Barrington, the funds will play a large role in reconstructing existing roads and fixing drainage, guardrails and cracks along Round Hill Road, Brush Hill Road and Route 71.
"[Chapter 90 funds] are a very big part of our expenses and money we use for maintaining our roadways and bridges," added the town’s Superintendent of Public Works, Joe Sokul. "Without that, we can’t do as much work as we plan, so the additional moneys we’re receiving are welcomed."
Lenox Town Manager Greg Federspiel, however, said that while the increase was a positive step, the overall funding increase was not nearly enough to make a dent in his town’s heavy road project bills.
"We are spending over a million dollars a year in road projects, and we need to be spending more than that to really keep up and catch up," Federspiel explained. "We’re grateful, and we welcome the boost, but we’re struggling to keep up with our needs on the streets."
The spending also comes in unison with a $3 billion, seven-year accelerated bridge repair program launched by the governor, and with projects funded by the state’s share of the $787 billion federal stimulus program signed into law last year by President Barack Obama.
"When combined with our unprecedented Accelerated Bridge Program and federal stimulus projects, we are putting thousands of people to work and jump-starting our economy as we rebuild our transportation infrastructure," Patrick said in a statement.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.
"Heart implant benches senator: The city Democrat had surgery -- and missed many votes."
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff, June 4, 2010
State Sen. Ben Downing is back on the job after being hospitalized for eight days for treatment of bacterial infection associated with a medical device that the senator had implanted last year.
Downing, D-Pittsfield, expressed frustration after the day's session in the Senate at having to miss some important floor votes during his illness.
"I regret all the time I could not be there," he said. "It drives me nuts. And when it comes to the votes I missed, I don't want to pick out a few as being more important because they're all important."
Downing said he started feeling flu-like symptoms and chills during the morning Senate session on May 26. He went home, then went to the hospital where some blood cultures were taken. By the next day, he was in Mount Auburn Hospital for more testing.
He was later transferred to Tufts Medical Center, where he had surgery on May 29 to replace an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). He was released Wednesday.
Downing said the ICD was installed in 2009 as a precautionary measure based on family medical history.
In a statement released late Wednesday, Downing told constituents that he had been hospitalized, "causing me to miss several votes during the Senate's fiscal 2011 budget debate. As you know, prior to this I never missed a vote; I am very disappointed that I was unable to vote during this time. As I continue my treatment I will be able to serve you -- in the district and at the State House -- as I have for the last three and a half years."
During his absence, Downing missed key votes during the budget debate and a vote last Friday on immigration restrictions.
He said he was pleased that several measures he co-sponsored, including funding for regional school transportation and the special education circuit breaker, were passed. "That is real money getting back to our cities and towns in very difficult times."
Another budget measure he supported, which would have restored funding for restorative dental treatments under MassHealth, was defeated.
Downing will be keeping his full-time schedule in the Senate while undergoing outpatient treatment for the next six to eight weeks. As part of that treatment, he is carrying a portable, intravenous antibiotic pump -- stocked with a 48-hour dose of antibiotics -- plugged into his arm.
"It will take a little management and a little care, but I'm performing my duties just as I always do," Downing said.
To reach Scott Stafford: firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 496-6241.
Peter Clarke, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Electric Co., announces Monday that construction will begin on a solar project at the William Stanley Business Park in Pittsfield. (Lindsey Palatino / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"Solar's sunny future begins"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, June 22, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- The region's largest solar power station will soon reduce Pittsfield's dependency on fossil fuels and could jumpstart the development of the William Stanley Business Park.
Western Massachusetts Electric Co. has begun work on the 1.8-megawatt Silver Lake Solar Facility on Silver Lake Boulevard, an eight-acre site jointly owned by WMECO and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. WMECO owns six of the acres, and PEDA owns the other two located in the business park. A WMECO utility substation, sandwiched between the two parcels will distribute the alternative energy.
The PEDA parcel was once part of General Electric's former power transformer facility. The city agency has cleaned up the 52-acre site and made it ready for new business ventures such as the solar project.
"This is the ultimate in recycling," said Mayor James M. Ruberto during a ground-breaking ceremony held Monday at the site. "We've taken a piece of ground once part of remediation and turned it into green energy."
"This is very benign technology that's a good re-use of a brownfield site," said Peter Clarke, president and CEO of WMECO. "We've taken [the property] from being a liability to becoming an asset."
Clarke said the site preparation for the estimated $10 million to $12 million project will be finished by July 1 and all 6,500 solar panels should be installed by early October.
The utility expects the facility will have the capacity to produce enough energy to serve 300 homes in Pittsfield -- outperforming the 1,100 similar projects in New England. It is the first of six large-scale solar power facilities that WMECO intends to build in Western Massachusetts.
The company claims the Pittsfield project will also generate approximately $150,000 in property tax revenue for the city.
Overall, the state wants 250 megawatts of solar energy projects installed by 2017. Under the Green Communities Act, each Massachusetts utility company may own up to 50 megawatts of solar generation, subject to approval by state utility regulators.
The Silver Lake Solar Facility is the first entity located at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires, managed by PEDA, which was formed 12 years ago to oversee the park's development.
"The solar project has generated interest in the William Stanley Business Park, especially from green and eco-friendly types of business," said William Hines Sr., PEDA's interim executive director.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, cited how the Berkshires must seek out alternative energy sources to reduce the cost of doing business in Pittsfield and throughout the county.
"Energy issues are jobs issues," Downing said.
Meanwhile, the city is using federal economic stimulus funds to develop a smaller solar power facility at its sewage treatment plant on Holmes Road. Public Works Commissioner Bruce I. Collingwood said that project is currently in the design phase, with construction scheduled to begin next spring.
To reach Dick Lindsay: email@example.com, or (413) 496-6233.
"Solar at the Stanley Park"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, June 23, 2010
Transforming a site rendered useless because of pollution into one that will produce green energy is indeed, "the ultimate in recycling," as Mayor Ruberto said Monday, and that is what has happened with the portion of the William Stanley Business Park to be the home of the region's largest solar power station. WMECO, which has moved aggressively into the solar field, owns the eight-acre site on Silver Lake Boulevard along with PEDA and when operation begins the 6,500 solar panels will make this one of the most productive solar facilities in New England. Ideally, the solar station will draw interest to the park from other green energy operations, putting Pittsfield at the forefront of what is sure to be a growth industry.
"No contest for Downing"
By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff, September 7, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- State Sen. Ben Downing is somewhat relieved -- but not surprised -- that he has a free ride to another two years in office.
While all four state representative seats in Berkshire County are up for grabs this fall, the Pittsfield Democrat lacks a challenger, as he did in 2008, and will easily win re-election on Nov. 2.
Downing's only contested race came in 2006 when he defeated Republican Matthew Kinnaman to succeed Andrea Nuciforo Jr., who didn't seek re-election.
Avoiding the physical and mental rigors of campaigning in the state's largest senate district has allowed the senator to fully recover from heart-related surgery on May 29.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say it's been a little bit of a blessing not having an opponent this year," he said in an interview.
In May, Downing was hospitalized for eight days for treatment of bacterial infection associated with a medical device that the senator had implanted last year. Doctors at Tufts New England Medical Center replaced an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), installed in 2009 as a precautionary measure based on family medical history.
Downing appears to have caught a break this election year, but he believes his lack of opposition was almost expected. He said it's expensive and time consuming to run a campaign that covers 48 cities and towns; also, more political opportunities availed themselves in 2010 when state Reps. Daniel E. Bosley and Denis E. Guyer decided against seeking re-election.
"I think the size is daunting," Downing said, "and with open seats in the 1st and 2nd Berkshire districts, possible [senate] candidates had a chance to campaign for the legislature in much smaller political arenas."
Three candidates are vying for the seat held by Bosley, who is running for Berkshire County Sheriff, and six are looking to succeed Guyer.
Kinnaman, a staunch Republican from Lee, claims his lopsided loss to Downing four years ago is why his political party has stayed away from the senate race. Downing defeated Kinnaman by a 3-1 margin, after narrowly beating former state representative Christopher Hodgkins by 244 votes in the 2006 Democratic primary.
"The result in 2006 was a rude awakening for Republicans," Kinnaman said. "The county and senate district have proven tough for the GOP to crack."
In fact, Michael E. Case and Rosanne M. Frieri are the only two Republicans among the 13 candidates in the local races for state representative. The rest of the field includes nine Democrats and two member of the Green-Rainbow party.
Case and Frieri square off in the Sept. 14 primary, and the winner advances to a three-way race to succeed Guyer in the 2nd Berkshire District.
While Kinnaman isn't afraid to battle well-established Democrats -- he lost to Congressman John W. Olver in 2002 -- he wasn't about to enter the local political fray in 2010.
"Once you've run for office, it's hard not to think about," he said. "But not right now."
Meanwhile, Downing is thinking about what agenda the Berkshire delegation will bring to Beacon Hill in January, when the Legislature returns to formal session.
"The No. 1 issue is jobs and how can the government help put people back to work," Downing said.
Additional priorities include stabilizing energy cost, relying more on renewable energy resources, and implementing the state's $95 million plan to expand broadband Internet service in Massachusetts.
To reach Dick Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6233.
"Reps consider governor's health care proposal"
By David Pepose and Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff, February 20, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- With both hospitals and patients hemorrhaging increasing amounts of health care dollars, local and state officials say that Gov. Deval L. Patrick's new health-care-cost legislation might be the best medicine for the economy of the commonwealth.
A centerpiece of Patrick's proposed legislation, announced Thursday, is changing from a fee-based system of charging for health care to an "outcome-based" structure in which the overall treatment plan is devised among the various providers. Outcomes would then be compensated rather than each test and procedure being paid for individually.
One possible bump in the road to reducing health care costs, according to the Boston-based health advocacy group Health Care for All, is that in the first wave of medical reform, there were no incentives or penalties for private companies and individuals to participate in reforming the health care payment system.
"Consumers will be the key ingredient for meaningful payment reform," said Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of Health Care For All. "Providers that have already transitioned to a global payment structure report greater patient confidence, better coordination between doctors and specialists and a significant reduction in costs. If consumer needs and voices are respectfully considered and addressed, we know payment reform holds the potential to yield healthier outcomes for Massachusetts residents."
State Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, said the legislation is a "good opening salvo."
"It takes a team approach to treat especially those with chronic ailments, and in so doing the cost of the treatment of these patients can come down," Downing said. "We need to align the incentives to treating someone's health, and not wait for them to get sick."
He noted that the governor has set a goal of saving $800 million through this legislation in fiscal 2012.
"There is a significant savings we can and should realize," Downing said. "I'm not sure we can do it so quickly, but setting a big goal is an important part of achieving some savings."
State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, said the complex proposal will "give the legislators a lot to talk about."
As the bill progresses through the legislative process, she hopes it will prove to "discourage the use of defensive medicine and improve the quality of care."
"I look forward to the debate, and I'm very interested in further enhancing the health care system," she added.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, agreed that the proposal was complicated, but said he felt Patrick's plan was a step in the right direction.
"I think the governor's trying to level the playing field, make it more consistent, have more providers offering services," Pignatelli said, "And I think that's what he has to do."
