The Massachusetts state senator representing Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District is a very busy man. The numbers alone are impressive. To visit all 52 towns in his three-county constituency, he’d have to traverse more than 1,000 square miles. In the nearly two and a half years since taking office, he’s been assigned to eight committees, taken on the chairmanship of the Joint Committee on Revenue and been named vice chair of the Senate Committee on Redistricting. His weeks are split between in-district meetings and senate sessions in Boston. Oh, and he’s getting married in August.
I recently sat down with Hinds in his Pittsfield office to discuss his proudest accomplishments, how to align workforce development needs with the education system, and his hopes and concerns about the rollout of recreational marijuana in the state, among other things.
Sheela Clary: You’re incredibly busy!
Adam Hinds: It’s nonstop. There’s the general busy-ness that comes from running around an area the size of Rhode Island. I’ve visited all 52 towns, but there’s varying degrees of engagement in terms of what they call on us to do.
I’ve found the demands from the State House are only increasing. Whereas before, I could get away with going to Boston for Wednesday and Thursday for formal votes, now it’s easily Tuesday through Thursday and sometimes Friday.
There’s an intensity around the budget in May, which has to be done by July 1. It’s in conference committees now. In May, I’m on Ways and Means, so that gave me some advance work, but basically, you get the budget and file your amendments and fight for things locally and some statewide priorities. But it’s an intensity that goes down pretty quickly.
SC: What would you identify as your three most impactful accomplishments?
AH: Well, one isn’t happening yet, which is the Flyer. [Amtrak route from New York City to Albany-Rensselaer, with through service to Pittsfield, with internet, and bar and snack cars. The route would take 3.75 hours.]
To go from the idea of, “We need to have a link to New York City” to actually having the pilot starting next summer is a big one. from a bureaucratic perspective, it’s meant getting approval from the legislature to have the study done, and approval from DOT [Massachusetts Department of Transportation] to say it’s feasible and would have a positive impact, to now actually having money put aside. People say, “Wow, it doesn’t happen that often, let alone that quickly.”
Rural school aid would be the second. The reason that’s appealing is it’s $2.5 million in this budget, and it’s a recognition that we’re grappling with a declining school enrollment. Both of these examples reveal our strategy, which is, “Don’t listen to me, listen to the state agencies.” In the first budget, we required DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] to do a study on the conditions of rural schools, and to the surprise of nobody, they found that we’re spending much more on teachers and paraprofessionals in a nod to the age-old problem of you have two students leave, you still have to pay for the same teacher costs, and spending 50 percent more on transportation. If you have a regional school in a suburban or urban area, they’re spending a lot less than we are. This allowed us to say, “Look, we have a problem with equal educational opportunity in the state. What are we going to do about it?” The frustrating part, to look at Wisconsin, the model we’re borrowing this from, it should be $300–$400 per student, and we’re at $100 right now. Now we’re adding a million, we’ll see where that lands. Right now it’s allocated for 20 students per square mile, we’ll see if they’ll go up to 30 per square mile. [In addition to parts of Berkshire County, parts of Franklin and Hampshire counties, Cape Cod and the Islands, and central Massachusetts just west of Worcester from New Hampshire to Connecticut are eligible.]
The biggest winner [of rural aid] was Central Berkshire School District, I think they received close to a quarter million. There were some surprises. Mount Greylock got it, but Adams-Cheshire did not. [Criteria for receiving aid are number of students per square mile, and/or income lower than the state average.] For Adams, the density was just off.
This year we increased the per capita income to 115 percent to try to capture a few of the others. We’re taking on an education financing bill this summer, and we’re starting to make that a part of the permanent formula, so our schools aren’t dealing with uncertainty. We’ve met with some resistance. Not everyone agrees with putting more money at these regions, and they’d prefer to find efficiencies. We go back and forth about how to achieve that.
SC: Do you have strong views on the schools’ regionalization ideas?
AH: I do have a strong view that we are missing out on an opportunity to do something interesting and creative. How we go about it, I have less strong views on. One example is there are 20 Advanced Placement courses in Pittsfield, and other school districts with one or two. Is there a way to be creative with technology to give access to every kid in the county? I think yes.
