Hinds, Blais highlight benefits for Hilltowns in state budget

  • State Sen. Adam Hinds

  •  Rep. Natalie Blais

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2021 8:55:40 PM

The $47.6 billion fiscal 2022 state budget contains a number of items of importance to the Hilltowns as outlined by two lawmakers for the region, Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland.

“I think we work really effectively together in terms of tag-teaming in the State House,” Blais said.

The budget, for the fiscal year that began July 1, was signed into law July 16 by Gov. Charlie Baker.

“We go about budgets and every policy debate with a real eye on rural communities,” said Hinds said, noting that the western Massachusetts delegation works together as a team.

Hinds pointed to rural school aid, which at $4 million is the highest it’s ever been in the budget. Rural school aid was $3 million in the last fiscal year.

“That was a big win,” Hinds said, though he noted that the district numbers for rural school aid won’t be known until they are released by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

DESE gives this money in the form of grants to school districts with low population densities and lower-than-average incomes. Recipients in the last round of funding included Gateway Regional School District, Worthington School District, Chesterfield-Goshen Regional School District and Amherst-Pelham Regional School District.

Hinds also pointed to money for Williamsburg’s 250th anniversary celebration that made it into the final budget. He also noted the $100,000 for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to study recreation on the Deerfield River, $40,000 for planning in the town of Charlemont, and $75,000 for the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

Blais highlighted the increase in funding for the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program for state-owned land, which has long been underfunded.

This year’s budget raises funding for this by $4 million, with $5 million increases slated for each of the next two fiscal years.

A December report by State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office said that the formula the PILOT program uses places communities with slow growth and falling property values at a disadvantage, and says that the program is underfunded. Bump recently visited western Massachusetts to highlight the issue and was joined by Hinds and Blais.

Blais also noted that the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program was increased to $1 million in the budget that was passed. The program provides free tax preparation services for low- to moderate-income taxpayers.

“It’s a lifeline for many constituents,” she said.

An item that didn’t make it into the budget was $1 million for new police training, which the governor vetoed.

“We were incredibly surprised that the governor vetoed this,” Hinds said, adding that legislators are looking to override this veto.

“I would love to take that override vote,” Blais said.

Police reform signed earlier this year mandates that all officers get the same certification, regardless of whether they are full or part time, placing a new financial burden on small municipalities that have traditionally relied on part-time officers.

Another veto that Blais expressed frustration with concerned money for regional transportation authorities. The governor vetoed $3.5 million of the $94 million originally passed.

The budget also instructs the Department of Telecommunications and Cable to collect data on broadband access, which will include information on affordability.

“That really wasn’t being done before,” Hinds said.

Hinds and Blais also expressed satisfaction that the Rural Schools Commission has begun to meet, of which they are both chairs. The commission was set up to examine the long-term fiscal health of rural school districts that face or may face declining enrollment, and how to deal with their issues.


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