In particular, Pignatelli said that the proposed legislation might help break Blue Cross/Blue Shield's dominance in Western Massachusetts.
"We have to make it more attractive for the Harvard Pilgrims, the Tufts Health Plans," he explained, saying that that would also help stave off exponential rate increases. "More competition will stabilize prices."
"Parsing state's budget"
By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff, February 20, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- Representatives of state energy, environmental and transportation agencies will be in attendance when two Pittsfield state representatives host a budget hearing at Berkshire Community College next month.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, will be the co-chairs when members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees receive testimony from representatives of those respective state departments on Governor Deval L. Patrick's fiscal 2012 budget proposal.
The hearing will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1 at the Robert Boland Theatre on BCC's West Street campus. It is one of several regional state budget hearings that the Ways and Means committees will hold around the state.
Members of the public are welcome to attend, but will be unable to present testimony to the committee.
"These things generally run, I think, at least six hours, and sometimes eight to 12 hours," Downing said. "It's difficult to get everyone in."
After the officials from those state agencies present their fiscal 2012 budget needs and priorities, committee members and members of the Berkshire state legislative delegation will question their recommendations.
"Often times those [questions] come from our constituents," Downing said. "If there's a question folks want to have asked, I suggest that they reach out to their representatives and we'll ask those questions."
Speranzo did not return a call seeking comment.
According to Downing, State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was interested in holding a budget hearing in the Berkshires this year.
"In the past, we've held them in Shelburne Falls and Buckland, and generally there's a hearing in Amherst," Downing said. "He gave me a list to pick from, and this is the one we got.
"I think we're very lucky to have Sen. Brewer chair the Ways and Means Committee," Downing said. "He represents a district that has small rural communities, the same way I do, and he knows it's not easy for people to get to the statehouse for a hearing. He's made it a priority to have them in as many places as we can, particularly in places where we haven't done it in the past."
To reach Tony Dobrowolski: email@example.com (413) 496-6224
About the hearing
Event: Fiscal 2012 state budget hearing.
Purpose: Senate and House members of Ways and Means Committee receive and question budget testimony from state officials.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday, March 1
Where: Robert Boland Theatre, Berkshire Community College.
Environmental officials: Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr., Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs; Commissioner Scott Soares, Department of Agricultural Resources; Commissioner Edward M. Limbert Jr., Department of Conservation and Recreation; Commissioner Kenneth L. Kimmell, Department of Environmental Protection; Commissioner Mary B. Griffin, Department of Fish and Game.
Energy officials: Commissioner Mark Sylvia, Department of Energy Resources; Chairwoman Ann G. Berwick, Department of Public Utilities.
Transportation Officials: Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan, Massachusetts Department of Transportation; Registrar Rachel Kaprielian, MassDOT Registry of Motor Vehicles Division; Administrator Christopher Willenborg, MassDOT Aeronautics Division.
Other officials from relevant state agencies, programs and divisions will also be in attendance.
"State Senate unveils $30.5 billion budget"
By Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson, Boston Globe Staff, May 18, 2011
The Massachusetts Senate’s spending plan, released today, would restore funding for mental health services and early intervention programs for toddlers, but would slash local aid and restrain health spending for poor residents.
The $30.5 billion proposal would increase spending by $38 million compared with last year, but was nonetheless described as slim, in large part because the state had to plug a $1.9 billion budget gap, resulting mostly from the loss $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money.
The Senate has not proposed any tax increases, meaning the budget contains cuts spread across a range of services. Those include a $65 million cut in aid to cities and towns and a $7.9 million cut in direct benefits to poor people, a reduction that will reduce the clothing allowance given to children on welfare from $150 a year to $40.
In addition, the Senate would cut from $12.4 million in the current year, to $9.8 million the Women, Infants, and Children program, which provides 130,000 poor women in the state who are pregnant or raising young children with supplemental food health care referrals, and nutrition education.
Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the Barre Democrat who leads the Ways and Means Committee, called this year’s spending plan “the largest fiscal challenge our state has yet faced.” But he and others on the committee said they did their best to preserve the social safety net, including adult day care services for elderly that had been cut in Governor Deval Patrick’s January proposal, as well as programs for veterans, and survivors of domestic violence.
“Make no mistake,” he said. “This is a painful budget.”
The Senate’s Republican minority, representing just four of the chamber’s 40 seats, offered their support as well. Senator Michael Knapik, the top Republican on the budget committee who hails from Westfield, called the plan “an extremely thoughtful and extremely diligent approach.”
The only early voice of dissent came from the Senate’s more liberal wing. Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, lamented that the budget had no tax increases to offset deep cuts that would affect the most vulnerable.
“I hope in the future we will have higher aspirations for the role of state government in solving problems,” she said.
The Senate will debate its budget next week. Then lawmakers will hash out a compromise with the House, which approved a version of a budget late last month. Governor Deval Patrick, who has also proposed a spending plan, must sign off on the final product.
As the Globe reported today, the most contentious issue is likely to involve cuts in some collective bargaining rights for firefighters, teachers, and other local government employees. The Senate plan would give city and town governments a mechanism to revise their local health plans to match the plan offered to state employees, which is generally less costly.
Mayors have lobbied hard for such changes. The Senate plan leans slightly more toward union interests that a plan passed in the House late last month. But local officials still said they believe the Senate’s version would help control costs.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino called the proposal “another step forward in our effort to curb municipal healthcare costs.”
Union leaders, who expressed outrage at the House plan, said they were still reviewing the Senate plan and expect to weigh in later today.
"Senate plan gives more to unions: Would pass on savings in health care costs"
By Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson, Boston Globe Staff, May 18, 2011
Massachusetts Senate leaders, breaking their silence over one of the most hotly debated issues on Beacon Hill, will release a plan today to curb the collective bargaining rights of teachers, police officers, and other municipal workers in an effort to save money for struggling cities and towns.
The plan, which will be released as part of the Senate’s budget proposal, follows a vote in the House last month that made it the first Democratic-led chamber in the nation to reduce public employee bargaining rights. Governor Deval Patrick has offered his own version of the legislation aimed at controlling the escalating cost of health insurance for cities and towns.
The Senate’s proposal, obtained by the Globe, attempts to give more relief to unions. Unlike the House plan, which caused a firestorm among labor leaders, this version could give union workers more of the savings from health care changes and more of an opportunity to appeal management decisions they oppose. It was unclear late yesterday whether those changes will be enough to satisfy union officials.
The plan also throws some of the thorniest decisions into the governor’s hands as he is trying to make himself a national spokesman on health care issues.
Patrick has tried to mollify both sides in the contentious debate over health benefits, saying he believes unions deserve a place at the table, but should not be allowed to block money-saving changes.
The Senate proposal, like the House one that preceded it, would give local governments 30 days to reach an agreement with their unions on significant health plan changes. In the case of a deadlock, the House plan allows mayors and town managers to set copayments and deductibles unilaterally.
But the Senate plan creates a new way to resolve such disputes, empowering the governor. If the sides do not agree, the dispute would go to a three-member review panel: with one union representative, one management representative, and a crucial tie-breaking vote appointed by the governor’s budget chief.
If the panel determines that the changes proposed by management at least match the health benefits given to state workers, the review panel would be required to approve them. If not, the panel would have discretion to consider union alternatives or to give more of the savings from insurance plan changes back to workers.
Regardless of what the panel decides, the Senate measure allows as much as one third of the cost savings from health changes to go back to municipal workers, whereas the House plan gives workers between 10 percent and 20 percent of that savings, but only in the first year.
Today’s proposal has been shrouded in secrecy, as labor and municipal leaders have lobbied their senators since the House vote. Senate President Therese Murray, who helped craft the plan, has offered only hints of how aggressive her chamber would be in curbing union power, but has said she agrees with Patrick’s philosophy that unions should have a voice.
“I emphatically agree with the governor that labor has to be at the table,’’ she told business leaders last month.
Senate leaders shared the plan yesterday with members of the chamber’s budget committee and are set to unveil the measure formally at a press conference this morning. It is scheduled for a full debate next week, when senators will be allowed to propose amendments.
Efforts to limit collective bargaining have gained prominence in the Legislature amid skyrocketing health costs for cities and towns, which have been forced to lay off workers and reduce services in the down economy.
The issue has angered union leaders, who say the state is moving toward stripping employees’ collective bargaining rights won over decades. Proponents of the House and Senate measures say they are moderate changes and necessary because unions have resisted past efforts to rein in the high cost of benefits, which are more generous than private-sector benefits, even as cities and towns struggle financially.
Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.
"In social media, discretion rules"
By David Pepose, Berkshire Eagle Staff, June 16, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- It was the tweet that launched a thousand pundits: With one lewd photo and a click, Congressman Anthony Weiner sent his political career into a tailspin becoming the latest casualty when social media goes wrong.
Yet Weiner is not the only one in need of Twitter rehabilitation -- there are plenty of pitfalls even those in the Berkshires can face, because only 140 characters can sometimes still be sharing too much.
"I don’t know that I’ve heard of a tremendous amount of stories that were as sexually explicit as this one with the congressman," said Christina Barrett, who’s taught courses on social media to Berkshire businesses.
Barrett points out that for all of social media’s benefits, it can have its pitfalls -- even in ways that might seem relatively harmless.
When someone posts on his or her Facebook wall something along the lines of "I hate my job" or "My boss is [insert profanity here]," Barrett says that’s going overboard.
"I’m like, what are you thinking?" she said.
Barrett, who works at Berkshire Community College, said she’s had to help students clean up their Facebook and Twitter accounts because of posts that could hinder their careers.
"They can’t understand why they’re not getting jobs," Barrett said. "Lo and behold, they have pictures of them doing a keg stand and they haven’t set [the picture to be] private -- hello!"
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who uses social media to communicate with his constituents, said his philosophy is if you do not feel comfortable saying something in front of a camera, don’t say it on Twitter or Facebook.
"I think one of the great things about social media is it’s another way for elected officials to be accessible," he said. "I think where individuals err is when they think that connection is something more than the connection between the official and the individual they represent."
Berkshires’ online gaffes
Yet Berkshire law and order has not gone undisturbed by online behavior.
Capt. John Mullin of the Pittsfield Police Department said that in 2009, a Pittsfield resident misdialed a number and ended up texting a lewd picture to a high school student.
"It was a violation, but no charges were brought," Mullin said. "They were off by one digit."
In 2009, then-state Rep. Denis Guyer lashed out at fellow state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, in a Facebook post and exposed an apparent rift among the Berkshire delegation. Guyer took issue with a comment Pignatelli made in an Eagle article.
"I have been biting my tongue for four years about his BS ... came to a head today with what he said in that article," Guyer wrote on his Facebook wall. "The happy horse crap ‘we are all one in the delegation’ facade is O V E R."
Guyer later took the post down from Facebook and issued a formal apology to his constituents.
Meanwhile, last year’s race for Berkshire County sheriff sparked controversy over online comments. A District Attorney’s employee and Thomas N. Bowler supporter posted a request on Facebook to pick up campaign signs on state property. Campaigning and government property aren’t supposed to mix.
