|The Choice for Western Mass: Lead or Lose|
|, Guest Column|
02:22PM / Thursday, May 24, 2018
State Houses across the country, and right here in Massachusetts, are facing a moment of generational change in leadership. Particularly in Western Mass, which is too often ignored by decision-makers on Beacon Hill, we will have to speak up — and fight together — for the funding, the projects and the policy priorities we need.
There are many issues where we are already leading the state. On the opioid epidemic, which has hit our region especially hard, we helped create the Narcan bulk purchase program that has saved thousands of lives. And our residents have banded together to form groups like Belchertown's Speaking Out About Addiction and Recovery, the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, and the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, to help people in recovery as well as their families and friends.
On transportation, we are leading the conversation about how best to connect our Commonwealth: by investing in North-South Rail along the Knowledge Corridor, East-West Rail from Pittsfield to Springfield to Boston and the Berkshire FLYER, linking New York City to the Berkshires.
On job training, we are investing in retraining our workforce for the jobs of the future, creating models for the state. From Springfield's privately-led business venture Tech Foundry to the Berkshire Innovation Center to educational programs at Putnam Vocational-Technical High School and STCC, we are designing innovative solutions to fill our skills gap.
On health care, the Senate took bold action in the HEALTH Act to address the issue of price disparity that disproportionately affects our Western Mass hospitals. The legislation would also protect patients from the cost of surprise out-of-network bills, and promote critical improvements in the delivery of health care for Western Mass including expansion of mobile integrated healthcare, telemedicine, and appropriate staffing levels for ambulances serving rural communities.
But there are other issues and priorities, unique to Western Mass, which we must stand up for as real and present needs in our communities.
Regional Transit Authority funding to support local transportation options offered by the Berkshire, Franklin and Pioneer Valley Transit Authorities is a vital Western Mass need. Unlike the Greater Boston area, we don't have access to the MBTA. Our residents without cars have no other option beside RTA buses — and they would be left stranded without them.
These bus rides make the difference between employees getting to work and elderly patients seeing their doctors.
This transportation is not a luxury, but a critical need that has ripple effects in our regional economy and even in our health-care system.
Local transportation is also a unique challenge for Western Mass schools. Because many of our school districts are regional, they require fleets of school buses that can be expensive to operate, some driving 20-mile routes daily to get students safely to and from school.
We have consistently asked the state to fully reimburse regional school districts for these costs, and we have been successful in getting more and more state support each year. But we must continue to press this issue affecting our schools, which have much different needs than those in more crowded urban and suburban neighborhoods.
And for the most rural of all school districts, we have identified a new and innovative way to support them by creating a new source of state funding called Rural School Aid, to ensure the commonwealth does not inadvertently create unequal education opportunities for children who live in rural areas.
We also must stand up for those institutions providing unique services to Western Mass, from our Holyoke Soldiers' Home to our Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Agawam to the only public health hospital in the Western Mass counties, Western Massachusetts Hospital.
While we have pledged to work together to represent the needs and protect the interests of former Sen. Rosenberg's district for the remainder of this legislative session, we cannot succeed in making the case for all of Western Mass without your help.
We need everyone in Western Mass to step up and champion the great work you are doing and the great progress our region is making.
In the midst of a historic loss of representation for our region, we need to hear from you.
Representing our region is not just a job for senators to do every week on Beacon Hill; being the face and the voice of Western Mass is also a job for those without an official title but with the most important role: citizens.
The default is for Western Mass to be forgotten, left behind and left out of the statewide conversation. We cannot let that happen now when there are even fewer voices to speak up on our behalf.
Our choices are simple: Western Mass either continues to lead or loses out in the budget and policy battles ahead.
Our voices matter, our needs matter, and it's time for us to make clear that we are contributing more than our fair share to the commonwealth.
Submitted by state Sens. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer; Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield; Don Humason, R-Westfield; Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow; and James Welch, D-West Springfield.