|Hinds Rolling Out 'Rural Agenda' In New Legislative Session|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:58AM / Tuesday, January 22, 2019
|State Sen. Adam Hinds is rolling out what he calls a 'rural agenda' for this term.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Sen. Adam Hinds is pushing a "rural agenda" in the new legislative term.
The Pittsfield Democrat is filing more than 60 bills, many of which are aimed at helping small rural areas. While he represents the Berkshires' only two cities, the bulk of his constituents reside in 50 towns spread over three counties. They have an average population of 1,900, ranging from Adams' at 8,200 people to Monroe with only 95.
"We really go through with what are we doing for a rural jobs act, trying to take away a lot of the problems that our towns face like PILOT payments, trying to get a PILOT commission. We are stick with the volunteer ambulance issue. We're establishing a rural policy advisory commission and those types of things," Hinds said.
"It is kind of a continuation of how are we different out here? And trying to take a swipe at addressing that."
One of the big issues in rural towns is payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT). Many towns have a significant amount of state-owned land but feel they aren't getting fair payment from the state. Hinds is filing a bill to form a commission to take a deeper dive into it and to make adjustments to the formula to both increase funding and provide more equity in the amount towns get.
"We have small towns that could have 40 percent of their towns owned by the state, particularly Washington, Lenox shares October Mountain, Savoy. In Health and Hawley, 60 percent of the land is owned by the state and the state has a formula that has a vast discrepancy between towns. So Washington and Lenox share October Mountain and yet there is a huge difference between what they get per square mile for having that land," Hinds said.
He said there are small towns with minimal commercial bases that aren't getting much from the state for that land. Yet, having that land in town adds to expenses.
A larger bill Hinds is looking to usher through would be a rural jobs bill to incentivize companies to establish themselves in less populated areas.
"The state gives away billions of dollars a year in tax incentives for certain industries like life sciences and others and they typically all go to the Boston area. This is an effort to say wait a second, we need to incentivize businesses and jobs in our rural areas as well," Hinds said.
He is also taking another crack at an effort to preserve volunteer ambulance services. The law requires two emergency medical technicians on every ambulance trip but volunteer services often can't find a second EMT. Hinds is refiling a bill aimed to lessen the requirement so that people in rural towns don't have to wait longer for an out-of-town ambulance service to arrive. The bill has been kicked around the process since before he had even taken office but the senator feels each time it moves a little closer to passing.
"The more we keep raising the visibility on it, I feel we can mount some more pressure," Hinds said.
He's coupling that with a push to reimburse volunteer EMTs for training. He said it costs about $1,000 for an EMT's training and that deters potential volunteers. He said it doesn't make sense that somebody should pay $1,000 just to serve on a volunteer basis.
The Berkshires are also rich with forestland and Hinds is putting forth a bill to incentivize property owners to conserve it. He said that is particularly important when addressing climate change because "we don't get credit for what we are doing to absorb the pollution put out by other parts of the state."
"We have various attempts to incentivize individuals and towns for putting land into conservation. But the challenge is then, can we also use this as a source of revenue for families and towns? One idea we are pursuing is, almost every session we pass something related to global warming and climate change. Can we, as a part of that, create revenue for individuals who commit to preserving the forests," Hinds said.
"It is recognizing that these wooded areas are playing a role in climate change by sequestering carbon and doing so for the rest of the state. Can we create a revenue source for individuals who do that?"
He's also putting forth a bill to preserve old-growth forests.
Meanwhile, mountain biking in wooded areas has become a favorite topic of the senator and he has taken a focus on building the area's outdoor recreation economy. He looks to bolster that with a bill calling for an outdoor recreation office be created in the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
"In the efforts to promote outdoor recreation, groups often come up against [the Department of Conservation and Recreation] on one hand, Fish and Wildlife on the other, and there are these various silos. Let's have an individual in an office that can cut through some of that bureaucracy when we are trying to make mountain biking trails and somebody whose job is focused on actually promoting outdoor recreation in the state," Hinds said.
In the two cities in his district, Hinds is focusing his attention on public safety facilities. He's putting forth a bill that will bring together a commission to look at public safety facilities in Gateway Cities and in places that have had bond authorizations, which meets the criteria for both Pittsfield and North Adams.
The senator previously secured money in a bond bill for design and siting for a North Adams station but that hasn't been released. He hopes this group can study the shortcomings of the current facilities, which in turn will help make the case to release those funds and some for Pittsfield.
"We've been really focused on our public safety facilities. Rep. Farley-Bouvier and I have been working with our Gateway Cities colleagues across the state to try to shake free money for our public facilities, especially Pittsfield and North Adams but others as well," Hinds said.
"We are requiring a study of which public facility buildings are in violation of certain regulations and which communities have the ability to pay. We think that will position us for the next step, which is we want to establish money to do a design."
Other bills include doubling the tax deductions families can claim for child care. He said many families are worried about the "basics" such as paying for child care, paying for college and building a retirement, and believes increasing tax deductions will help young working families make ends meet.
He's also putting forth a bill to create a tax incentive program for energy storage, which has been touted but never formalized into a specific plan.
A bill that Hinds has a personal connection with is accessibility to hearing aids. He said the cost of hearing aids is prohibitive and he is filing a bill to require insurance companies to cover them and to expand the number of places that can provide them.
"I went through the process in the last couple years of exploring what it would be like to get fitted for hearing aids and it was incredibly expensive just to get to the point to have the privilege to spend several thousand dollars to get hearing aids," Hinds said.
He is also putting forth what he called an "omnibus" bill to promote democracy. The bill includes allowing same-day voter registration, moving to a ranked-choice voting system, and having Election Day be a holiday.
"We filed an omnibus bill that includes those three," Hinds said. "There are things we can do to increase participation in Democracy."
While rural issues are an overarching trend for Hinds, equality is another. He's calling for the creation of a task force to look at inequality in the housing system and come up with new programs to address it.
"We had discriminatory loan policies for the last 100 years. That's what we are trying to correct and see what we can do differently," Hinds said. "Particularly, red lining. There are federal loan programs that would say by city or town these are areas that are high-risk loans and don't provide loans in these areas. They were, not surprisingly, communities of color that would not have access to these loans."
He's also looking to make it a requirement that district attorneys track the data regarding their prosecutorial decisions and report them to the state. He said district attorneys should be held accountable for who they are prosecuting for crimes and who they aren't. That will show whether or not people of color are being unfairly treated in the court system.
Beyond the bills, Hinds said he is going to focus on the north-south Berkshire Flyer and east-west rail, and coming up with a transportation management association in the Berkshires. He said he will continue to identify the "real stars" in the Berkshires economy and help those businesses continue to grow or projects to move forward. He is also co-chairing a group looking at how to better handle school transportation.
As the legislative session rolls out, Hinds expects the bigger issues being tackled in the State House will be education funding, mental health and addiction, transportation, and energy and environment. He said those topics seem to be agreed upon by most legislatures as key issues to take on this session.