That snowballed into a full ethics complaint from then-state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, who was running against Bowler for sheriff. The DA employee and Bowler supporter then posted this comment on Facebook, referrring to Bosley, "At this point all I am hearing is whining. Can somebody please get this man a pacifier, a blankey and some diet baby formula for his bah-bah so he can call it a career already?"
Think, then post
In general, Downing said that no matter how good it might feel to write a sarcastic retort using Twitter or Facebook, resisting the urge can ultimately save your online image.
"It’s one thing to think it, but it’s an entirely different thing to do it," Downing said. "Just because you say something on Twitter and Facebook doesn’t make it any less real."
Barrett said that while there are privacy settings that can be implemented to keep Facebook photos and Twitter feeds private, there is really only way to assure that you don’t show off any skeletons in the closet or make a fool of yourself.
"The safest way is not to put it out there. ... That’s really the only way you can protect yourself," she said.
"System penalizes success"
The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, By Ben Downing, July 7, 2011
The rising cost of health care is not a new issue -- for some time policymakers, health care providers, and various other well-intended actors have sought to reduce costs, bend the cost curve, or more generally, fix the problem. These efforts, largely, have come up short. Why? The experience of one our local health systems helps answer that question and shows the challenges Massachusetts faces in reducing costs.
In 2005 Berkshire Medical Center realized its readmission rates for chronic heart failure patients, although slightly below the national average, were not at best U.S. practice. Being a responsible community hospital, BMC went about trying to reduce these rates. Its efforts included updating prescribed medication and enhanced inpatient treatment, but ultimately, it became clear that the most at-risk patients required an intensive and comprehensive approach. A multidisciplinary heart failure program was established at the hospital, where physicians, advanced practice nurses, the visiting nurse association, and support staff worked with patients and families. The team made sure necessary follow-up appointments were scheduled, proper medications were ordered and administered, and that patients and families were educated about healthy lifestyle choices and how to respond to warning signs of worsening heart failure.
Berkshire Medical Center's focus on keeping the highest-cost cardiac patients healthy reduced hospital readmissions, a major driver of costs in the health care system. Unfortunately, these savings are unsustainable because the current health care payment system does not reward this behavior. Based on a complex set of payments made by government agencies, private insurers and individual consumers to hospitals, doctor groups, community health centers and other providers, our health care payment system creates incentives for providers to treat as many patients as possible, instead of rewarding providers who work hard to keep patients healthy. Under this system, BMC actually loses money, while their patients grow healthier.
In an ironic, if not disheartening twist, Berkshire Medical Center's readmission rate for heart failure patients dropped to 18.2 percent in 2008 -- far below the national average of 24.7 percent and equal to the best practices in the nation. Yet this success actually represents a loss of $225,000 in revenue each year for the hospital ($7,500 per readmission). Added to the investments BMC made in the heart failure program, one can see why this well intentioned effort is the rarity and not the norm.
The incentives in our health care system make it virtually impossible to reduce cost. Payments are made based on the amount of care delivered, not the quality of that care, or perhaps most importantly the quality of life achieved for patients. And so we end up with a system that costs more and more, without necessarily improving the health and well being of our communities.
In the coming months, the Massachusetts Senate will focus on the next stage of health care reform -- reducing costs by improving our payment system. My goal in this debate will be to ensure we stabilize or reduce costs by transitioning to a system where efforts like those that BMC has undertaken are rewarded and promoted. This transition will require a commitment from all those involved -- hospitals, doctors, health care workers, business and all levels of government -- to chart a course with the best interest of the public in mind. It will require sacrifices and changes, but the alternative -- soaring costs with no end in sight -- is no alternative at all.
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) serves as the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing believes that certain attitudes that formed after the Sept. 11 attacks have shaped the country’s political and social landscape -- and not necessarily for the better. (Transcript file)
"Sen. Benjamin Downing rails against "new normal" after Sept. 11"
By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript, September 10, 2011
NORTH ADAMS -- In the decade that's followed the Sept. 11 attacks, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing has become wary of the sentiment that the events of that day have predetermined the course of events for Americans.
"There's this idea of the ‘new normal,' that everything would be different after September 11, 2001 and that everything would be different after the financial and economic collapse of the last few years," he said. "I hate that phrase. I hate it because people say it and it has no meaning. I hate it because it sounds as if your future has been determined for you already; that events you had no control over have conspired to say this is what your future will be and that you can't control it in any way, shape or form."
He believes that attitude has shaped the country's political and social landscape.
"If you look at the last 10 years broadly, it seems like the only thing that has been constant is change, and not necessarily change for the better, despite some rays of hope," Downing said. "Our political debate has only gotten more and more coarse. The economy was not perfect at the end the of 1990s, and it has only gotten worse for those left out of the debate. There's been a tendency to assume that events as big as the September 11 attacks put the rest of lives beyond our control."
He said that mentality isn't true, pointing to families who lost loved ones during the attacks, such as Sally and Donald Goodrich of Bennington, Vt., who have turned their tragedy into something positive.
"All you have to do is look around and you can find a lot of great stories about people who went through this incredible tragedy and turned it into a strength, becoming advocates for others," Downing said. "I think when you hear their stories, you realize that positive change has happened because these people are determined to define their own ‘new normal.' So when we hear people say, this is how it is, this is the new normal, we can say, OK, but it's going to be my normal, on my terms, for my community."
It's a theory he applies to his own life, which is vividly marked by the Sept. 11 attacks. Like most Americans, Downing can recall exactly where he was when he learned of the tragedy.
"I was in my on-campus apartment at Bedford Hall, just starting my junior year at Providence College," he said. I remember picking up the phone and my mother was calling. I assumed she was calling to wish me happy birthday. Instead she was calling to tell me to turn on the television. Admittedly, the rest of the day felt like a bed dream, with people walking around campus on cell phones, trying to get through to New York City, to get the most recent information."
Downing, who will celebrate his 30th birthday Sunday, said he can vividly remember his classmates trying to contact their families.
"At Providence, most of the students come from New England, New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania," he said. "Many of my friends and classmates had family that worked in or around the towers and were concerned about their friends and loved ones. It was really a surreal day. We knew things would never be the same, but we'd didn't appreciate how much things would change."
While the events didn't influence his later decision to run for office, Downing said he intensified his interest in understanding the political underpinnings of the wider world and led to him taking more courses in international relations.
"I think something like that day becomes a touchstone in a lot of ways, when you think about your life." he said. "It drew a line for our generation."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Downing to connect with his constituents online"
By Ned Oliver, Berkshire Eagle Staff, October 16, 2011
PITTSFIELD -- The traditional New England town hall meeting is going high-tech.
In what’s being called a first for the Massachusetts Statehouse, Sen. Benjamin B. Downing is hosting a virtual town hall Monday, during which he’ll stream live video of himself answering constituent’s questions received via email, Facebook and Twitter.
Downing, D-Pittsfield, is already an active user of social media, regularly Tweeting and posting Facebook updates from Boston. Likewise, he hosts regular face-to-face meetings in towns and cities across his district.
He said marrying the two activities seemed like a logical way to reach as many constituents as possible across his sprawling district, which is geographically the largest in the state.
"It’s very difficult to get to everyone to talk about the issues that matter to them. This is just a newer way to get to new and different people I otherwise might not hear from," said Downing.
Downing will stream the event from the studios of Pittsfield Community Television from 6 to 7 p.m. It will be facilitated by a yet-to-be-named guest host.
Residents can watch from The Eagle’s website, www.berkshireeagle.com. There is also a link to the event on his website, www.senatordowning.com.
Downing said he sent out a request for questions last week, and said that within a day had already received 15 responses.
Likewise, politically active residents are already seizing on the new opportunity for virtual face-time with their state senator. Anti-wind power group Preserve Lenox Mountain, for example, posted about the event on its website, asking supporters to tune in and broach the issue with Downing, who is an outspoken proponent of alternative energy.
Downing said he looks forward to the conversation. He’s no stranger to constituent interaction -- his staff points out that, since his election, he’s hosted open meetings with constituents in all 48 of the municipalities in his district.
Downing predicts that the new format and virtual venue will catch on and spread to other districts.
"If you told an elected official that there was a way to contact several thousand or several hundred people easily and quickly and on a regular basis, they’d never turn that down. And that’s exactly what this is," he said. "I think at some point, this is going to be something a majority of people do."
"UMass School of Law hosts forum for hard-hit former industrial cities."
By Derek Vital, Herald News Staff Reporter, January 26, 2012
Legal professionals, politicians and community leaders gathered at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School of Law on Thursday for a Gateway Cities Forum sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Gateway Cities are a group of 24 former industrial municipalities in Massachusetts that have a population between 35,000 and 250,000 with an average household income and educational attainment rate below the state average. Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton are among the Gateway Cities in Massachusetts.
The forum tackled issues these cities are struggling with, including how to make their communities more attractive for prospective businesses and educate the work force with 21st century skills.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, co-chair of the Gateway Cities caucus, spoke about how his community has been hit hard by massive layoffs at General Electric during the past 30 years. The company, which provided jobs for between 12,000 and 15,000 people in the Pittsfield area in the 1980s, currently has 400 employees.
Downing said while the greater Boston area is thriving with high-tech companies setting up shop, the Gateway Cities are gettting passed over because people who live in these communities do not possess the skills necessary to work in these fields.
“They are considered a highly skilled work force,” Downing said. “We need to align with our community colleges to develop the work force.”
Gateway Cities caucus co-chair State Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, said legislators are working on incentives for businesses to move into these communities, like increasing the cap on historical tax credits and providing credit for mill redevelopment. He encouraged the Gateway Cities to work together to form a stronger voice at the Statehouse.
“We’ve got a lot of leverage working as a coalition,” Cabral said. “It will help to push our agenda forward.”
Michael Hunter, undersecretary for business development of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said Gov. Deval Patrick is a strong advocate for regional economic development. He emphasized the importance of investing in education, infrastructure and entrepeneurship to combat the loss of manufacturing jobs.
“The alignment between business needs and work force development is critical,” Hunter said. “There are private developers who will reinvest in cities, but they need the critical mass.”
Jim Mathes, executive director of the SMILES Mentoring Program, said that getting students to complete their education is the first step in revitalizing these communities. He explained that an educated workforce is more attractive to a prospective business. He called on accomplished adults to serve as role models for at-risk youth increasing the likelihood they will stay in school.
“Pick something and do it,” Mathes said. “If enough of us do it, that’s how we solve that problem.”
Email Derek Vital at email@example.com.
"Downing bows to Markey, won’t run for Kerry’s seat"
BostonHerald.com - January 11, 2013
Pittsfield state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing said today he will not run in a special election for the U.S. Senate seat expected to be vacated by John Kerry.
Downing, in a statement released this morning, said he had been mulling a run over the past three weeks and had received an “overwhelmingly positive” response from “citizens of all stripes.”
“I wish their faith in me was enough to sustain a campaign, but I know that every consideration — especially financial — must be made before a race of this type is undertaken,” Downing said. “After considering every aspect of a possible campaign, I have determined that I will not be a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the upcoming special election.”
Downing, a Democrat, added that he is excited to stay in his “incredible job, representing the community that has given me every opportunity in life.”
“I look forward to taking an active role in the upcoming campaign to ensure that the next senator represents the values of Massachusetts,” he said.
