|Higher Ed Remains Top Priority For Representative Mark|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
02:42AM / Monday, January 28, 2019
|State Rep. Paul Mark has filed a number of bills related to the environment and to higher education.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — This is the legislative term state Rep. Paul Mark became a "dean."
Mark's district spans both Berkshire and Franklin counties and, on the Franklin side in the Pioneer Valley, there are five new state lawmakers. Mark is now embracing the role of mentor for the new legislators as they adjust to Beacon Hill and is aligning with them to promote an agenda for all of Western Massachusetts.
"Even though these people are new, they are working hard, they care about their jobs very much, and are asking the right questions and not afraid to collaborate with people who have some seniority," Mark said.
Mark said when he was first elected, he had veteran lawmakers in Benjamin Downing, William "Smitty" Pignatelli, and Christopher Speranzo to help teach him the ropes.
"It's nice to be able to give that back. It's an honor," Mark said.
He is teaming up with the others in the Pioneer Valley delegation on a few pieces of legislation that he says will help all four of the westernmost counties. The first is focused on payment in lieu of taxes for state-owned conservation land. Many towns in Western Massachusetts have large tracts of state-owned land but feel they get little from the state for it.
"It can't be left on our shoulders. There are not enough of us to afford that," Mark said.
The bill will create a commission to do a deep dive into the current funding formula and make recommendations as to how to create a more fair and equitable payment structure.
Another bill would be to create an executive director position for the Rural Policy Commission, which Mark sits on. The director would serve the commission and focus on bills and funding proposals and how those would relate to rural towns. Mark said the job would be housed inside the Office of Housing and Economic Development but operate independently from the secretary.
"It would be funded. It would be independent," Mark said.
Outside of those partnerships, Mark is continuing with a number of topics he's been working on for the last few sessions. In 2014, he chaired a subcommittee on college debt which came out with a number of recommendations to address the soaring cost of higher education. Mark is again pushing for those recommendations to be put in place.
"Higher education has been an important topic for me since I've been in the Legislature. We've been filing one pretty largescale bill, this will be our third session now, based on the recommendations of our subcommittee on student loans and debt back in 2014," Mark said.
"I'm filing that again but I'm happy to say that some of it I don't need to file anymore because some of it is actually already placed in law. But there are still a couple of components left."
The pieces being filed include addressing how the state finances the institutions, containing rising fees and tuition increasing scholarship opportunities for private schools, a student loan forgiveness program, and a tax incentive for private businesses who offer tuition assistance plans.
A new bill Mark filed is "The Cherish Act," which would boost investment in the state college system by $500 million.
"It would fully implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission at the higher ed level. We are talking about a $500 million investment in our public colleges and universities," Mark said.
He is also re-filing a bill to allow adjunct faculty to receive benefits if they carry full coursework. Mark said a few hundred faculty members in the state work at multiple schools but are unable to get benefits.
"It would allow people who are carrying a full-time course load, so in effect working a full-time job but it is divided among more than one college in Massachusetts, would be able to access the benefits as those people who are working full time at just one college," Mark said.
Mark has joined Pignatelli's effort for social workers. The bill is aimed at providing a loan forgiveness program for those who enter the field. Mark said there are other professions he'd like to create similar programs for but is taking it one at a time.
"You would be doing a really important job, a job that saves money for the state, but a job that the barrier of entry is high because you generally need a master's degree. The financial reward you receive for working isn't necessarily the highest paying. By recognizing it is an important profession, that serves a benefit to the people of this state, I think it would be a good investment," Mark said.
Those are leftover pieces from the 2014 study. Mark said he is happy that a bill to provide more financial literacy in high school passed last year, that the treasurer has implemented college savings plan programs, and the attorney general's office has been going after for-profit colleges that take advantage of students. Those were also pieces of the study.
Mark is also taking a focus on the environment. He said Massachusetts has to do more to combat climate change, especially with a lack of action on the federal level.
"As we watch the effects of climate change unfold and as we learn more and more scientific data about the problem is and what the problem will be if we don't do something, I think the urgency for us to act at the state level has become more pronounced," Mark said.
