WAMC Northeast Public Radio
By JIM LEVULIS • JAN 27, 2016
As Governor Charlie Baker unveils his budget today, Western Massachusetts lawmakers are anticipating more details on his priorities. The Democrats saw pros and cons in the Republican’s first state of the commonwealth address.
In his address last week, Governor Baker said his top priorities are education, energy and combating opioid abuse. Democratic Representative Paul Mark of Peru welcomes the urgency on substance abuse, but was looking for more out of the overall speech.
“I was a little disappointed that he didn’t mention really anything specific to western Massachusetts,” Mark said. “I don’t expect him to have the same kind of exciting speech that Governor [Deval] Patrick did, but still since this was his first one it does kind of leave you a little flat where you’re looking for maybe some more idealism. But he likes to say that he’s more of a workhorse and I really can’t fault him for that.”
Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox has been in the State House since 2003 and says Baker’s State of the Commonwealth drew the largest crowd he’s seen. The Democrat echoed support for the governor’s focus on drug use, but took issue with an assurance from Baker that the Boston-area transit system is being transparent and efficient with taxpayer money.
“That makes no sense when we out here in the rural parts of the state are struggling for public transportation, but yet a penny on our sales tax goes directly to the MBTA and they still have a dysfunctional system,” Pignatelli said. “I think it’s time for the T riders, the city of Boston and the catchment area of the MBTA to step up to the plate and pay a little bit more of their fair share much like we have to pay for our fair share out here.”
Representative Mark says he was also disappointed by Baker’s remark, calling it a “thank you” to western Massachusetts. Gailanne Cariddi, who represents northern Berkshire County in the State House, says Massachusetts needs to fund all transportation agencies like the ones operating in the more rural western parts of the state. Following Baker’s address, the administration announced plans to invest more than $83 million in career vocational education, an initiative Cariddi supports.
“We have one of the finest vocational training schools at McCann Tech in North Adams so I’m happy to hear that there’ll be more capital funds going toward that,” said Cariddi.
Governor Baker is also urging lawmakers to pass legislation to bring Canadian hydropower to the state. Retiring State Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. The Democrat agrees with Baker’s call to bring in the power, but says questions remain as to how to do so.
“If we’re going to do it we want to have as much competition as possible,” Downing said. “We want to be as secure as possible in knowing that we’re going to get the resource when we need it. The hydro resource, depending on where it is coming from, is generally coming from state-owned assets in Canada. Their electricity system peaks at the same time that ours does. So you could foresee a world in which, if the contract is not properly structured, that they would want to take care of home before they take care of us so we need to be smart about that.”
Finally, Baker celebrated General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters from Connecticut to Boston during his address. Representing a region that saw GE pollute the Housatonic River before closing its Pittsfield facility, Representative Mark isn’t as thrilled about the state offering the company $120 million in incentives to relocate.
“I love the idea that the jobs are coming to Boston and the surrounding area, but where we’re going to be spending money by giving them tax incentives to come back, I think maybe the money would be better spent having GE clean up some of the area out here.”
Mark says it’s not just the governor who’s excited about the relocation, but many state leaders. GE is in discussion with the EPA about the remaining cleanup of the Housatonic River.