Downing was among several people said to be considering a stab at the seat, which at the moment officially includes U.S. Rep. Ed Markey. Fellow Democratic Congressmen Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch have also expressed interest, but have made no announcements.
Scott Brown is also said to be eyeing a run, just months after losing his spot in the upper chamber to Elizabeth Warren.
Kerry, who has been nominated for Secretary of State, and Victoria Kennedy have both thrown their support behind Markey. Barney Frank, who has said he is interested in being named interim senator in the run-up to the special election, also backed Markey, saying earlier this week on MSNBC that Markey “should be and will be the next senator.”
"Transforming Gateway cities"
By Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Marty Jones, Special to The Berkshire Eagle, Op-Ed, 9/27/2014
In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on our Yankee ingenuity, turning something small into something great. When Max and Morris Feldberg founded New England Trading Co. in 1919 and sold ladies’ hosiery, they may not have envisioned their venture would become a favorite brand of discount shoppers everywhere, T.J. Maxx. Colonel Ephraim Williams had bequeathed his estate for the founding and support of a free school in West Township -- now the town that bears his name -- without ever thinking it would become one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. And college football fans will long recall the 1984 Hail Mary by Natick’s own Doug Flutie.
So far, Massachusetts has taken the same approach with Gateway Cities, leveraging small investments to revitalize these former industrial centers. We have the resources, but what if we had the framework to act more broadly? To take a step back and see the Beartown State Forest for the trees, making strategic, integrated decisions and investments in development in the commonwealth and, specifically, in Gateway Cities? Thanks to the Legislature and the Patrick administration, we now have that chance.
In August, Gov. Deval Patrick signed economic development legislation that established the Transformative Development Initiative (TDI), a program to catalyze focused and thoughtful development in Gateway Cities.
MassDevelopment, with its finance and real estate experience, will manage the TDI’s $15 million fund and leverage the impact of this new resource by combining it with other MassDevelopment tools that have helped many Massachusetts municipalities, such as brownfields grants, tax-exempt bonds, low-interest loans, and real estate technical assistance services.
TDI has three main components:
* Collaborative workspace grants. The TDI Cowork grant program will provide up to $2 million in matching grants to for-profit and non-profit entities that will own, sponsor, or operate collaborative workspaces -- shared communities that promote innovation, creativity, and interaction. Collaborative workspaces often feature open floor plans and meeting spaces to encourage connections among and between tenants, supporting small, innovative businesses and entrepreneurs.
* Designated development districts. The bulk of the TDI fund will go toward investments and technical assistance in Gateway City "districts" that local public-private partnerships will designate for coordinated economic development efforts. MassDevelopment will boost redevelopment in these districts, encouraging private developers to invest in them as well.
* Economic Development Fellows. MassDevelopment will pilot a Fellows program in three cities. These Fellows will help Gateway Cities by providing them with free expertise, focusing for a three-year period on revitalization of locally designated districts. Fellows will interact with each another to leverage skills in their own group and to share best practices.
While $15 million may seem like a small investment to spread to 26 Gateway Cities, consider that in Pittsfield, a $13,400 loan from the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund helped a private developer assess contamination at the former A.H. Rice Silk Mill, which now boasts 45 units of affordable housing. About $6,500 in brownfields and $50,000 in predevelopment funds also helped revitalize the Colonial Theatre, a vital piece of Pittsfield’s downtown.
In 2012, for roughly $6,000 as part of a partnership with the Urban Land Institute’s Boston chapter, MassDevelopment convened a panel of experts to explore ways to create connections between downtown corridors. After touring the West Street corridor, the panel recommended providing incentives to redevelop land at the corner of West and Edwin streets, expanding the presence of art-related activities, and creating a greenway along West Street from Park Square to the west branch of the Housatonic River behind the Clocktower building.
These projects have gone a long way with small investments from MassDevelopment, but we can do more. The first year of TDI will serve as a test of the initiative, building capacity and strategic focus. Working with a subset of Gateway Cities, MassDevelopment will seek to generate public-private investment and leverage existing assets such as public transit, walkable downtowns, and historic buildings. If the commonwealth chooses to devote more resources to the program in subsequent years, we will have the chance to see the full scale of this program and its ability to make a significant impact.
As Robert Frost -- a Lawrence High School graduate -- observed, "A good book has no ending." Consider TDI the next chapter in the rich histories of Gateway Cities. We look forward to positively shaping this unfolding story.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) represents the 52 western communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. Marty Jones is the president and CEO of MassDevelopment.
"Mischief in the Senate"
The Boston Herald, Editorial, May 6, 2015
There is more mischief afoot from the state Senate — and this time taxpayers have cause to be very afraid.
Under the Massachusetts Constitution money bills — as in proposals to raise taxes — must originate in the House. This year we all slept a little more soundly in our beds when Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo agreed the state budget would include no increases in taxes or fees.
But the House did approve a budget amendment increasing the cap on a tax credit for land conservation from $2 million to $5 million.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who has been using his first year in that post to push the envelope vis a vis the House, now insists that rather innocuous little amendment opens the state budget up to a host of potential hits on state taxpayers. The possibilities are endless — and none of them very pretty.
And tying changes in tax policy to the budget vastly increase the potential for gridlock at the end of the fiscal year.
Already Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) has said he’ll file an amendment to increase the earned income tax credit — something the governor has filed in separate legislation — but also to freeze the current 5.15 percent income tax rate so it never gets lowered back to its targeted 5 percent rate.
See, we told you this could get ugly.
Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton) told State House News Service, “There’s a need for greater investments, so the opportunity for legislators to offer amendments to raise revenues are something that I’m encouraged by and I look forward to that debate.”
When Eldridge is “encouraged” hardworking taxpayers have every reason to be discouraged. Having opened this miserable can of worms, the new Senate president may live to regret its consequences.
"Berkshire lawmakers, citizens celebrate gay marriage ruling"
By Edward Damon, The Berkshire Eagle, June 26, 2015
Berkshire County residents celebrated Friday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as any other couple.
The landmark ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, a 5-4 vote by justices, was the culmination of years of activism and litigation.
"I'm overjoyed," said Jason Verchot, president of the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition. "This was years in the making and a major fight for civil rights, and it all started here in Massachusetts."
He noted an increase in activity in recent years — the overturn of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage act, as well as multiple states allowing same-sex marriage in quick succession.
"Being the first state to legalize it, we started the ball rolling and it gained momentum," Verchot said.
Many took to social media on Friday to show their support for the ruling and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community.
"If you had told me when I was a staffer on Capitol Hill in 2003-04 that this day would come this soon, never would have believed it," state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, tweeted Friday afternoon.
"So long as I serve in public office, not sure I'll ever take a vote as good as one to ensure marriage equality. What a day," a second tweet from Downing said.
"When I came out in 1979, the idea of same-sex marriage was inconceivable," said local activist Ed Sedarbaum, of Williamstown.
Sedarbaum moved from Queens, N.Y., to North Adams in 2003 with his longtime partner, Howard Cruse, after being together for 24 years. They married soon after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage the same year.
They married, he said, to be part of history and for fiscal and legal protections that would be important as they aged — and in defiance of the Bush administration.
But he said things were much different when he was growing up and facing homophobia in the 1950s and 1960s and in the trenches as a gay activist in the 1970s.
"[Same-sex marriage] was nowhere on the political radar," Sedarbaum said. "We were still trying to prove we were getting attacked and murdered more than the general population and asking for protection, and we were getting nowhere with it."
Sedarbaum, 69, had founded a LGBTQ senior center in Queens in the late 1990s. There are many elderly individuals who lived in fear of someone discovering their homosexuality and only came out later in life.
"This decision really makes me think of people who went through the worst of it," Sedarbaum said.
Both Sedarbaum and Verchot are quick to note that the ruling is not an end to homophobia or discrimination. The country still doesn't have an employment nondiscrimination act and there are 32 states without employee protection rights, meaning an employer can fire someone for being LGBTQ.
"I don't know when this will eventually end," Verchot said. "It will be an ongoing issue that will constantly be fought. Luckily, there are people to stand up and willing to do that."
Contact Ed Damon at 413-770-6979. firstname.lastname@example.org @BE_EDamon on Twitter.
“Lawmakers tour Berkshire farms to hear their joys, plights”
By Phil Demers, The Berkshire Eagle, June 26, 2015
GREAT BARRINGTON - Pastoral farmland with grazing animals adorns many Berkshire hills, indeed makes up part of the county's identity, but this should not be taken for granted.
Farms depend on the economic health of farmers — health then paid forward to consumers in fresh, affordable, locally grown produce.
To get an idea of farmers' joys, hopes and, most importantly, pains, a battery of local and regional politicians — among them state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams — spent Friday touring Berkshire farms in a bus.
Sky Farm on Locust Hill Road — a sheep farm with nearly 500 livestock — was one of the stops.
Operator Lila Berle, 78, told the officials an encouraging growth in numbers among young farmers locally and nationally needs to be spurred on with legislation.
The Berkshires, Berle said, is becoming a "destination for food."
To keep the county headed in that direction, she suggested "keeping the land open" via new legislation resembling the Community Preservation Act, except specifically geared to benefit farmers.
Heavy up-front capital costs present a challenge to young farmers. Such a law could help communities buy up land and lease it to small-time farmers.
"Young people don't have the money to buy land, never mind land and equipment," Berle said. "I think this is the answer."
Berle pointed to three $3 million homes on land adjacent to her farm. She sought to expand her farm but was barred by cost-prohibitive prices set by the owners. Now, the land sits unused by the owners of the mansions, who only live in them a few months per year.
Downing agreed that such laws and more need to be considered.
"It's a capital-intensive industry to get into," Downing said.
Friday's bus trip — an idea a few years in the making — helped bring the issue to light for lawmakers, Downing said.
"We deal so much with the theoretical, seeing the actual really gets you thinking more about ways to help," he said.
Other stops on the tour included Sheffield dairy operation Balsam Hill Farm, Farm Girl Farm and Equinox Farm, also in Sheffield, Egremont's Turner Farms and more.
A Massachusetts Farm Bureau handout identified several pieces of legislation in the Massachusetts House of Representatives that would improve the lots of farmers and those looking to get into farming.
One proposed bill, HB 3507, would change the estate tax law to exempt inherited farmland so that it can stay as farmland. Oftentimes the tax effectively forces farmland into development because the inheritors are forced to sell some or all of it.
Another proposed bill, HB 711, would put oversight of slaughter, cutting and packing within the state Department of Agricultural Resources — as opposed to present oversight by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in order to better streamline the process and meet a growing demand for local meat. Despite the demand, livestock numbers have decreased 13 percent in Massachusetts in the last five years.
Only two red meat USDA inspecting facilities and zero USDA poultry inspecting facilities exist in Massachusetts.
Others among the proposed bills deal with honeybees, plumbing on agricultural facilities, livestock well-being and restricting the ability of local boards of health to impede farmers.
"We're thrilled that the legislators came out to see the farms because agriculture is key to commonwealth's economy," Berkshire Grown Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin said. "There's no better way to understand the impact than to see if firsthand."
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214. email@example.com @BE_PhilD on Twitter.
