On Wednesday, February 11th, around a dozen State Senators toured five communities in Central Massachusetts, as part of the “Commonwealth Conversations” called upon by Senate President Stan Rosenberg in his January 7th swearing-in address, and organized by Senator Michael Rodrigues. The tour provided a great opportunity to hear directly from everyday residents in a county that sometimes feel left out of Beacon Hill, and also for senators to spend time together, which is fairly rare due to our busy schedules at the State House and in our respective districts. The tour started early in the morning in Worcester, and ended up there as well, at UMass Medical School for a 2-hour public hearing, as every Commonwealth Conversation does. For more information on upcoming tours, please visit here.
One of the main thrusts of these tours is gathering some key priorities, and translating them into public policy on Beacon Hill. I did my best to take notes throughout the entire tour, at each community stop.
My overall take on the tour was this: everyday, average citizens, municipal officials and staff, industry professionals and activists have at least one thing in common: they are eager, and sometimes desperate, for the state to improve their investment in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. While some residents may not make the direct connection between the problems they are experiencing, and the need to increase public funding, or pass a law, or increase taxes to make such an investment possible, they do look upon their elected officials to improve the situations they or their communities are in.
From my notes:
Monson Town Hall. On the bus ride leading to Monson, we could see the remaining damage of the June 2011 tornado that struck south central Massachusetts, including eerie lines of trees still down in the hills along the highway to Monson. Monson Town Hall was recently re-built (paid for with state funds), after being damaged beyond repair by the tornado. In the town hall’s conference room, there were residents and municipal officials from Monson, Brimfield, Palmer, and Ware. The requests from the attendees included bringing back the train that passed through Monson, building veterans housing, increasing the Community Preservation Act state match, addressing substance abuse, state reimbursement for town snow and ice budgets, and investing in infrastructure to bring more businesses to the region. When one Senator asked a selectman if he would support raising the gas tax, to improve transportation to the region, he replied that he reluctantly had come to the conclusion that a gas tax was necessary.
Upper Blackstone Waste Water Treatment Plant, Millbury. The Upper Blackstone plant treats waste from many Worcester County communities, and even takes sludge from communities far away, to process and treat. Because of EPA regulations requiring that the Blackstone River have a lower phosphorus content, the wastewater treatment plant was forced to spend millions of dollars to upgrade the plant, and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars more. The staff was very impressive, and highlighted their frustration with some of the EPA regulations, but also underscored the need for greater federal and state investment in water infrastructure, and in alternative energy to help power the wastewater treatment plant.
Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center, Northbridge. After a tour of the beautiful rehabilitation center, one of the best in the state, and assisted living home for senior citizens, we had a great lunch at the facility. One of the family-owned business executive highlighted the need to increase the state Medicaid reimbursement of nursing homes, in order to keep these facilities going.
National Grid Distribution Center, Whitinsville. This facility is one of Massachusetts’ largest electricity providers and executives led a briefing about the challenges that Massachusetts, and all of New England, have in providing power to the region’s customers, in light of the closing down of many coal, nuclear, and gas power plants. A fairly strong pitch was made for the different natural gas pipelines to be built in Massachusetts, which some of us pushed back against, asking if it wouldn’t be better to invest the $2 billion that the Kinder Morgan pipeline would cost to build, into energy efficiency programs, to reduce energy use. (Note: since then, National Grid has announced it is a partner in developing another natural gas pipeline.)
Worcester. Before the evening public hearing began, Senators were treated to a tour of Worcester by City Manager (and former State Senator) Ed Augustus and Mayor Petty, highlighting the state and federal investments made to the city over the past ten years, that have led to much of the development and improved quality of life seen in Worcester. The tour also included the new WPI research buildings, and the new Albie Sherman Center at UMass Medical, funded in part through Governor Patrick’s Life Sciences Initiative.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Commonwealth Conversations tour, or providing feedback or ideas, please visit the Commonwealth Conversations Youtube page to find out more, and visit the official tour website and follow on Twitter at @MA_Senate and #MAconvos.