Area legislators give look at evolving budget

 

By RICHIE DAVIS
Recorder Staff
Friday, June 26, 2015

While they weren’t able to talk about the details of a finished state budget as they have in years past, state legislators at Friday’s annual Franklin County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast did highlight several initiatives taking shape on Beacon Hill — including to solve the student debt problem, to reform the zoning in the state and to promote co-ops as an economic development tool.

Senate and House versions of a roughly $38.1 billion budget are now before a conference committee that needs to work out differences that aren’t that great this year, said Rep. Stephen Kulik, who as House Ways and Means vice chair is a member of the panel.

Even without the unlikely scenario of a budget agreed upon and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in time for Wednesday’s start of the new budget year, a $5.5 billion interim financial package that’s already been agreed to will keep the government running — an example of what Kulik and others in the Democratically controlled Legislature called “a very positive transition” under the new Republican governor.

Major issues ahead include a transportation reform bill designed to give the governor more control over the MBTA, but which Kulik said should also include benefits to regional transit authorities.

Kulik, who has been among the longtime advocates of expanding broadband in western Massachusetts, noted that towns have been “coming out, it seems enthusiastically” to make a financial investment that is “a heavy lift, but the need has been there for so long, and people have been so frustrated by the lack of broadband. This is going to be a transformational stimulus to a lot of our small local economies.”

While he remains skeptical that Boston will be able to pull off its bid to host the 2024 Olympics, he said, he pointed to efforts to bring slalom canoeing and possibly other events to western Massachusetts.

“It might be a chance for us to show off the quality of life and some of the natural resources that we have here and really leave some legacy behind, so that the improvements to recreational venues might benefit people for many years to come.”

After several years of sponsoring legislation to reform what he said is considered to be the most archaic zoning provision in the country, Kulik said a new proposal he is co-sponsoring is “a very solid, strong bill, well positioned to make progress.”

Meanwhile, legislation to relieve the issue of student loan debt was outlined by Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who headed a subcommittee last year that led to the measure that would provide for loan forgiveness, increased funding, scholarship programs, public-private partnerships and a lot more.

“It’s a really important bill, and I think we’ll get a really great response on it,” Mark said of the bill, which has 60 co-sponsors. “Part of the solution is partnering with federal officials.”

Mark said he is also co-sponsoring a measure to raise the caps on solar net metering, to encourage further development of solar energy in the state, and a bill to promote the co-operative business model in the state.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, responding to a question about the impact of an early-retirement plan on state agencies doing their work, said that although the roughly 3,000 workers taking advantage of the program falls short of the governor’s 4,500 goal, the salary saving will exceed the original target $170 million.

“There is some worry,” Rosenberg admitted, adding that the governor and Legislature need to work together to ensure that agencies whose functions have been prioritized are given most latitude to replace retirement vacancies.

Rep. Susannah Whipps Lee, R-Athol, who has been in office for six months, also spoke at the event. She has become the ranking Republican House member on the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs.

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269