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GCC day care, broadband survive budget process

With the state Legislature poised to act Monday on a $33-plus billion budget, local legislators briefed the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Friday about the spending plan that includes money for Greenfield Community College.

They also discussed a $50 million broadband plan passed by the Senate Thursday.

The budget, said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, will make good on a resolution to increase by $100 million school aid and $25 million in unrestricted aid to municipalities, as outlined in a resolution earlier this year.

A capital projects bond includes $9.5 million for a child care center at Greenfield Community College, a transportation bill that will help fund startup of passenger rail between Greenfield and Springfield due to start within the next couple of years, and an environmental bond to fund several agricultural and environmental land protection programs.

The Legislature has approved a $50 million broadband bill designed to provide “last mile” service to about 45 unserved or under-served communities, primarily in western Massachusetts.

Kulik said that even though the cost of building out that network is estimated to exceed $100 million, the $50 million to be made available to Massachusetts Broadband Institute could help leverage federal grants or loans, as well as expanded cable provider service in some towns.

“It’s now pretty clear, it’s going to take some investment by communities,” said Kulik.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said that the Wired West cooperative could play a key role in providing service to its members, as could private telecommunication providers.

“We’re bringing down the overall cost so they can make it work financially,” Rosenberg said, pointing not only to the new bond but also to a $45.5 million “middle-mile” network completed earlier this year.

Kulik and Rosenberg, responding to a question from Friday’s 125-member breakfast meeting audience, said that one unresolved wrinkle in the proposed budget could come as a result of a court decision this week allowing a November ballot question on casinos that are projected to pump about $53.5 million of revenue into the proposed budget.

That money, which could come from licensing fees and some revenues from a Plainville slot parlor that’s being developed, might have to be made up from a supplemental budget appropriation later in the year that begins July 1, Rosenberg said, adding that he doubted there would have to be discretionary budget cuts made by the governor.

Speaking of ballot questions, Rosenberg said he was pleased by passage by the Senate Thursday of legislation he helped craft setting one-to-one patient ratios for registered nurses in hospital intensive care units, with an agreement by nursing unions to pull a pair of ballot initiatives and thus end a 13-year debate in the Legislature.

Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, briefed chamber members on what he called “the potential to be the next big crisis:” student debt. Mark, who co-chairs the Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt and with his wife is saddled with paying $750 a month in student loans, ticked off the statistics: total student indebtedness by 37 million Americans totals roughly $900 billion, the average cost of a four-year degree is $88,000, the average Massachusetts student loan balance $28,460, nearly 40 percent of student indebtedness is held by people under age 30 and nearly 19 percent by people over 50, $85 billion in loan payments are now past due by 5.4 million people. And yet, he said, the average student can save more than $27,000 by attending their own state’s college or university, and can save an additional $11,000 by starting at a community college.

“With these numbers, why do people bother going to college?” Mark asked rhetorically.

His panel’s recommendations, which came out of a review that included public hearings like one at GCC, called for teaching young people about finances, to continue investing in public higher education while assuring accountability — like the fee and tuition freeze the state was able to secure with all Massachusetts campuses last year as part of its budget deal — increasing state aid programs, streamlining the time it takes to earn a degree, regulating for-profit colleges, creating more incentives to save for college and helping loan forgiveness programs tied to commitment to serve in needy communities.

Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, outlined some of the Legislature’s efforts to study development of east-west passenger rail between Leominster and the New York border, as well as work through the UMass Center for Economic Development on studying ways to redevelop old mill buildings, using the LP Athol mill building as a model. After getting $100,000 to do the work this year, the upcoming budget includes another $150,000 to $200,000 to continue to develop an inventory of mill buildings around the region and look at states that have done the work, Andrews said.

After November, she said, there is a “re-purposing mill buildings summit” planned, probably in Athol.

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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