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Baker’s budget slashes funding



Berkshire Eagle 03/06/2015, Page A01

By Dick Lindsay

rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com @BE_DLindsay on Twitter

Gov. Charlie Baker wants to nearly eliminate direct state funding for the Berkshire Visitors Bureau and other regional tourism centers, starting this summer.

Baker’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget, which he released Wednesday, looks to slash $4.5 million from the remaining $5 million being spent on tourism agencies across Massachusetts. Originally, the state Legislature appropriated $7.5 million, but a series of spending cuts to close the current fiscal 2015 deficit reduced the figure to $5 million.

With the state facing a projected $1.5 billion deficit when the new fiscal year begins July 1, Berkshire legislators and local tourism leaders expected spending cuts across the board, but not so severe for tourism promotion.

“That’s not one that will f ly out this way,” said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing of Pittsfield.

“It’s not a hair cut; more like a buzz cut,” added state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli.

Berkshire Visitors Bureau President/CEO Lori Klefos was stunned by the move, particularly given that lodging tax revenue is on the rise.

“I’m extremely disappointed; we at least expected to stay at $5 million,” added Lori Klefos, President/CEO of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. “[The governor’s] budget would change how we promote the state.”

The Berkshire Visitors Bureau is already trying to absorb its share of the recent state budget cuts that reduced its fiscal 2015 funding from $275,000 to $200,000. Since the money comes from a matching grant program, the bureau’s loss is double — $75,000 from the state and $75,000 from private donations, according to Klefos. The tourism agency’s overall budget is $1.2 million.

Nevertheless, Klefos is confident state lawmakers and the new governor can reach a compromise on tourism spending.

“Every year, the Legislature steps up and puts money back into the fund,” she said.

Pignatelli said he learned early in his Statehouse career that a governor’s budget is a political document, and now it’s a matter of convincing Baker, a Republican, the importance of tourism promotion.

“Whether it’s a Democratic or Republican governor, the administration needs to understand the economic impact of these dollars,” Pignatelli said. “We went through the same thing with Gov. [Deval] Patrick (a Democrat); just not as severe.”

State Rep. Paul Mark, of Peru, expects plenty of legislative debate on tourism spending and the rest of the budget over the next several weeks.

“I think support for regional tourism councils has proven to be a wise investment time after time,” Mark said. “Every dollar that gets invested quickly shows a significant return that benefits our local economy.”

The Berkshire Theatre Group, parent of the Colonial Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Festival, is among the county’s cultural organizations urging state lawmakers to support tourism — the third-largest segment of the commonwealth’s economy.

“In the Berkshires, we know that tourism is an economic generator, and we need all the support we can find,” said BTG Artistic Director/CEO Kate McGuire. “I trust the state will find the way to continue their support of the tourism engine that provides so much for our residents and visitors.” Contact Dick Lindsay at 413- 496- 6233.