“Bill by state Sen. Benjamin Downing, ballot initiatives target health insurance payments”
By Jim Therrien, The Berkshire Eagle, August 22, 2015
PITTSFIELD - Proposed legislation and a ballot initiative both seek to reduce high insurance payments to larger hospital groups while boosting revenue to struggling community hospitals in Massachusetts.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, has filed legislation that would regulate the maximum and minimum level of insurance payments from private insurers to hospitals. He said Senate bill S-574, "An Act Relative to Equitable Health Care Pricing," aims to reduce the often much higher reimbursement rates larger institutions have negotiated from insurance carriers, while simultaneously setting minimum reimbursements for all institutions.
And the United Healthcare Workers East, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 52,000 mostly non-medical hospital workers in Massachusetts, has developed two related versions of a state ballot question. Based on Downing's bill, the initiatives would set similar insurance payment caps and minimum payments. The goal is to place a question before voters on the November 2016 state election ballot.
Downing said he's been interested in the issues of reducing high health care costs and supporting community hospitals since the former North Adams Regional Hospital filed for bankruptcy protection to reorganize in 2011. The hospital emerged from that crisis, but it abruptly closed in March 2014 as its debts again mounted.
Since the insurance industry was deregulated in the early 1990s, Downing said, discrepancies have developed between the payments larger institutions can negotiate with insurance carriers and those of community hospitals with much less negotiating power. Some smaller institutions are struggling to survive, he said, and could face the same fate as the former North Adams hospital.
"It is tough to justify these discrepancies," he said of the payment differences.
According to figures released in a statement by 1199-SEIU, the largest care networks, like Partners HealthCare and South Shore Medical Center, have been able to negotiate payments from private insurance companies that sometimes are more than twice as high as for the same procedure at a smaller hospital.
The effect of the legislation and the ballot initiative would be in setting a ceiling on payments for Partners HealthCare and other large networks at no more than 20 percent above the statewide average for the procedure or treatment, and a floor payment level for all hospitals — at 90 percent of the average for all institutions.
According to cost figures cited by the union, the insurance payment for a similar treatment, such as for a heart attack, can be more than twice as high at a Partners HealthCare affiliated hospital than at a smaller hospital.
In addition to saving consumers millions statewide on insurance premium payments and health care costs, supporters contend revenue to the financially stressed community hospitals would increase, and groups like Partners HealthCare would have an adequate but more reasonable revenue stream when compared to other institutions.
"Community hospitals are the economic engines for many of our cities and towns, but they are being shortchanged as the crisis caused by these payment inequities worsens," said Veronica Turner, executive vice president of 1199-SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, in a release. "When it comes to hospitals in Massachusetts, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It's a pattern that is jeopardizing the future of the hospitals that most Massachusetts patients depend on for both emergency and preventative care. The time for reform is now."
According to a union spokesman, there are 47 hospitals in the state that could be considered community hospitals, and together they support tens of thousands of employees.
When NARH abruptly closed, more than 500 jobs were lost, although some of those positions have returned as Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield expanded its health care services to Northern Berkshire by creating a campus at the former North Adams hospital site.
Downing said his bill would be revenue neutral for Berkshire Medical Center, in part because it is a rural hospital and is in some cases the only facility in the region capable of providing some services.
According to a press release from 1199-SEIU, "specialty, disproportionate share and geographically isolated hospitals would be exempted from the initiative's price cap, although some will benefit from the bill's price floor."
Officials with Berkshire Health Systems, which operates Berkshire Medical Center, could not be reached in time for comment on the legislation and initiatives.
Jeff Hall, communications director for 1199-SEIU, said the regulatory proposals would result in at least a slight revenue increase for nearly every hospital except for Partners Health Care, the largest, and South Shore Medical Center.
What would "be their spare change" at Partners HealthCare, he said, could help a community hospital to survive.
The legislation "is not a criticism of the quality of work they do," Hall said, but an attempt to address an imbalance in the current system.
Large groups like Partners HealthCare "haven't done anything wrong," Downing said, "but the framework we have is out of whack."
He added that, while he understands some hospitals have concerns about the legislation, "I think that, generally speaking, [officials understand] we have to rein in health care costs. I hope that if they don't like this proposal, that is not the end of the discussion."
Hall said of the legislation, "Senator Downing deserves a lot of credit for stepping up on this."
A hearing on the bill is expected to be held in September before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, Hall said.
A spokesman for Partners HealthCare referred all comment on the issue to the Massachusetts Hospital Association.
MHA Executive Vice President and General Counsel Tim Gens said Friday in a written statement: "The MHA board of trustees examined the bill filed by SEIU on this issue and voted to oppose it. The board represents every category of hospital throughout the commonwealth. The board's position was based on several reasons, including opposition to government regulation of hospital reimbursement rates either generally or at a time when Chapter 224 [which was enacted in 2012 and seeks to reduce health care costs through "increased transparency, efficiency and innovation"] has not had an opportunity to be fully implemented; and opposition to the specific proposal put forward by SEIU because its design is seriously flawed and would create more problems than it could attempt to solve."
Gens added that the differences in wording among the two initiatives and the legislation illustrate the complex nature of the issue. "Even those proposing the bill and petitions can't agree on the correct course," he said. "Placing such a complex issue before the voters won't make the proposals any less complex or choices wiser."
Hall said the union has prepared two versions of the proposed ballot initiative, and stakeholders on the issue are expected to work toward agreement on a single version. Principal differences, he said, are that a second version would include under the regulation large physician groups that negotiate contracts with insurance carriers and would have a more gradual phase-in period.
Under the first version and the legislation, the regulation would take effect in 2017.
The change would not affect Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Administration or other government insurance systems, only private health insurance contracts with health care providers.
Such legislation would be the first of its kind in the nation, Hall said, although other states are considering similar regulation.
Under Downing's legislation, the state Health Policy Commission would review contracts for compliance to the regulation.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247. firstname.lastname@example.org @BE_therrien on Twitter.
"Cozy hospital reimbursement system must be reformed"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, August 28, 2015
A contributor to rising health care costs and unfair inequities in Massachusetts is the ability of large hospital groups to throw their weight around. That needs to change.
State Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, has filed legislation to regulate the maximum and minimum level of insurance payments made by insurers to hospitals (Eagle, August 23.) Larger institutions use their power in the health care market to negotiate higher reimbursement rates from insurers, giving them a significant advantage over smaller hospitals like those in the Berkshires.
Two unions representing health care workers in the state are planning to put a related question on the November, 2016 ballot based on Senator Downing's bill. Given lawmakers' desire to avoid being told what to do by referendum, this givens them a powerful incentive to act on the Downing bill.
This imbalance is a by-product of the misguided deregulation of the insurance industry in the 1990s and is certainly a contributor to the financial problems that afflict small community hospitals like the former North Adams Regional Hospital. When big hospitals get more insurance money than their counterparts to perform the same operations, for example, they profit at the expense of smaller hospitals critical to the economies of small communities while driving up health care costs for everyone.
The Downing bill, which will be heard next month, has a tough road ahead. The influential Massachusetts Hospital Association, allying itself with the big hospitals and groups, is already opposed to the bill and the referendum initiative. This expensive and transparently unfair process, however, cannot be allowed to continue.
Sen. Ben Downing: "A great opportunity for Pittsfield's first 4-year mayor"
By Sen. Ben Downing, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, September 12, 2015
PITTSFIELD - For the first time in our city's history, Pittsfield voters will head to the polls this fall to elect a mayor who will serve for four years. Doubling the mayor's term gives our next chief executive the opportunity to take a longer view in charting the city's course. My hope is that in doing so the candidates focus on an issue often left to candidates running in national, federal and statewide campaigns — poverty.
According to the federal Census, the poverty rate in Massachusetts (11.9 percent) is lower than the national rate (15.8 percent), but still up significantly since before the Great Recession (9.9 percent). In the Berkshires, the poverty rate approaches the national rate (14 percent), but there is great variation throughout the region.
The poverty rate fluctuates as you compare communities located in north, central or southern Berkshire County. However, the poverty rates also vary within individual communities, especially in Pittsfield.
As the Census divides Pittsfield into 11 tracts, it is striking to see poverty rates across these neighborhoods ranging from 4 percent to 40.1 percent. While three neighborhoods enjoy poverty rates well below the national and state averages, and four others trend towards the average, most concerning are the four remaining neighborhoods with poverty rates well above the state and national averages. Ranging from 23.6 percent to 40.1 percent, these poorest sections of Pittsfield border one another, making up the Westside, Morningside, Downtown and the north end of the city.
If the current mayoral race follows the form of previous elections, there will be much debate about economic development, public safety and education, but there will be little, if any, discussion about poverty. If this happens Pittsfield will have missed an opportunity to move the dial on those previously mentioned issues and so much more. Poverty isn't the sole cause of our economic problems, crime or educational challenges. However it certainly plays a massive role in each and hinders our ability to address them in a significant way.
In 2014, three of the 10 public elementary and middle schools serving the city's students were classified by the state as "Level 3" in 2014, meaning they require technical assistance. All three schools are located in high-poverty neighborhoods. The residents of these neighborhoods also deal with a greater threat of crime, as has been evidenced by recent violence, and see less positive economic activity in their immediate community.
Poverty isn't an issue of Pittsfield's making, nor can it be solved by municipal action alone. Two new state laws — increasing the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-income families — will make an impact as they are implemented, but much more must be done. Similarly, the federal government must be a partner in our efforts to eradicate poverty.
But if we really want to reduce poverty, and associated negative social impacts, it's key that our next mayor understands they can and should supplement federal and state initiatives with anti-poverty measures of their own.
A newly elected mayor, having discussed these issues throughout the campaign, can immediately engage local business and community leaders from private and non-profit sectors to tackle poverty. Steps can be taken to merge the Westside and Morningside Initiatives together into a new community development corporation (CDC), separate from City Hall, focused on community economic development and advocacy. Both initiatives have done great work, but they require independence from city government to push for policies and programs that will impact their neighborhoods. Additionally, the state Community Investment Tax Credit could supply additional resources to their efforts, but a CDC is required for eligibility.
A mayor focused on poverty can engage directly with our city's major employer, Berkshire Health Systems, which physically sits in the center of these neighborhoods, to address both the root causes of poverty and its outcomes. BHS's work with the Canyon Ranch Institute and the general trend towards "population health" focused care presents an opportunity to engage deeply with neighborhoods with a prevalence of negative health indicators, costing families precious resources.
In the long-term, these neighborhoods, through a new CDC or with Berkshire Community College and the Pittsfield Public Schools, can more actively and directly develop pipelines for children to be trained for jobs at the health system, or providing services to the system.
A mayor focused on poverty can help these neighborhoods take advantage of both their human capital, and their beautiful natural resources, as well. Making the Westside Riverway Project a reality should be a priority for the community. A rehabbed riverway would connect Pitt Park with other parks along the West Branch of the Housatonic. The riverway would serve as a sight for local food vendors, while city officials engaged with local non-profits and business would ramp up after school programming in the parks.
Finally, a mayor focused on poverty can help reconnect the city economically and socially. The high poverty neighborhoods the census data highlights are also the most racially and ethnically diverse in Pittsfield. Too often, their residents have felt left out of efforts to improve the city and help it transition into the future. A reinvigorated regional chapter of the NAACP and others are working to rectify this, and City Hall should welcome their efforts.
