In Springfield, a City Meeting on the State of Beacon Hill…
SPRINGFIELD—Tucked between passage of the House’s budget and the Senate’s introduction of its version was a briefing on Beacon Hill happenings from the legislative delegation for the commonwealth’s third city. Last Tuesday, Springfield’s five reps, one senator and staff for the other, took turns describing their priorities, offering candid assessment of legislation’s fate and detailing budget highlights.
Redistricting was not an earthquake in Springfield, but districts did shift. Longmeadow Rep Brian Ashe reestablished a beachhead in the Forest Park neighborhood. He, along with Reps Carlos Gonzalez, Angelo Puppolo, Orlando Ramos and Bud Williams attended. Also on hand was Senator Jake Oliveira, who represents slightly less of Springfield than his predecessor did. Staff represented Senator Adam Gomez, Springfield’s other senator, who is recovering from kidney transplant surgery.
“Each and every one of us up at this table today is focused on making sure Western Mass gets its fair share of resources,” Oliveira said in his opening statement. That includes Springfield and its environs in particular, he added.
Gonzalez emphasized the importance of the delegation working together.
“Working with our delegation is so critical and important because one person cannot do anything in Boston,” he said. “It’s a joint effort and working together and collaboration makes it critical and important.”
The Springfield Democratic City Committee organized the event. The Committee outreach director, Linda Matys O’Connell, moderated the panel. City Democrats and residents gathered in the community room of the Elias Brookings Apartments, formerly the auditorium of the school the building once housed.
There was little raw political jockeying as no state legislative seat is up this year. But with Springfield on the precipice of a raucous municipal election, a vague electoral aura did hang in the room. Ramos and Council President Jesse Lederman, who as City Committee chair opened the event, are both mayoral hopefuls. A smattering of Council aspirants, announced and unannounced, seeded the audience as well.
But the emphasis was on the activity on Beacon Hill. Every member touted bills that they had filed this session. Oliveira pointed to 57 pieces of legislation he had introduced. Among them were bills to ensure access to youth mental health beds and helping local school districts with special education costs.
Gomez’s aide, Lamari Jackson, speaking on his behalf, noted that he had submitted 84 bills this session. They span climate change, foreclosure protection, diversity in public education and reforms to the process that puts schools in receivership.
“This bill would end the existing state takeover system and replace it with a system that focuses on giving students and educators the tools and resources they need to succeed, as well as give students parents, educators and local communities a real voice in how our schools are run,” Jackson said.
Gonzalez pointed to legislation that would require smart technology and support business development in minority communities. Puppolo cited a smattering of bills on low-stake table games seniors play and green energy credits. However, he also noted that he is chairing a committee that will oversee federal relations and fundings, including the state’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Obviously alluding to the ever-blooming scandals surrounding the US Supreme Court, Ramos called for reforms to judicial appointments. He noted the commonwealth’s appointment process in Massachusetts has not changed in 243 years. This process is essentially the same as John Adams designed it. Ramos suggested that judges face reappointment every few years. States like Connecticut do this.
“In collaboration with my colleague to my right,” Ramos said, referring to Gonzales, “we were able to file a constitutional amendment for judicial reappointment.”
Williams, citing a string of broken or incomplete promises on the part of MGM, pointed to a bill he filed that would require the Gaming Commission to have one member from the 413. When the Gaming Commission started up, former Springfield City Councilor Bruce Stebbins had been a member. However, he has since moved on to the Cannabis Commission and his family has moved to Eastern Massachusetts.
“We have a lot of work to do and I think that goes to the point of having someone from Western Massachusetts,” Williams asserted. “We don’t have a voice.”
Williams also plugged a bill that would automatically expunge marijuana convictions.
Ashe—who noted that he had once attended school in the building as a child—said he had introduced bills to install carbon monoxide detectors in schools, support the hard of hearing and regulate animal daycare center. “Ollie’s Law,” named for a dog that mauled in doggie daycare, would set standards for facilities that temporarily board pets.
On the budget, there was a range of eagerness to engage. Williams said that because the budget would be subject to revisions from the Senate—including future amendments—before both chambers and the governor haggle over it, there was little to say right now. Several of his colleagues seemingly agreed.
“This is a this is a debate. This is the process and it’s a deliberative process,” Puppulo said. However, he said there were significant investments in senior programs, veterans and education.
Ashe observed that several subjects get attention each year while others only get a particular emphasis every so often. Early education, higher education or public safety, or environment “consistently need attention consistently in our in our legislation” he said.
Oliveira noted that there were recurring themes in the budget, such as the escalating share health care took up. A bit more willing to address the specifics of the budget he acknowledged there were differences between the two chambers budgets. For example, the Senate budget as released did not include the free school meals that the House had.
“I am confident that’s going to be in the final package that gets sent to the governor’s desk for signature for FY 24,” he said.
Oliveira also highlighted some of the Senate budget’s other components like increased funding for the regional transit authorities and using Fair Share Amendment funds to finance universal access to community college.
If there were moment of electoral valence it came when Lederman asked about state help for water and sewer systems. He noted that the feds had historically paid for much of this, but funds had dried up decades ago. Instead, improvements were coming almost entirely on the backs of ratepayers.
Ramos used the question to take a shot on his and Lederman’s mutual mayoral opponent, Domenic Sarno. The rep noted that the state had used some of its ARPA funds for water infrastructure. Although the Water and Sewer Commission is an independent entity, the city has not contributed much.
“There were $126 million received by the mayor of Springfield that that could have been allocated for water quality,” Ramos said, “and unfortunately, we haven’t seen an investment from the city of Springfield.”
Responding to Litter Committee chair Erica Swallow, legislators confirmed they were pushing the state to main areas like highway ramps.
Karen Lee, pointing to rising tax bills, urged legislators to support a bill to allow municipalities to pursue payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements with tax exempt property owners. Nothing stops such pacts now, but nonprofits are under no obligation to play ball. Pending legislation, including a bill Senator Gomez has sponsored, would encourage or require nonprofits to negotiate PILOTs with municipalities.
Lawmakers also admitted what was not likely to move this year. Oliveira, who supports Medicare for All had cited the rising share of the budget. However, he admitted its prospects were “bleak” this year.
However, the audience appreciated that candor. Matys O’Connell, who has lobbied for the arts and pregnant workers’ rights, acknowledged that getting it right can be plodding.
“Thank you for your candor about where such a complex piece of legislation for such a complex concept is,” she said before closing the night out.
*Disclosure: The Springfield Democratic City Committee consists of all elected members of the city’s eight Democratic ward committees. WMP&I editor-in-chief is an elected member of the Ward 6 Committee as well as its chair.