Western Mass. legislators fight for public transit money

 

Greenfield Recorder 06/30/2012, Page A01

By RICHIE DAVIS
Recorder Staff

With a $32.5 billion state budget for the year beginning next week now behind it, the Legislature is poised to consider health-care cost containment and a way to look more closely at funding future programs, as well as work on an energy bill and jobs and transportation bills.

Local state legislators Friday outlined a slew of accomplishments and future priorities for a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce audience.

Chief among them, said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, was getting the state’s regional transit systems the first increase they’ve had in about four years, while keeping metropolitan Boston’s MBTA demand for more deficit funding at bay.

“We had a big win this week for rural and suburban Massachusetts,” Rosenberg said, pointing to getting $7 million in additional funding for systems like Franklin Regional and Pioneer Valley transit authorities. “The reality is that we need public transportation everywhere. We have regional transportation authorities and the only discussion in Boston is how much more money are we going to give the T?”

A coalition of rural and suburban legislators refused to provide more money for the MBTA unless there was a commitment to increase funding for the state’s 14 regional transit authorities. Half the increase for the regional transit authorities was included in the state budget, while there was no budget increase for the MBTA, Rosenberg said.

“When we start talking next year about the MBTA’s deficit, which is estimated at $160 million, they now know that they’ve got to deal with us, with our transportation issues as well.”

Rosenberg, who was joined at the chamber’s annual legislative breakfast by Reps. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Denise Andrews, D-Orange, followed up on Kulik’s report on a state budget approved Wednesday that couldn’t depend on federal stimulus funds.

The budget, which makes use of $350 million in “rainy day” funds increases Chapter 70 school aid by $180 million, regional school busing at $2 million and “circuit breaker” school aid by $28.8 million, also provides $11.3 million for transportation of homeless schoolchildren.

“We tried to put the most responsible budget together that we can,” said Kulik, a member of the conference committee that reconciled House and Senate budget versions, noting that although the economy is recovering gradually, it’s “shaky,” and the reserve fund is back at $1.2 billion — about $1 billion less than the level it was at before the recession.

“We’d like to get back up to $2 billion, and I think we’ll get there over the next few years,” Kulik said.

A half-dozen key pieces of legislation remain in the month before the Legislature goes into informal session, said Rosenberg, including steps to control the rapid rise in health care costs.

With 98 percent of its residents now insured, the state is now closing in on examining how to better use the $60 billion a year spent on health. “We have the benefit of having a higher concentration of research and teaching hospitals, we have cuttingedge medicine in this state,” Rosenberg said. “We get the benefit of that, but it’s very expensive.”

That said, health care is also the biggest employer in the state, and a big draw for the state, so the proposals being weighed — a luxury assessment on high cost care providers, caps on allowable growth in costs, a new wellness and prevention fund and medical malpractice reforms — are a balancing act focused on a major driver of the state economy.

Given that Massachusetts led the nation by adopting the first legislation to provide health insurance to virtually its entire population, Rosenberg said it’s significant that the state is once again leading the way in this second health reform initiative.

“The negotiation that’s going on right now is the only one of its kind in the country, where a state is trying to figure out how to get under control not only current spending, but also the rate of growth for spending in health care,” he said.

An energy bill under discussion would further promote alternative energy sources and energy conservation, Rosenberg said, while a state finance reform would require review of every state program at least once in five years to see if it’s working or needs to be replaced.

When the Senate takes up a jobs bill that’s already passed the House, Rosenberg said, he wants it to include funding for cultural and agricultural programs to help this region’s economy, as well as for a Greenfield parking garage and site preparation money for redevelopment of properties like the former Bendix site in Greenfield.

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