Regardless of who wins City Hall this fall, poverty will still be a challenge in Pittsfield in 2016, as will economic development, public safety and public education. The question voters must answer this fall is who they want to steer our City in the right direction.
My answer is we need a leader to stare the problem of poverty directly in the face and start tackling it on day one. Eradicating poverty will take more than one initiative. Yet, the only way for Pittsfield to truly be great is to focus on implementing viable solutions. This election gives our city a great opportunity. I hope the candidates and the public take it.
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing, a lifelong Pittsfield resident, represents the 52 Western Massachusetts communities in the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District. He serves as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy. This is his fifth term in the Massachusetts Senate.
Adam Hinds and Sherwood Guernsey: “Income inequality a Berkshire problem”
By Adam Hinds and Sherwood Guernsey, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, October 8, 2015
NORTH ADAMS - Berkshire County can feel removed from the national discussion on income inequality. But related shifts in the local economy impact opportunities for working families and workers on the margins. Strong measures to counter these trends are critical for the region and our country.
The underlying problem is not simply that the super rich get richer. It's that we are not addressing poverty and a changing economy that leaves people and communities behind.
In one local example, KB Toys was once amongst the country's largest toy retailers. It employed up to 500 people in Pittsfield before Bain Capital bought it in 2000. Bain spent $18 million and borrowed nearly $300 million for the deal. Sixteen months later the toy company borrowed more money to pay Bain partners an $85 million dividend. The heavy debt burden meant store closures and 3,400 layoffs countrywide. KB Toys filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004.
This highlights the devastating shift from local companies invested in the community (the Kaufman brothers founded KB Toys in Pittsfield in 1922) towards consolidated companies participating in a global economy. The latter are more likely to transfer management or manufacturing elsewhere. Middle and upper class jobs leave while a diminished tax base and economy remain. And we all know the examples of GE and Sprague.
It also demonstrates the choice to shift unprecedented profits to the top while the rest of America experiences a decade of wage stagnation. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says, that's not the result of natural market forces, that's a choice by CEOs and legislators.
The Berkshires have lost 78 percent of manufacturing jobs since 1970. Retail trade and hospitality jobs helped replace them, but often at one-third the wage. The result is close to the minimum wage, which unfortunately is a poverty wage. The Massachusetts minimum wage equals $19,000 a year while the federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,000. The Ma. Economic Independence Index indicates on adult living in Berkshire County with a pre-school and school aged child needs $53,544 to make ends meet.
The minimum wage simply has not kept pace with inflation or productivity. A full-time minimum wage worker still earns less than in 1968 (adjusted for inflation). If the minimum wage kept pace with productivity it would be over $18 per hour. You can see why the middle class is shrinking.
A bifurcated economy has resulted with more jobs created at the high and low ends of the job market with fewer in the middle. Those with the ability to leave to follow the jobs that left may have done so, while others closer to low tier jobs are more likely to stay. One result is an increase in neighborhoods with a concentration of poverty that passes to the next generation. And increased poverty brings more instability and more crime, a big concern in Pittsfield.
Children are particularly impacted by the negative impact of growing up in areas with a concentration of poverty; 62 percent of North Adams students and 59 percent in Pittsfield are considered low income. They can face increased levels of stress, may move frequently or change schools — each possibly leading to emotional and behavioral problems. As a result, kids from households with low-income have shown they are more likely to score lower on standardized tests, repeat a grade, drop out of school, experience violent crime or give birth as a teenager.
In short, a child who starts behind is likely to end up behind. Parental income has proven a predictor of a child's income, and inter-generational economic mobility has decreased as inequality has increased. It is indefensible that a parent's wealth determines a child's opportunity in Berkshire County or America.
A range of action is needed to help break the cycle of poverty and bring disconnected populations into the economy. At the structural level continued efforts to elevate the minimum wage are critical for lifting people out of poverty. State Sen. Ben Downing's determination to increase the state's Earned Income Tax Credit also boosts income while encouraging work.
Participation in labor unions is often critical since unions traditionally raise low middle class wages to the middle class. Yet the conversation must also go beyond funding existing programs or adjusting tax structure. In the next segment, we will explore in more detail local pockets of disconnected workers and what is one key element to reach them.
You can join a community conversation on this topic at the next Northern Berkshire Community Coalition Forum today (Oct. 9) at 10 a.m. at 131 Main Street in North Adams. For more information contact Adam at email@example.com.
This column is the first of a two-part series on the local impact of income inequality and residents disconnected from the economy. Adam Hinds is the executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. Sherwood Guernsey is a local attorney and former state representative.
“State Sen. Benjamin Downing won't seek election this fall”
By Jenn Smith, The Berkshire Eagle, January 25, 2016
PITTSFIELD — After 10 years of service, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing announced Monday that he will not seek re-election for his seat this fall.
Downing, 34, said he has no current plans to seek any other political post or to lobby for candidates in any race.
"It's been 10 years. I always said I wanted to do 10 years," he said. "It's just time for something new."
The Pittsfield Democrat met with a small group of reporters in his North Street district office Monday to share the decision he disclosed to family members, friends and close colleagues over the weekend.
"My first plan is to serve out the term. I don't have anything lined up. I think it's important, I made a commitment to voters and I plan on fulfilling that commitment," said Downing, who then took another 30 minutes to reflect on his tenure, from his decision as a graduate school student to run for office, to becoming a well-respected and industrious legislator among his ranks.
Among his priorities for the remainder of his time in office are pushing the agenda on clean energy, including net metering solar; expanding broadband connections throughout his district and the commonwealth; and securing rights and policies to protect and serve transgender constituents.
Downing, who is Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, was first elected in November 2006 and will complete his fifth and final term at the end of the year.
He said he's proud of the progress he's made as an elected official, from helping to secure investments in public higher education, including the multi-million dollar Center for Science and Innovation at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, to solving smaller issues brought to the cafe tables of the more than 80 "coffee and conversations" he's held with townspeople throughout his district.
While he said he's looking to back away from politics for the time being, he's not closing the door entirely.
"But I'm not just going to run because I want something," he said. "Trust me, I'm ambitious. I'm just 34."
Regardless of the what the future holds, the senator expressed great fondness for the Berkshires and beyond. The district, which includes Berkshire County and parts of Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties is the largest Senate district in the state.
"I will never stop believing in the possibility and potential of this region," he said. "My heart will always be here."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239. firstname.lastname@example.org @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter.
“Downing is third influential Dem to eye life beyond Senate”
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service, January 25, 2016
BOSTON - With a decision that surprised many of his colleagues, Sen. Benjamin Downing, a rising star in state Democratic politics, said Monday he would not seek a sixth term this fall, adding his name to the list of experienced and influential lawmakers leaving the Senate at a time of flux for the chamber and its new leadership team.
At just 34-years-old, Downing's age belies the level of experience he brings to the job of representing a vast swath of the western part of the state, including all of Berkshire County. The Pittsfield Democrat has made himself the Senate's go-to person on energy issues.
"It's a little bit shocking," Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said on Monday, reacting to Downing's news. "It's going to be a big loss."
Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, said Monday he was "stunned" when told by a reporter that this would be Downing's last year. "He's been a great senator," he said.
Downing's decision could further test new Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who will have to partially remake the team that helped get him elected to the post in 2015 and advised him through the beginning of his leadership tenure.
Anthony Petruccelli, another experienced young Democrat and close friend of Downing's, left the Senate last week for a lobbying job, and Sen. Dan Wolf of Harwich, another member of Rosenberg's leadership team, previously announced his plans not to seek re-election.
"He will be sorely missed. He's a very effective legislator, well-respected in the body and he doesn't speak often but when he does he really influences the direction of the debate in the caucus and on the floor," Rosenberg said.
Downing plans to serve out the remainder of his term through the end of the year, important months as he leads the Senate effort to negotiate a compromise solar bill with the House and will likely become the point-person on any effort later this year to pass comprehensive energy reform legislation.
"It's been 10 years. I always said I wanted to do 10 years. It's just time for something new," Downing told the News Service Monday morning.
Without accounting for any other senators who might choose to leave or wind up unsuccessful in their re-election bids, the Senate will enter 2017 with at least 14 of its 40 members having less than five years of experience. The known departures also come from senators not approaching the end of their careers, but from younger party leaders arguably entering their prime.
Rosenberg said that, with the exception of Wolf, everyone leaving the Senate has served at least 10 years — the natural lifespan of a state legislator.
"When people leave it's really hard, because the new people come in. They've got all the energy and excitement, but they don't have the insitutional memory. They don't have the experience in the Senate. ... But make no mistake, everyone in the Senate is fully engaged and these three will certainly be missed but the bench is very deep," Rosenberg said.
Downing's departure does not foreclose a return to politics, and could even better position him for a run for higher office in the future, depending on what he does next. Downing said he doesn't yet know what the future has in store, and will instead be focused on finishing his term through December before turning the page.
The Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Downing's legislative career has been focused on energy and environmental policy, along with efforts to bring high-speed Internet to the Berkshires.
He has also taken on elevated roles in party politics, tapped by fellow senator and Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Thomas McGee in 2014 to be the party's coordinated campaign chairman, working around the state to support Democrats up and down the ballot.
Forry said that the loss of Downing, Wolf and Petruccelli would mean that Rosenberg will have to put together a new team next session to replace the "immeasurable" contributions of a trio that she credited with being able to "build coalitions" within the body to get priority legislation moving.
Downing is a well-known name in the Berkshires. Not only has he represented the county for almost 10 years in the Senate, but his father Gerard Downing worked for 13 years as Berkshire County district attorney before he died in office from a heart attack in 2003.
Once considered a probable strong contender to succeed his one-time boss John Olver in Congress, that window closed on Downing during the last round of redistricting when Olver timed his retirement to the redrawing of district boundaries that saw Olver's district combined with that of incumbent Democrat Richard Neal of Springfield, now the dean of the Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House.
Downing also hinted that the back-and-forth travel between Pittsfield and Boston had begun to take its toll.
"I will never stop believing in the possibility and potential of this region. My heart will always be here," Downing said in his announcement.
Brownsberger downplayed the notion that there might be institutional reasons for several high-profile Democrats deciding to leave the Senate either mid-term or at the end of the year. "I don't detect that. I think those are all individual factors," Brownsberger said.
While a special election will be held in May to replace Petruccelli, Wolf's Cape and Islands district seat and Downing's district appear on track for wide open races in November with no incumbent on the ballot.
Five current House members live within the borders of the district, including four in Berkshire County and one in Hampshire County. Making that choice, however, would come with the risk of giving up relatively safe seats in the House.
Rep. Gailanne Cariddi of North Adams, Tricia Farley Bouvier of Pittsfield, Paul Mark of Peru and William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox all live within the district in Berkshire County, while Rep. Stephen Kulik of Worthington newly found himself in the district in 2012 after redistricting.
"I've known Sen. Downing for a long time. I think he's a really good guy and a really good public servant. We obviously don't agree on everything but that's kind of beside the point. I think he's done a terrific job of serving the people of Berkshire County and I think he will be a difficult guy to replace," Gov. Charlie Baker said.
