Over 100 representatives of Berkshire County’s nonprofit sector participated in a January 11 call with members of the delegation to hear firsthand about Fiscal Year 2021 federal and state budgets and to direct their questions and concerns to elected officials amid the ongoing pandemic.
Matthew Russett, an aide to Congressman Richard Neal, who is chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, opened the session with an overview of the second stimulus package and omnibus appropriations bill signed by the president on December 27.
Russett confirmed details such as $600 individual payments for those earning under $75,000 annually, a $300 federal unemployment supplement, an 11-week extension of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (covering the self-employed, gig workers, etc.) and a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium, among other provisions. He also noted for relevant sectors such as hospitality and tourism that the Paycheck Protection Program would expand to cover 250% of a business’s average monthly payroll with a cap of $2 million, and that the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program has designated $20 billion for “entities in low-income communities” that meet a set of eligibility requirements.
Asked about the congressman’s priorities for additional stimulus packages, Russett suggested that the potential for $2,000 individual payments has increased significantly as a result of Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, and that an infrastructure investment, separate from or alongside additional stimulus, will be a focus for Neal.
Taking up the topic of the FY21 state budget signed by the governor December 11, Senator Adam Hinds addressed areas where he saw successes and where he continues to have concerns. He said that he is pleased that federal and state education spending will increase, state emergency food relief tripled and its Healthy Incentives Program doubled, and $10 million has been designated for arts and culture organizations in the Commonwealth.
“We tried to plug some gaps in a meaningful way,” Hinds noted, before expressing that demand has far outstripped economic development funding through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, and that in his view, funding for mental health, housing and child care in the state budget was inadequate.
Rep. Smitty Pignatelli echoed comments that $2,000 stimulus checks are likely to come, and that so-called “9C” cuts – unilateral budget-fixing granted to governors – will be avoided with additional federal stimulus. Pignatelli said he remains optimistic about the possibility of “money for the states” and has advocated for that with Congressman Neal. He also suggested infrastructure will gain renewed attention, and said the delegation is in touch with Berkshire Health Systems about the slow pace of vaccine roll-out and advocating on Beacon Hill for a “fair share” for the county.
On the topic of vaccines, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier agreed that advocacy for the county is a priority and that vaccine hesitancy is being monitored and addressed. She then made an impassioned call to put child care and early education at the center of future budget discussions. Acknowledging that the mix of providers makes the funding picture complicated, saying, “We need to solve this problem and it needs to be job one.” Women, she noted, are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as they attempt to work from home and care for their children at the same time.
Rep. Paul Mark provided an update on the status of the 2020 Census and future redistricting. Delays due to the pandemic and questions about administration continue to beset the Census, which Mark noted will be reported “in a non-discriminatory manner.” He said the most recent county population estimate he has seen – “off by 8 percent from 2018 to 2019” – would not affect reapportionment of House seats. Redrawing of districts for the next 10 years looks likely to happen in 2021, with an inevitable increase in district size and a corresponding worry that “at some point it becomes ineffective” for members to represent greater numbers of communities.
Wrapping up the presentations, Rep. John Barrett – now in his sixth decade of public service – said he would focus on unemployment, pressing the state for a vaccine plan, the urgent need for universal broadband and “getting a real stimulus package into the economy.”
“We have to be prepared to come out of a holding pattern in the beginning of summer, with the population vaccinated and ready to move ahead,” he said. “We are here to help in any way we can.”
In a lively Q&A that followed, members continued to suggest that for a majority of issues – food insecurity, declines in senior ridership, support for frontline workers and teachers, PPE for nonprofits and covering state revenue losses – all roads lead to additional federal stimulus. Nonprofit leaders noted an increase in giving and volunteerism among relocated second-home owners, and affirmed the many priorities that members outlined.
Farley-Bouvier encouraged nonprofit providers to work together and keep in touch with members on what they collectively need, while Pignatelli concluded that the community “must get creative over the next year and think outside the box.” The delegation and nonprofit participants agreed that future conversations would be valuable.
The event was co-hosted by Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Berkshire United Way, Northern Berkshire United Way and Williamstown Community Chest – the partners behind the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County – along with Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires.