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House Speaker Talks Budget, Gets Tour Of Irene Damage
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
05:27PM / Thursday, April 12, 2012
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State Reps. Paul Mark and Speaker Robert DeLeo, center, pose with candidates for Boys' and Girls' State from Wahconah Regional High School.

Speaker Robert DeLeo was touring parts of the Berkshires and neighboring counties on Thursday.
DALTON, Mass. — The speaker of the House was impressed by the natural beauty of Berkshire County in his visit this week but Rep. Paul Mark was planning to show him nature's wrath as well.

"I'm taking him through Savoy, Charlemont, Colrain and Shelburne Falls ... and show him firsthand what happened," said Mark on Thursday of the hilltowns in his district damaged by last fall's Hurricane Irene. "Show him this is how far we've come in just six-seven months and this is what we still need from you."

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the state has a system in place for supplemental funding for declared federal disaster areas but wanted to see for himself the pounding the region had taken. The federal goverment is reimbursing at 75 percent for the costs incurred and the state is looking to cover half the balance.

"We've set aside $10 million to cover the state's portion of the 12.5 percent that they definitely have to pick up," said Mark, but added the Berkshire delegation is fighting for the state to cover the other 12.5 percent so "small towns with no property tax base aren't stuck with this gigantic bill they can't possibly afford."

DeLeo attended Mark's birthday party on Wednesday night and was the featured speaker at the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce's Eggs & Issues Breakfast at the Wahconah Country Club on Thursday morning.

"You have more trees here than I have in my entire district," the Winthrop Democrat told an audience of about 65 that included students from Wahconah Regional High School, local leaders and state Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and Tricia Farley-Bouvier. The event was sponsored by AT&T and David Mancuso, AT&T regional vice president of external affairs, spoke briefly.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Denise Richardello thanks the speaker for supporting the college's under-construction science center.
"I'm proud of the fact I have a pretty good understanding of the Berkshires," DeLeo said, adding that when he had become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, "that I had better learn in terms of what are the driving economic forces throughout the whole state."

Not surprisingly, DeLeo touched on the just released budget from the House Ways and Means Committee and spoke more broadly about the state's financial health.

"We've had a fairly successful year last year," he said, pointing to the state's healthy stabilization account and government leaders working together that placed Massachusetts at the top among states rated by Standard & Poor's. It was one of only two states that saw its bond rating increase and one of only four with at least $1 billion in stabilization. "The Senate president and the governor and myself may have disagreements at times but at the end of the day we all leave our egos at the door and we get things done in what we consider to be in the interests of the commonwealth."

He pointed pension system reform, municipal health insurance changes that have so far saved $90 million for cities and town, and an employment rate of 6.9 percent. "In terms of our economy, we are, I think, in better shape and I think once we really get ourselves out of this economic morass we found ourselves in, I think Massachusetts is going to be better positioned than many states."

DeLeo said the House budget draft for 2013 closes a budget gap of $790 million without any increased taxes or fees, including the $260 million in cigarette, candy and soda taxes proposed in the governor's budget.

"It was my feeling and the feeling shared by the chairman of Ways and Means, now is not the time to be talking about putting any increased burdens on people in particular by increasing their taxes," he said.

The budget draft includes $65 million in local aid that had been dependent in the governor's budget on any surplus and $164 million in school funds. Afterward, the speaker said cuts, efficiencies and use of stabilization funds were enough to offset new taxes.

A proposal to centralize the community college structure by the governor is not in it; rather, DeLeo said the budget measure will keep local control of community colleges but allow for better collaboration and more input from the executive office.

"If you're a Berkshire Community College, God knows, I think you know this area probably a little bit better than some bureaucrat in Boston," he said to chuckles.

Mark, who introduced the speaker, joked that he had gone to Beacon Hill with visions of political bosses in smoky backrooms and found instead a "great coach" in DeLeo.

"He listens to what we have to say, he asks our opinions, he solicits input," said the Peru Democrat. "He wants to know what's going on in the whole state."

Speaker DeLeo poses with AT&T's David Mancuso, left, and Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Paul Mark and William 'Smitty' Pignatelli.

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