“Downing built a solid legacy”
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, January 26, 2016
The makeup of the Berkshire legislative delegation, largely static for years, will get a shake-up this November with the departure of state Senator Benjamin Downing.
The Pittsfield Democrat's announcement Monday that he will not seek a sixth two-year term dismayed colleagues who have come to respect him for his quiet leadership. He will be difficult to replace — and the process of replacing him is likely to lead to races in the House that may not have emerged otherwise.
State Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who told The Eagle he tried to talk Mr. Downing out of his decision, said he will consider a run for the Senate. As dean of the Berkshire delegation, the Lenox Democrat would be a solid candidate. State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, will also consider a bid. Pittsfield City Councilor Chris Connell recently announced he will run for the Pittsfield House seat.
Senator Downing has made his mark in a number of areas, perhaps most notably in energy and the environment, which are particularly critical to his sprawling, 52-town district. He will surely continue the good fight to raise the net-metering cap hindering progress in the solar industry. He has also been a leader in bringing broadband access to his rural communities. His key role in state Democratic Party politics attests to his progressive credentials and the high regard of his colleagues.
Senator Downing is a political veteran, but at 34, still a young man. A run for US Congress against First District Democrat Richard Neal would be a challenge given Representative Neal's strong Springfield base but such a bid from Mr. Neal's left could have an intriguing Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton dynamic. Regardless, Benjamin Downing has a lot to offer in the public arena and we are confident he will be heard from again.
Justapawninabigworld wrote: “Let’s see Berkshire County has a smaller population, major companies have left the area, stores are closing at the mall, crime is up, good jobs are hard to find, more people are on welfare, school budgets are out of control and school choice and tuition is a burden to school districts, however the government has grown, there are more non-profits looking for handouts and a hospital is closed. Nice ten years if you set the bar lower than an anthill.”
Lee Harrison: “Many good reasons for trusting Hillary”
By Lee Harrison, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, 2/19/2016
WILLIAMSTOWN - The Republican Party that existed during my youth, one that included Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and Sen. Edward Brooke is long dead. Clearly, it's no longer the Party of Lincoln. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that when it comes to the 21st century GOP, the inmates have taken over the asylum. Heck, even Richard Nixon looks like a liberal compared to these guys. So, it's not a reach to say we need a tough, experienced hand in the White House to counter both the outrages and utter foolishness of today's Republican Party.
I trust Hillary Rodham Clinton to be that person.
WEATHERED IT ALL
I trust her because there is nothing that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb(!) can throw at her that their predecessors haven't. For 25 years, Hillary has weathered a tsunami of insults and false charges ranging from drug dealing to real estate fraud — even murder — and she's withstood it all. As Salon magazine said of Ken Starr's effort to criminalize the Clintons: "The independent counsel's pathetic final report reveals what a travesty the right wing's get-Clinton crusade was."
Of course, the real travesty is that this circus continues to this day, not only with the ridiculous Benghazi hearings, which rivaled Starr's circus investigation — and which revealed Hillary's intelligence, humor, and resilience — but also with charges that she sent classified emails over a non-secure system. Of course, most accounts fail to relate the fact that when she sent the materials they weren't classified but were later deemed top secret. The real story is about "the craziness and excesses of the classification system," as The New York Times' Paul Krugman says. But Hillary is made of sterner stuff and still isn't giving in to the charlatans.
And because of her toughness and experience, I trust Hillary's ability to make working people's lives better. Let's start with healthcare. While I'd prefer a single-payer/Medicare for All system, it's simply not possible in today's world. A Republican Congress is not about to do a 180 and embrace it.
Teddy Roosevelt proposed universal healthcare in 1912, and Obama finally delivered something very close — not just to Teddy's idea but also to Hillary's 2008 plan. And Hillary will make it even better because her proposals to lower prescription drug costs and out-of-pocket expenses are actually achievable. Remember, today's Social Security is far more comprehensive than FDR passed in 1935, but that improvement took years because progress comes slowly in a center-right country.
I trust Hillary to assert control over Wall St. She knows it's not just that some banks are "too big to fail." There's a whole area of "shadow banking" where large nonbank corporations exert tremendous influence over the financial system, and they need to be reined in.
I trust Hillary to reduce income inequality, not only by raising taxes on the richest 1 percent but also by putting Americans to work rebuilding our long-neglected infrastructure: roads, bridges, schools, sewer and water systems, airports, commuter rail, etc. Such a program would have helped America to recover from the Great Recession quicker and prepared us to compete in the 21 century, but Republicans thwarted it at every turn. Hillary will make it happen.
And yes, I trust Hillary to make changes in campaign finance law. Citizens United is an abomination — another shaky 5 to 4 vote that surely will be overturned because it is inconsistent with democracy — and Hillary has said she will appoint Supreme Court Justices who agree. She will also push to make all political donations public.
There are other reasons I trust Hillary. She's strong on education, immigration reform, protecting Social Security and Medicare, voting rights, and more. And I see her quarter-century as a public figure as a strength, not a weakness. No, she can't campaign as an outsider, but the scars she's gained from hard experience in public life has toughened her and taught her how to distinguish between what is possible now and what will take a little longer.
And while Hillary's campaign is not poetry, it is the prose of real life, and because of it I trust her ability to make the most of a very broken political system. I hope you will, too. Vote for Hillary on March 1.
Lee Harrison is a member of the Democratic State Committee.
Democrat Andrea Harrington formally launches her campaign for state Senate Tuesday at the Public Market in West Stockbridge. (Ben Garver — The Berkshire Eagle | photos.berkshireeagle.com)
“State Senate candidate Harrington launches bid for Democratic nomination”
By Jim Therrien, The Berkshire Eagle, 3/8/2016
PITTSFIELD - Standing before her family's market in West Stockbridge, attorney Andrea Harrington on Tuesday formally launched her campaign for the state Senate.
"I am running because our district needs a state senator who is invested in this district," she said. "A senator who has experienced the triumphs and the challenges of raising a family in this community. Our district needs a senator who is committed to leading this district through more than just a few elections."
The Richmond resident noted that she "grew up here in the Berkshires — right down the road. I went to Pittsfield public schools. My family has been in the Berkshires for generations — working for Sprague Electric and GE, and as farmers, carpenters and housekeepers. In my family, you simply worked hard."
In the race to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who is not seeking another term, Harrington thus far will face Buckland native Adam Hinds, executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and former coordinator of the Pittsfield Community Connection program for youth at risk of gang influences and violence.
Harrington said following the morning announcement outside the Public Market, which her husband, Timothy Walsh, operates, that she and campaign manager Gregory Maynard, of Cambridge, are planning a flurry of activity to meet voters in the 52-community Berkshire-Franklin-Hampshire-Hampden Senate district.
She said her campaign website will be up within a few days, along with a Facebook page.
The candidate plans to attend "quite a number" of meet-and-greet events at private homes, public gatherings and various venues, and she will attend Democratic Party caucuses in as many communities as possible. Harrington said she wants to make a point of visiting the many hilltowns in the district.
"Thanks to my grandparents and my parents' hard work, I have had opportunities that they did not enjoy," she said in her remarks. "I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. Then I became the first person in my family to go to law school."
Harrington's law practice has focused on family law, divorce and criminal defense. She joined the Great Barrington firm of Hellman Shearn & Arienti in January.
She also is a mother with two young children in local schools. A decade ago, she said she returned to the Berkshires to raise a family, after obtaining her law degree and working in other states.
"After law school, I worked in Florida overturning death penalty convictions,' Harrington said. "It was grueling work, and it brought me face to face with some of the worst problems in our criminal justice system. But the work also gave me hope that with a fighting spirit, and with the right kind of people, we can make things better."
She said she brings to her legal cases a spirit "that there is a solution to the effects of long-term economic decline," adding, "I have never given up on the chance that a client can overcome substance abuse, because I have seen people recover from addiction when they are given the hope and the tools that they need."
She advocated "protecting our children from the drug pushers that are preying on them," along with "early diagnosis and treatment for mental illness and learning disabilities," and "access to high-quality preschool and elementary and secondary programs, afterschool programs, mentoring and high-tech vocational programs that will give our children the skills they need to succeed.
"It is hope in a brighter future that will solve our most difficult problems," she said. "I believe that there are a lot of people like me and my husband that want their kids to have the opportunity to return to this district to raise their families as part of a vibrant community."
Concerning her work with the advisory board of the BerkShares Inc. program, Harrington said, "I worked on innovative ways to keep more local dollars in our communities, and to capture more of the dollars that come through our district from tourism."
She said "the shift of just 3 percent in our spending back into Berkshire County could generate an additional $50 million in economic impact."
BerkShares focuses on supporting local business, growing entrepreneurship and a new community-supported industry program.
Harrington is a 2003 graduate of American University's Washington College of Law, who returned to the area in 2007 after practicing in Florida as a commercial litigator in a Miami law firm. She later represented Florida death row inmates in postconviction appeals in state and federal courts.
She is a 1993 graduate of Taconic High School in Pittsfield and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Washington.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247. email@example.com @BE_therrien on Twitter.
Our Opinion: “By bill or ballot, hospital payment issue must be confronted”
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorial, 3/10/2016
The wealth disparity between the state's wealthiest hospitals and community hospitals may be addressed by a ballot question. Foes may want to act in advance.
The referendum, backed by the Service Employees International Union, would address stark payment disparities between teaching hospitals and their lower-priced competitors by redistributing the wealth. The measure still needs to collect more signatures to make it on the November 8 ballot in Massachusetts.
Studies by the state Health Policy Commission and the office of Attorney General Maura Healey have found that some health care providers, generally the largest, are paid more than their competitors for providing essentially the same services and the same level of care. As the larger hospitals serve more patients, paying them this extra amount of money raises health care costs for everyone.
Partners Health Care, the parent company of Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals in Boston and the state's biggest and most costly health system, would lose more than $400 million annually if the measure is approved, according to The Boston Globe. It opposes the question, of course, as does the influential Massachusetts Hospital Association. At a public hearing on Beacon Hill Tuesday, the for-profit Steward Health Care System, which would get an additional $21 million annually, endorsed the measure. At the hearing, Steward spokesperson Kim Bassett said the union's plan "may not be the ideal approach" but it would address the significant issue of low payments to community hospitals.
It isn't enough for Partners and other big health care systems in the state to oppose the measure because it will cost them money or because it smacks of socialism. The referendum is a response — not an ideal one as ballot questions rarely are — to a real, well-documented problem that is raising health care costs for everyone while depriving funds for financially struggling community hospitals whose patients deserve no less than those of major teaching hospitals.
The Massachusetts Council of Community Hospitals, while opposing the ballot measure, supports crafting legislation that will help its members. The large hospitals that oppose the ballot referendum should get behind this effort as well in the months ahead. Otherwise, they can take their chances with a referendum that is likely to find favor with voters in November.
“What's next for Ben Downing? A job in solar energy”
Berkshire Eagle staff report, November 14, 2016
BOSTON — After his term is up early next month, state Sen. Ben Downing will join Nexamp Inc., a solar energy company.
In a news release, Nexamp said Downing, 35, will be the company's vice president of new market development.
