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Legislators Continue to Plug Away at Budget, Virus-Related Issues
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
06:19PM / Thursday, April 02, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The topic that dominates our daily lives cannot be the only topic on the minds of state legislators.
Massachusetts lawmakers on Tuesday were holding a conference call to discuss their next steps in an era when face-to-face gatherings are impossible. No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic will be topic No. 1, but the list of potential talking points is a long one.
"Obviously, we're out until May 1, maybe longer," state Rep. John Barrett III said on Monday. "We haven't done a budget yet. Usually that's done by the last week in April and we would have been completing it."
Barrett, a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, said he and his colleagues have been meeting with Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, of Boston, but those meetings have been a little different depending on when they occurred.
"The funny part of it that some people met with the chairman when we were in pretty good fiscal shape," Barrett said. "In January and February, people started to have meetings with the chairman and put in their needs. Those of us who met with him later, things have changed dramatically.
"The budget is completely changed as to what we're looking forward to doing. The transportation bond issue is now not as important. It's still important, but it's not the focus. Everything has changed."
Barrett said despite a "dramatic" loss in state revenues because of the economic slowdown resulting from social distancing measures in place to slow the coronavirus's spread, the federal stimulus package should help. And he expects further federal aid on top of the package passed in Washington, D.C., last week.
"It's not all gloom and doom on the financial side," Barrett said.
"The difference in 2008 was the money being given to people and the state was stimulus money to get the economy moving," he said of the actions taken on the global economic collapse. "This is money to keep people and government and businesses going through the shutdown. A lot of people on unemployment will hopefully be able to go back to those jobs.
"The role of the federal government is to keep it going until then."
In the meantime, the Legislature is doing what it can to give Bay Staters the tools they need to survive the crisis. And the Berkshire County delegation has specific needs it wants to address.
"How are we going to save our cultural institutions here in the Berkshires?" Barrett said. "I've talked to others in the delegation. There is money available to them in that stimulus package. We had 120 people laid off at Mass MoCA, and that's the only economic driver we've really had in North Adams. Part of my district includes Hancock Shaker Village. And then there's the Clark Art Institute, the Williams College Museum of Art. Tanglewood in Lenox is really getting hit.
"We've filed legislation that's going to protect our cultural institutions, just to get it into the hopper, as they say, so when that stimulus money comes through, there's a place for it to go."
Likewise, the delegation has put in legislation that would preserve stimulus money for the hotels and restaurants that are key to the Berkshires' economy.
"Everyone is going to be battling for money," Barrett said.
Barrett continues to handle non-legislative matters during the crisis, fielding calls from individuals and organizations throughout the district and attempting to resolve problems for his constituents.
That includes everything from conference calls with the Berkshire Community Action Council to make sure the most vulnerable in the community are being served to calls from individual business owners to see whether they qualify as "essential"services that are allowed to remain operational during the statewide closures
"Can a dog groomer open their business?" Barrett said. "It's not essential, but common sense says yes. It's a one-person operation. You drop the dog off outside ...
"Local officials in our communities are using common sense because they're the enforcers."
Big picture, Barrett is in touch with officials at Berkshire Medical Center and other front-line health-care workers to ensure that they are getting the supplies they need.
"They're coming in dribs and drabs,"he said. "It's been a struggle for [BMC]. They're able to stay a little bit ahead of it.
"[Health and Human Services] Secretary [Marylou] Sudders has had conversations with the administration at BMC. Gov. Baker was out here the week before everything went into place. … At that meeting and after that meeting, we had a conference call with BMC. The biggest thing I said at that meeting was we needed more testing. … Sen. Markey has been terrific getting the FDA to approve the new test, the new testing machines at BMC."
Meanwhile, Barrett continues to use his position to communicate with his constituents — both personally and through his Facebook posts — about the gravity of the situation and the need to follow social distancing protocols.
"I do think the needle has moved immensely,"he said. "Unfortunately, it had to take a number of people they knew who have contracted [COVID-19], a number of people who have passed away and what's happening in New York."
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