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Local legislators say state budget will increase school, local aid by $125 million

With the state Legislature poised to act Monday on a $33-plus billion budget, local legislators briefed the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Friday about the spending plan that includes money for Greenfield Community College.

They also discussed a $50 million broadband plan passed by the Senate Thursday.

The budget, said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, will make good on a resolution to increase by $100 million school aid and $25 million in unrestricted aid to municipalities, as outlined in a resolution earlier this year.

A capital projects bond includes $9.5 million for a child care center at Greenfield Community College, a transportation bill that will help fund startup of passenger rail between Greenfield and Springfield due to start within the next couple of years, and an environmental bond to fund several agricultural and environmental land protection programs.

The Legislature has approved a $50 million broadband bill designed to provide “last mile” service to about 45 unserved or underserved communities, primarily in western Massachusetts.

Kulik said that even though the cost of building out that network is estimated to exceed $100 million, the $50 million to be made available to Massachusetts Broadband Institute could help leverage federal grants or loans, as well as expanded cable provider service in some towns.

“It’s now pretty clear, it’s going to take some investment by communities,” said Kulik.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said that the Wired West cooperative could play a key role in providing service to its members, as could private telecommunication providers.

“We’re bringing down the overall cost so they can make it work financially,” Rosenberg said, pointing not only to the new bond but also to a $45.5 million “middle-mile” network completed earlier this year.

Kulik and Rosenberg, responding to a question during the breakfast meeting attended by 125, said that one unresolved wrinkle in the proposed budget could come as a result of a court decision this week allowing a November ballot question on casinos that are projected to pump about $53.5 million of revenue into the proposed budget.

That money, which could come from licensing fees and some revenues from a Plainville slot parlor that’s being developed, might have to be made up from a supplemental budget appropriation later in the fiscal year that begins Tuesday, Rosenberg said, adding that he doubted there would have to be discretionary budget cuts made by the governor.

Rosenberg also said he was pleased by the Senate’s approval Thursday of legislation he helped craft setting one-to-one patient ratios for registered nurses in hospital intensive care units, with an agreement by nursing unions to give a pair of ballot initiatives and thus end a 13-year debate in the Legislature.

Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, briefed chamber members on student debt, which he called “the potential to be the next big crisis.”

Mark, who co-chairs the Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt, said he and his wife are saddled with paying $750 a month in student loans. He ticked off the statistics — student indebtedness by 37 million Americans totals roughly $900 billion, the average cost of a four-year degree is $88,000, the average Massachusetts student loan balance $28,460, nearly 40 percent of student indebtedness is held by people under age 30 and nearly 19 percent by people over 50, $85 billion in loan payments are now past due by 5.4 million people.

And yet, Mark said, the average student can save more than $27,000 by attending their own state college or university, and can save an additional $11,000 by starting at a community college.

“With these numbers, why do people bother going to college?” Mark asked rhetorically.

His panel’s recommendations, which followed a review that included a public hearing at GCC, call for teaching young people about finances, continuing investing in public higher education while assuring accountability — like the fee and tuition freeze the state was able to secure with all Massachusetts campuses last year as part of its budget deal, increasing state aid programs, streamlining the time it takes to earn a degree, regulating for-profit colleges, creating more incentives to save for college and helping loan forgiveness programs tied to commitment to serve in needy communities.

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