"Ben's long history of public service will complement Nexamp's expert team of local development professionals," said Zaid Ashai, CEO of Nexamp, based in Boston. "He joins us at the most exciting juncture in our company's young history, and his ability to effectively communicate promising opportunities to diverse stakeholders will continue to be an immense asset in the private sector. We couldn't be happier to have Ben on the team."
In the Senate, the Pittsfield Democrat was chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. He opted not to seek re-election this fall to the Senate where he has worked the last 10 years representing Berkshire County and communities in Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties.
Adam Hinds, a Democrat who won the seat on Nov. 8, will take over the position on Jan. 4.
Downing will lead the company's entry into the burgeoning energy storage market, guiding efforts to align and implement new technologies within existing and developing national policy frameworks, its press release stated.
"When I announced I would not seek re-election, I began looking for a business opportunity that would allow me to make a substantial impact on issues I am passionate about," Downing said in the company's press release. "I approached Nexamp with this goal and the company's reputation for excellence in mind. Where my previous role had me in the center of policy debates, this new position will have me as part of a team turning that policy into real change. I couldn't be more excited to begin helping Nexamp and the state of Massachusetts on their mission to solve climate change."
Downing arrived in the Senate nearly 10 years ago after having served on the staffs of congressmen John W. Olver, Richard E. Neal and William Delahunt. His resume includes a political science degree from Providence College in 2003 and a master's from Tufts University's Department of Urban and Environment Policy & Planning in 2008.
Downing has said he and his wife, Micaelah B. Morrill, want to start a family.
“Downing's Next Step Is Solar Energy Firm”
iBerkshires.com - November 14, 2016
BOSTON — Benjamin B. Downing, who has championed renewable energies during his 10 years in the state Senate, will join a solar energy company at the end of his term.
Nexamp Inc. announced on Monday that the Pittsfield Democrat, who did not stand for a sixth term, would be the solar contractor's new vice president of new market development.
"Ben's long history of public service will complement Nexamp's expert team of local development professionals," said Zaid Ashai, chief executive officer of Nexamp, in a statement. "He joins us at the most exciting juncture in our company's young history, and his ability to effectively communicate promising opportunities to diverse stakeholders will continue to be an immense asset in the private sector. We couldn't be happier to have Ben on the team."
Downing was Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy and has been considered instrumental in shaping state's solar and alternative energy policies. At Nexamp, he will focus on expanding the company's strategic development efforts across growing geographies and product lines. He also will lead the its entry into the energy storage market, guiding efforts to align and implement new technologies within existing and developing national policy frameworks.
During his time representing the 52 communities in the far western edge of the state, his leadership on clean energy and climate change earned him awards and recognition from industry groups, including the Northeast Clean Energy Council, the Solar Energy Industries Association, and the Solar Energy Business Association of New England. He also helped to shepherd Massachusetts to a top-five national ranking in installed solar capacity.
"When I announced I would not seek re-election, I began looking for a business opportunity that would allow me to make a substantial impact on issues I am passionate about," Downing said in a statement. "I approached Nexamp with this goal and the company's reputation for excellence in mind. Where my previous role had me in the center of policy debates, this new position will have me as part of a team turning that policy into real change. I couldn't be more excited to begin helping Nexamp and the state of Massachusetts on their mission to solve climate change."
Nexamp, based in Boston, develops, owns and operates solar energy developments from project development, design and construction to financing and operations and maintenance. It has been named Clean Energy Company of the Year by the Northeast Clean Energy Council and Top 10 Solar Developer nationally for two straight years by Solar Power World. For more information, please visit www.nexamp.com.
State Sen. Ben Downing shares a moment with Congressman Richard Neal at a farewell tribute for Downing at the Country Club of Pittsfield, sponsored by the Berkshire Brigades on Friday evening. Ben Garver - The Berkshire Eagle.
"Praise, warmth for Sen. Downing at send-off"
By Eoin Higgins, firstname.lastname@example.org - The Berkshire Eagle, November 18, 2016
PITTSFIELD - It was a send-off a decade in the making.
After five terms in the Massachusetts Senate, Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, is moving on to the private sector, to alternative energy company Nexamp. He was honored Friday evening at a gala at the Pittsfield Country Club hosted by the Berkshire Brigades, a regional Democratic Party activist group.
"I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to give back to the community," said Downing.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, was full of praise for his outgoing colleague on Friday.
"I told Ben today, I've known six state senators," Pignatelli said, "and he's been far and away the best one."
State Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg and U.S. Congressman Richard Neal were slated to deliver remarks honoring Downing at the event. Neal has known Downing for a long time - as a young man, Downing worked for Neal when Neal was the mayor of Springfield in the 1980s. The congressman said he was impressed with Downing's service to the community.
"Ben is principled and competent," Neal said. "He's a terrific advocate for his district."
Mary Pat Akers said she was an early supporter.
"I hosted one of the first house parties for Ben in Great Barrington back in 2006," she said.
Downing said he'll miss representing the Berkshires, but it's time for someone else to take the reins.
"I think the system works best when people from all backgrounds and perspectives can serve," he said. "So I always said it would be five terms."
Adam Hinds will replace Downing in January. Hinds fought off a strong primary challenge from Andrea Harrington to become the Democratic nominee in September, then handily defeated Republican Chris Canning in the general election. Local attorney Rinaldo del Gallo, who was at Friday's event, also ran in the primary.
Hinds told The Eagle he has large shoes to fill.
"My respect for the senator only grew over the course of the campaign," he said. "No matter what corner of the district I went to, the people I talked to had the greatest respect for him."
Supporter Sarah Hudson of Tyringham said that she will miss Downing.
"I've been on board with him since the beginning," she said. "But now he's onto something new."
Downing was touched by the outpouring of affection, he said.
"This event is great," he said. "It's humbling to see all these people out here for me on a Friday night."
Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-496-6236 or @BE_EoinHiggins.
“Senator Benjamin Downing makes farewell speech Monday”
Pittsfield Democrat taking a job at a solar energy company
By Tiffany Chan, 22News State House Correspondent, December 19, 2016
BOSTON (WWLP) – After a decade of service, Pittsfield state Senator Benjamin Downing won’t be returning to the State House in January. The Pittsfield Democrat made his farewell address at the State House on Monday.
Downing was described as one of the most genuine and sincere people by his colleagues. Although he decided not to run for re-election, Senator Downing was a strong voice on many issues: from civil rights and job creation, to clean energy.
Downing was first elected to represent the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden District in 2006. The district covers all of Berkshire County, and much of the “Hilltowns” of western Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden Counties, making it the largest district by land area in either chamber of the Legislature.
His colleagues spoke fondly of Downing, describing him as a person who’s always willing to help his constituents.
Downing has taken the lead on several issues, including: transgender rights, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and clean energy.
“I hope they remember me as a voice for tackling poverty and economic inequality, but most importantly, I hope they remember that whether he agreed or disagreed, my office was always there. I was always there,” Downing said.
Downing plans to return to the private sector next year, with a job at a solar energy company. He will be succeeded in the Senate by Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who defeated Lanesborough Republican Christine Canning in the November election.
Ben Downing: “Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities”
By Ben Downing, Op-Ed, WAMC, February 26, 2017
In the early stages of 2017, there is seemingly much to be happy about in Massachusetts. The state’s unemployment rate is at a very low 2.8% and a record numbers of Massachusetts residents have found work. More than many other states, our combination of higher education, healthcare and high tech institutions and companies has positioned Mass to thrive in the 21st century economy.
But this alone, does not tell the complete story of Massachusetts. Over the last 25 years, as the Greater Boston area has boomed, former industrial and manufacturing hubs, Gateway Cities and others outside of the capital city have struggled to make a similar transition. At first, this was evident in their higher unemployment rates. While they still have more residents looking for work than communities surrounding Greater Boston, this gap has shrunk. It has shrunk, largely, because the populations of these communities have shrunk.
New Bedford’s population in 1990 was 98,596, today its 94,845. Fall River was 92,873 and is now 88,712. Pittsfield was 48,781 and is now 44,057. North Adams was 16,960 and is now 13,533. Whether it’s a 5% decline in one city or a 20% decline in another, the trend for these former industrial hubs stands in stark contrast to the population of the state, which has grown 10% since 1990 from 6.023M to 6.745M residents.
This massive shift in population within the state has ripple effects throughout our communities. Infrastructure in the Greater Boston area is taxed to the point of regularly breaking down. Travelling in the region at most hours by car is difficult. Many times of day it is nearly impossible. Housing costs in every neighborhood and community make it nearly impossible for middle class families to own and for many working poor to rent without significant assistance.
Meanwhile, in former manufacturing hubs, declining population & declining tax bases has cities & their surrounding regions unable to maintain their own crumbling infrastructure. While Boston’s transportation network can be maddeningly unreliable, most former manufacturing hubs and others like them have few options other than car ownership. Those that do have transportation networks have ones built for last generation’s economy, doing little to help their current residents connect with today’s jobs. And while housing markets price out the middle class in Boston, weak real estate markets in other regions give little to no incentive for developers to invest in quality housing for this generation as they did in the past.
The general reaction to these trends is to assume they are beyond our control or that any effort to address them will not reverse the trend. While globalization, among other forces, has surely played a part, but the truth is that plenty can and should be done. First, the state should prioritize cities and regional hubs outside of Greater Boston for economic development incentives. It makes no sense and is counterproductive to subsidize companies’ relocation to some of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. It is especially maddening to use taxpayer resources from all regions of Massachusetts in a manner that concentrates their benefits.
Second to help re-grow the economies of Gateways & others, the state should support and encourage efforts to establish businesses that can support local anchors. The economy of most cities outside of Greater Boston looks stunningly similar, hospitals, healthcare and education are major employers, along with regional financial institutions, the public sector and a small number of larger private sector employers. Given this and the challenge of encouraging new firms to locate in these regions, the state should proactively support, through incentives, training, mentorship & opportunity identification, entrepreneurs and businesses that can provide services to those existing companies - so called anchor institutions - are currently purchasing outside of the region.
Finally, state leaders should grow and expand existing, successful programs that help solve other parts of this puzzle. Programs aimed at neighborhood revitalization are underway in many Gateway Cities today. Increasingly, weaker housing markets are using targeted state incentives to lure private investment in older housing stock, providing downtown, affordable quality apartments that young workers want.
None of these steps will recreate the economies that Fall River or Holyoke had in the 1950s, but that’s not the point. What a targeted statewide effort can do is rebalance Massachusetts economy, not so that one region thrives at the expense of another, but rather so that we all thrive together. It was true once and can be true again. Greater Boston doesn’t have to accept sky high housing and overloaded and underfunded transit. Gateway Cities and others like them don’t have to resign themselves to being a shadow of their former selves. We can and should grow sustainably, together.
Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.
- Jonathan Melle
- Amherst, NH, United States
- I am a citizen defending the people against corrupt Pols who only serve their Corporate Elite masters, not the people! / My 2 political enemies are Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., nicknamed "Luciforo" and former Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr. / I have also pasted many of my political essays on "The Berkshire Blog": berkshireeagle.blogspot.com / I AM THE ANTI-FRANK GUINTA! / Please contact me at email@example.com
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