Tallying Budget Amendments Backed by Hinds
PITTSFIELD — The state's $40 billion funding choo-choo lumbered out of the Senate the other day, after a weeklong stop in the House.
It's now up to a conference committee to square differences in rival spending plans for the coming year, then see how that version fares with Gov. Charlie Baker.
Among lawmakers looking on will be state Sen. Adams Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who sponsored or co-sponsored amendments in his chamber to steer money to what he set as district priorities: infrastructure repairs, education and job growth.
"The focus is tackling fundamentals that we need to get right," Hinds said.
Some amendments seek allocations in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Others plant seeds for future benefits in his sprawling district.
In April, the four House members representing Berkshire County worked for a week on Beacon Hill to press constituent needs.
In late May, it was Hinds' turn.
He backed a baker's dozen of initiatives that the Senate adopted May 24 in its $41.49 billion budget.
Before heading to a Habitat for Humanity worksite Friday, Hinds argued the importance of amendments on his punch list.
On infrastructure and transportation, he endorsed a plan to set new guidelines on repairs of small bridges and culverts, increase support for regional transit authorities and continue work on a New York City-Pittsfield rail link.
An amendment would allocate $100,000 for a subcommittee of the Berkshire Flyer Working Group. Its job would be to address one of the challenges in the rail plan: figuring out how travelers arriving by train in Pittsfield will get to county destinations. On another front, the Senate lifted funding for regional transit authorities to $88 million, above levels set in the House and governor's budgets. The added money could avert service cuts by the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, though issues remain, Hinds said.
"The bad news is, we're not going to solve this problem by spending more money," he said, noting the problem of flat or declining ridership and its impact on transit authority revenues.
While an existing program run by the Baker administration provides grants to repair small bridges, those spans must be at least 10 feet long. That rule strands hundreds of bridges and culverts. The amendment Hinds secured would create a working group to shape new regulations to allow communities to find the most cost-effective way to solve repair issues.
"That's exciting for us. One size does not fit all," Hinds said of the state's existing bridge repair rules. The town of Buckland was forced to raise $800,000, he said, because a sick bridge was inches short of qualifying for state help.
Another study proposed by an amendment that Hinds backed would look into how the state awards "payment in lieu of taxes," or PILOT, to towns that are home to significant tracts of public land — of which there are many in the county.
In the town of Washington, for example, officials learned this year that they would see state payments fall by $33,000 because of a change in how the land is valued.
Hinds said local officials came seeking help with the issue.
"It's really killing us," he said of the current PILOT policy.
On education, Hinds sponsored a new budget line item that would provide $1.5 million in support to rural school districts, on top of existing education funds.
The measure, if it survives, will make $372,900 available to nine Berkshire County districts. To be eligible for an additional $100 per student, districts must have fewer than 10 students living per square mile.
"That's the big win for me this year," Hinds said.
A study by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released in January found schools pinched by enrollment declines amid population losses.
"It turns out, rural schools have been losing students while enrollment has been flat elsewhere," Hinds said of the report.
The senator also joined an effort to increase the state's reimbursement to rural districts for bus costs, pushing it from 73 percent to 80 percent.
And he backed $50,000 in funding for the Berkshire County Education Task Force. That group has been working to find savings and efficiencies in public education in a time of enrollment decline.
On the jobs front, Hinds cites the $2 million he managed to add to the Massachusetts Cultural Council budget line, lifting it to $16 million.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.