I’d like to see the Education Task Force lean forward on how we’re answering those questions. Looking at what’s happening in the southern Berkshires now—might be a win-win if we go about it the right way. I put $50,000 aside in the budget for the work of the task force, and we’re talking to DESE about creating a trust fund for districts that are having these conversations. In Franklin County, it is also pressing. I have a feeling, a year from now, the criteria will be less rural and more based on declining enrollment. That’s a good thing, because North Adams and Pittsfield are losing students.
Thirdly, I would say, the criminal justice reform work. We added elements on confirmation bias for all police officers, working with the NAACP. That felt satisfying, while not Berkshire-specific.
Workforce development: Few issues come up as regularly as that. From all sides—workers, business owners, people looking for jobs. Can workers afford to live in the community where they work? When we talk about workforce housing, it’s affordable housing. Often the equation that comes up is General Dynamics is hiring 200 engineers a year, and they have 1,400 employees. You have young engineers arriving from somewhere, and do we have housing that’s attractive to them? We have new buildings in Pittsfield that Allegrone and David Carver are doing, trying to fill the niche of, say, $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom.
We also got money for a workforce “czar.” A czarina, actually. The Berkshire United Way has picked it up now. [Adds Karen Vogel, of the Berkshire United Way: “For the Fiscal Year ‘18 budget, Adam was able to secure an earmark ($75,000) for a “work czar” to work with Berkshire County Regional Employment Board (now MassHire) to help get people to work. We are now funding that position, known as the Berkshire Recruiter, as part of the work of our Economic Prosperity Impact Council. Our goal is to reduce the number of households making less than $75,000 a year and get unemployed/underemployed people into jobs through a pipeline that involves businesses, education and social service agencies.]
SC: Do you have thoughts about how the education system can participate in that?
AH: Lots of thoughts: The one that’s come up most recently is shifting the narrative on how guidance departments and the like are promoting acceptable next steps for students.
SC: Because they’ve only been promoting college?
AH: Right. I feel like it’s shifting now, though the anecdotes from the business leaders is that it’s not shifting enough. We had a legislative business roundtable earlier this week and across the board, the frustration was, “Why is it that parents, schools and students alike don’t realize they can have a six-figure job as a computer technician in an auto shop??”
SC: Or as a plumber.
AH: Or go on down the list. Good jobs, union jobs, good health care, $60,000–$70,000 jobs. They were saying they could fill tens of jobs right now if we had the people with the skills and desire to show up. There’s high demand and good-paying jobs.
Do we do one-off job fairs with schools? We’re also clear about the certifications that Berkshire Community College and others are putting forward. We see deliberate strategies around health care, nursing, physicians’ assistants, there’s a lot of work being done on that piece. We push for state funds in advanced manufacturing.
We’re coming at it from all angles, and yet it still feels like we’re coming up short when you see there’s 1,400 available jobs in Berkshire County. It’s been one of the frustrating areas.
SC: Do State House educational priorities align with ours in Berkshire County?
AH: Yes and no. The foundation budget review commission found we are spending $2 billion less than we should, so if we were to right-size that, it would mean a huge impact here. Low-income students, health care, special needs and English learners: If you were to increase all those categories, it would help for sure. We increased $68 million over the governor’s budget and $50 million over the House. I went to the education chair and said, “That’s great, we need it, but it’s still not going to help my region.” He said, “No, just look at the numbers.” So we did and his eyes were opened. He said, “My god, you’re right. I get it.”
There’s a clear disconnect in the formula. Even when we’re increasing in transportation, Chapter 70, special ed., when you have student enrollment decline, there’s going to be a gap. We increased the budget by $68 million and several of my towns are losing money. It strengthened my argument for long-term strategies.
SC: Are there any schools in Berkshire County where enrollment is increasing?
AH: McCann. That’s it. [McCann Technical High School, in North Adams.] The only one that gets close is Lenox, down only 4 percent. That’s the dynamic. The good news is now that issue is a topic of conversation.
