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IN THE NEWS: Downing Takes Questions During First 'Virtual Town Hall'
October 17, 2011

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
10:47PM / Monday, October 17, 2011

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, has been setting up shop in senior centers, libraries and town halls throughout his district to hear from constituents but on Monday, he answered questions right from his resident's home computers in his first "virtual town hall."

Downing teamed up with local media to host the a live broadcast, during which he answered questions through email and the social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter. The hourlong discussion ranged in topics from casinos to the bottle bill to what his typical day is like.

"[It] went well. Got to about 15 questions, have follow-ups with others to do. Variety of issues. 84 viewers on UStream," Downing tweeted to iBerkshires after the discussion.

The forum was broadcast on from the studios of Pittsfield Community Television and moderated by David Cachat of PCTV.

While the Internet stream is considered the first by any state senator, the first question came via email from a Joy Brown of Otis, who could not participate because she is still using a dial-up Internet connection. Her question was what would Downing do to upgrade to broadband systems.

"This is my No. 1 priority. It was my No. 1 priority when I ran for the state Senate in 2006 and I am happy that is is a priority that the Patrick administration shares," Downing said. "We were able to secure a massive federal grant, thanks to Congressman Olver and Senator Kerry, a $40 million-plus grant and it is starting this year."

Work will start this year in laying optic fiber wire to build a broadband network in the rural parts of Western Massachusetts  to "close that gap" where there is no high-speed Internet by the end of 2013, Downing said. As chairman of the state Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Downing said he would do everything he could to make sure that happens as quickly as possible to allow people to live and work in a small-town, rural setting.

As for energy, a Twitter follower asked what can be done to "streamline" solar power. Downing pointed to capped landfills, many of which were paid for by state grants, as a location to build solar arrays.

"In some of those agreements between the state and towns, there had to be an agreement that nothing would ever be done on top of that capped landfill. We have moved legislation out of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy committee that would address just that, it would expedite the process," Downing said, pointing to projects in Pittsfield, Adams and North Adams. "Certainly there is more we can do and more that we are looking at on the committee level."

The town hall streamed live on the iBerkshires website.
Also regarding the environment, Downing said the Legislature is still debating wind siting reform. Downing fielded two questions about the future of wind in the state and said he supports legislation that would put statewide standards on purposed projects that could streamline the permitting. However, while he had voted for it in the past, now that he is the chairman of that committee he took credit for including more voices into ensuring all voices are heard.

"It is the only bill that we've had two hearings on and it is the only bill that we've held hearings outside of the State House," Downing said.

When asked what the biggest issue facing the state is, Downing said it is creating jobs. Economic development is the biggest priority and Downing aligned himself with Gov. Deval Patrick's keywords of "education, innovation and infrastructure."

"There is no one quick fix to solve our economic challenges right now," Downing said.

Downing said he wants the state to invest more in public higher education because students who attend public schools tend to stay in the state. The state's push for innovative jobs needs to be coupled with an educated workforce to fill those spots, he said.

Casinos, however, will not help the state, Downing said. The newest legislation passed the Senate despite his vote against it, he said, and voiced concerns about the type of acts that theaters such as the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield will be able to draw as a result.

"I think instead of taking the last three weeks debating gambling, we should have taken just as much time debating the cost of health care," Downing said to an earlier question. "I am a supporter of single-payer health care."

Rising health care costs is the "most crushing" issue for small-business owners and Downing expects the Legislature to take on the issue in the next 18 months.

While Downing was talking about economics, Peter May from North Adams asked Downing to make a public statement about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"I support the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially the groups in Boston and the Berkshires. I think if you look at how they changed the conversation  in our national dialogue, it is quite remarkable. We are finally starting to talk about some of the issues that, quite frankly, are the reasons I am in politics — economics and social justice," Downing said. "I am certainly aligned with their goals"


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