By Ryan Hutton, North Adams Transcript
ADAMS -- State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, brought a message of hope in tough times to the Adams Democratic Committee on Monday night.
Speaking to the group in the Discover the Berkshires Visitors Center, Downing noted that the town's desire to improve was inspiring.
"One of the most impressive things I've seen while on the job, is all across Berkshire County there are rooms just like this," he said to the dozen people in attendance. "There are communities that no matter how tough the times are, no matter how bleak the budget picture looks, no matter how tight it gets, you have people coming together trying to find solutions. Trying to make their communities stronger. ... That is what gives me the greatest sense of hope in these times. That is what gives me the greatest sense of pride."
Downing said he hopes the state and even the county can return to the former glory it once had. He said he remembered hearing stories growing up about how people would get paid after working at General Electric and go buy big ticket items because there were plenty of stores to buy them in.
"What I personally remember is walking to high school in downtown Pittsfield and if I had played golf, I could have driven a ball there with worrying about hitting a car. Let alone cars, I wouldn't have hit a person, and if I did, they would have been committing a crime.
"I was told growing up to work hard, go off to college, get a good education and never come back. Whether it was said outright or implied, the message was to not come back to the Berkshires because there was nothing here. ... I didn't run for office because I was tired of people being pessimistic like that, I ran so I could show people what I see in the Berkshires. ... If I sound too hopeful it's because I am. But these changes aren't just going to happen. They will need little leaps. Mayor Barrett needs to realize that his future is tied to Mayor Roberto's, Williamstown's well-being is linked to Adams'. It's regional spirit that will help us all."
Downing admitted that times were indeed tough right now, as the state is facing a $1.3 billion structural budget deficit. While this def-icit came from a number of different places, he pointed out one cause in particular.
"There is nothing that puts a bigger burden on budgets than the rising cost of health care," he said. "This Thursday in the Senate, we'll be taking up Health Care Reform 2 and Health Care Reform Cost Con-trol. I think it's going to be one of the most important pieces of legislation that we vote on in this term."
Downing said these two pieces of legislation would, first, promote transparency in how insurance premiums are set by health insurance providers. He said if premiums go up six or seven percent more than they are right now, the Senate can demand to see why, if for no other reason than to see exactly what's going on within the industry. He said the second thing it does is spend money to save money down the road. If passed, the legislation will provide $25 million per year for community hospitals and health centers across the Commonwealth to move toward electronic record keeping. He said this will create a more patient-centric system that provides more through care by making records available instantaneously in multiple places.
He also said the state has to tackle the problem of falling population.
"The number-one priority when you talk to anyone in the state government is to try and make Massachusetts more competitive, so that we can stem or stop the population loss," Downing said. "That hurts us when it comes to our congressional representation, it hurts us when it comes to attracting employers, it hurts us when trying to create an environment when the employers we have here want to grow."
He said the lack of recruitment opportunities comes form the lack of proper funding for public higher education. Downing said Massachu-setts should be working to be a leader in supporting public higher education, instead of being in the bottom fifth of the country like it is now. He attributed this to the state's dependence on the "jewels of the higher education system" like Har-vard, Boston College, Boston Uni-versity, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Williams College. He said 85 percent of public college graduates stay in the state in which they were educated across the country, but Massachusetts was either 47th or 49th, depending on which study one reads.
To channel more money toward public higher education, infrastructure maintenance, health care and other essentials, Downing said cuts will have to be made in other places.
"Making changes will require us to be as smart and as efficient as we can with our tax dollars," he said. "We've done that when it comes to transportation reform and we need to look at it more when it comes to municipal finances. ... We need to do everything we can to save every dollar because they're our tax dollars.
"There's still too many sacred cows in government where people say 'we aren't going to touch those, that makes one group happy and this makes another happy.' In the end, we have a $26 billion budget that doesn't do that much."
Also at the meeting were all three candidates for the open town Selectmen's seat. After Downing finished, each was given time to speak and fielded questions from the crowd. To see what they said, check out the video on the Transcript's Web site at www.thetranscript.com.