He's filing a bill to require electric companies to get 25 percent of their solar by 2030 -- incrementally increasing the percentage each year. He is also looking to raise the net metering cap, with an additional provision for municipal projects.
He also wants every new public building constructed to have photovoltaic panels.
"They can get out of it by showing how they've gotten renewable energy through different means. But when you have a new building with a roof and there is wasted space on the roof, why not take advantage of that? Why not make this something that will save the people of this state money over time?" Mark said.
He is also refiling a bill that would create a "green bank."
"It would loan for renewable energy projects, renewable energy jobs. It will be a bank that is specifically charted for this purpose and would have a different financing method and different expectations from the investors," Mark said.
The Peru Democrat is looking to codify the Healthy Incentives Program into law. The program doubles the worth of SNAP benefits at farmer's markets. It has been wildly popular and grew 600 percent since its inception. But, it is so popular that often the state runs out of money and the legislature has to allocate more.
"The program exists to promote people using SNAP to buy local produce. The benefit of this program is actually twofold. It creates an incentive for people using SNAP benefits to buy healthier foods and to buy local foods. But it also has an incentive for farmers to participate in local farmer's markets and know that they are going to have a really good opportunity to sell the produce they farmed," Mark said.
Mark is looking to put that program into law to keep it running but also allow for a trust fund to be created to fund it into the future.
The representative is also looking to bolster his efforts with employee ownership and cooperatives. After multiple attempts, Mark was able to re-establish the Massachusetts Office of Employee Involvement and Ownership in 2017. Now he is looking to bolster those efforts to ease the process for businesses looking to transform into a cooperative or be employee-owned.
A new bill will reduce the tax on capital gains when a business sells to its employees. Mark said that is particularly aimed at businesses where the owner looks to retire and doesn't have a succession plan in place. He hopes the incentive will lead more business owners to transform the model rather than sell out to a larger company.
"By creating incentives to them that isn't of selling out to a bigger business that may close down or move it out of town, how about you keep this business, this product, this idea that you have worked on for so long and put so much of your time and effort into, how about you sell it to the employees and let them keep going?" Mark said.
"They're your employees. They worked with you. They learned from you. And you've benefited each other over this time."
He is also proposing easing the process to transfer to employee-owned for businesses that enter distressed business programs. Between the office, the tax incentives for retiring owners, and for distressed business, Mark is trying to get at the topic from all angles.
He is also filing for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
"The influence of money in politics is actually getting worse. There is a companion bill that I filed that would limit foreign donations. People that aren't residents of the United States aren't allowed to donate to campaigns but this will try to flesh that out by making sure they aren't going around it by going through a corporation, a trust, or giving money to a cousin. It will try to ensure the integrity of our electoral process," Mark said.
He's also looking for the state to audit a percentage of the communities in the state after an election to help verify elections were done properly.
Mark represents a piece of Pittsfield which is a Gateway City. But, Greenfield doesn't have the population numbers to qualify but face some of the same issues. The Gateway Cities program provides additional resources for those cities. Mark is now filing a bill to allow multiple towns to combine their populations to qualify for the program. Particularly, that would help North Adams and Greenfield team up a Route 2 economic development corridor through the program.
"This would allow more than one municipality to form an inter-municipal compact to try to work together and meet the population threshold of the Gateway Cities," Mark said.
The session only recently began with bills being due last Friday. Mark expects education at the K-12 level to be a hot topic this year among lawmakers since it didn't pass last term.
"It fell apartment because the Millionaire's Tax was ruled unconstitutional. When all of a sudden $1.5 billion potentially was off the table, that changed the negotiation, that changed the arguments being made. We just didn't have the time to reconcile that," Mark said.
He also expects health care financing to become a big issue. Mark is hoping that bill will include a study of single-payer so the state could be in a position to implement such a model.
"We need a plan to be developed and we need somebody in office who will be ready to push that plan into action and make sure it is successful. I believe it is realistic that in 10 years we could have a single-payer system in this state that is going to save people money, is going to increase entrepreneurship, and the opportunity for people to strike out on their own, small businesses be sustainable," Mark said.
"But in the interim, we still need to do something. That's what the bill we are ultimately going to do this year will look like."