SC: Do you have any opinions about how recreational marijuana is unfolding, considering your youth development background?
AH: There have been several areas of concern. We were very clear about the licenses and employees benefitting communities and individuals disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
SC: Massachusetts was going to get that right where other states got it wrong.
AH: Except we didn’t. There were some reports about a month ago in the Globe and elsewhere that the licenses were going to a lot of corporations from out of state. Berkshire County feels like a little bit of an exception, because we do have some homegrown players. When you look at who’s getting the licenses in Berkshire County, I am a little less concerned. It looks like it is people who are from here.
The ballot initiative passed and then it came through the legislature. We did several things. One was, of course, the taxation. The other area we did a lot of work was packaging so you don’t have the cigarette and Juul situation, where it’s clearly going after youth. I support it but I have deep concerns around the youth involvement before the developing brain reaches maturity.
In the meantime, we’ve been fighting for our farmers. That was another area that myself and the senator from the Cape worked on. The ballot initiative seemed to be favoring corporations and folks that were already involved was high fees for entry. There was even a lag time for companies with existing experience versus new entries and the farmers and allowing for cooperatives for farmers, allowing for the people in the Berkshires who will have a comparative advantage in terms of the brand of growing outdoors. There’s a real ability to compete in that space.
The topic only comes up now regarding specific challenges. Who’s benefitting? Is the intention of the law being met? The bigger conversation comes up around revenue. Is it meeting what we expected? It’s small potatoes. We’re talking about tens of millions in a $43 billion budget.
SC: It seems maybe numbers in the opioid epidemic are going in the right direction.
AH: Yeah, but is it for the right reasons? Is it because we have Narcan more readily available? The number of overdose deaths is one thing. The continued prevalence of the challenge is another. We are unfortunately almost annually doing a major substance abuse and opioid intervention bill. The emphasis shifts year to year. We are moving more toward recovery coaches and recovery centers, where to put treatment facilities. The Brien Center is developing another long-term one in North County. We had to take on new strategies in the past year, like medically assisted treatment in jails. The concern is the high rate of overdose deaths in the first days after leaving incarceration. So, we have five houses of correction doing a pilot on medically assisted treatment across the state.
SC: Is there oppositions to that?
AH: Yes, law enforcement in general oppose it for ideological and other reasons. We do get pushback.
SC: What’s been a surprise in terms of how government works?
AH: When you get into something like this, you have your preconceived notions. My eyes were definitely wide-opened to entering a frustrating bureaucracy. I’ve been surprised that I really enjoy it as a vehicle for getting involved in big issues.
SC: You were skeptical that things would ever get done and they do get done?
AH: Yeah. Oh, we did get $2.5 million more for schools! We are investing in transportation! We often talk about— with such stasis at the federal level— that the states are becoming the platform for doing things. So, this week we’re talking about $1 billion for climate change mitigation. You feel like there’s a genuine conversation on serious stuff.
There’s a new class of folks who came in, we experience just the same way the Congress did. There’s been a bump in the number of progressives in the Senate, so those cutting-edge conversations are talking place, which is a relief.
The other thing that I’m focused on, including with writing this op-ed in the Globe is we are really well-placed compared to other rural areas. Whereas a lot of areas are grappling with this post-industrial moment—jobs leaving, our rivers, industrial plants—we have $1 billion invested in the Berkshires in the past three years, and $2 billion over the past five years. Major attractions and cultural assets and universities and outdoor recreation, which is another priority of mine. Other parts of the state don’t have that. I’m energized by those opportunities.
SC: How much of your time has to be spent thinking about the next campaign? Is that on your radar?
AH: No, but unfortunately fundraising is ongoing, because we pay $34,000 for all my district activities. [Hinds is allotted $5,000 from the state for expenses.] I also have a part-time office in Williamsburg to cover the 20 towns outside of Berkshire County. We give mileage to staff for covering so much territory, then just general things like keeping the lights on, cell phones. But campaigning? You do the work, and the rest will take care of itself. Smitty [Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox] told me that once and it stuck.