SHIRLEY -- "Inequality is stark in Massachusetts," Sen. James Eldridge told the audience at a Community Forum on Poverty held at Trinity Chapel last week.
"Come...ask the tough questions" an event flyer invited. The senator posed a tough one himself.
"What can we do in Massachusetts?" to address poverty, Eldridge asked. "It's a big issue."
Even in a strong economy, the state's "income inequality" gap is the fifth highest in the country, he said, citing high housing and transportation costs. "Many are left behind," he said.
The House budget this year included funding for Loaves & Fishes, a food pantry in Devens that serves 800 families and is expanding facilities to meet growing need.
"The economy may have recovered," Eldridge said, "but some still struggle, despite the state's strong safety net."
He noted that a commuter rail pass costs $300 a month, added to rent or a mortgage payment, food, clothing and other expenses. It's tough for families to make ends meet, he said. Some can't make it.
He and other lawmakers at the state house are advocating for "Fight for 15," the senator said. Filed as a referendum, the bill would up the minimum wage by $1 a year for the next four years. It's a positive step, he said, but even at $15 per hour, 40 or 60 hours a week, it's still not enough to support a family.
One gap-closing move under review by the Massachusetts Supreme Court would raise the state income tax to 9 percent (from 5 percent) for those with income of $1 million a year or more.
Specific initiatives if the "Millionaires Tax" becomes law could include making transportation more affordable, expanding shuttle service to help folks get to their jobs and free community college, whih could open opportunities to learn skills for specialized manufacturing jobs, and/or earn a degree. "It could eliminate a barrier," Eldridge said.
Asked if he supports rolling back the state sales tax, which hits low-income families hard, Eldridge offered a nuanced view. There's a bill to do that, he said, but its passage would mean lost revenue: $130 million less per year to fund education, transportation, libraries and social programs. The sales tax excludes food, drugs and clothes, he added.
What about housing? Eldridge indicated that the "affordable housing" issue can be a tough nut to crack, with NIMBY (Not in my back yard!) arguments surfacing when the subject comes up.
The governor just signed a $1.8 billion, five-year bond bill that could help build public housing, Eldridge said, but he acknowledged that area affordable housing options are few and far between and that no sizable low income projects were likely to be proposed in the state any time soon.
Scattered affordable units might be more realistic, he said, with zoning changes at the local level. . Chapter 40B requires that a percentage of municipal housing stock must meet "affordable" guidelines, he said, but communities could do more, such as designating areas for multifamily buildings.
Asked about handicapped access in the context of low-income housing, Eldridge envisioned a mandate for private homes as well as public places. There's a proposal to revamp state and local building codes so that all new houses must have accessible features such as bathrooms and wide doorways, he said. The bill includes $100 million to help with accessible makeovers, he said.
Asked why the state doesn't help towns build affordable housing, since it subsidizes conservation land purchases, Eldridge answered that, in a way, it does, via Community Development Block Grants, rehab grants to Habitat for Humanity and the Community Preservation Act, or CPA.
Communities that vote to adopt the CPA accept a property tax surcharge that the state backs with matching funds. Starting out dollar for dollar the first year, the percentage fell after that. It's low now, Eldridge said, but he hopes it will soon rise to 30 percent. The act requires a committee (CPC) to review project proposals and make funding recommendations to voters. The money can be used for three types of projects: Open space and recreation, historic preservation or affordable housing.
Ayer, Harvard and other area towns have voted to accept CPA; Shirley has not.
Eldridge posed a question even liberal-minded residents might wrestle with: "Would universal income prevent poverty?" And could the uber-rich be taxed to fund this "bold idea?"
Given that even people with college degrees face financial challenges, particularly as automation changes the job market, what if everybody got a paycheck? Rich and poor, employed or not.
It might help iron out inequities in the social welfare system, for starters. Noting that 25 percent of his work with constitutes involves a public assistance issue, Eldridge shared a story about a 91-year old woman who unknowingly received more than her share of food stamps. She was given 15 years to pay it back, he said.
One of Eldridge's targets has been corporate tax breaks and other loopholes he'd like closed. Film tax credit to New England Studios in Devens, for example. "It may stimulate the local economy," he said, but not enough to offset lost tax revenue and it won't last long. "Most of it goes to pay actors," he said. Another bill in the pipeline would cut a similar deal for bio tech firms. "Do they really need a tax break?" he asked.
Eldridge updated the status of bills on the group's radar, such as Clean Energy and Immigration.
Shirley's Robert Adam, an historic building restoration specialist, asked about windows vs clean energy credits. Old houses can't meet standards if a rehab calls for an historic makeover rather than replacement, he said, even if a rebuilt or reproduction window is as energy efficient as a new one. "They'd get a lower score," he said.
Eldridge put it on his to-do list.
The immigration bill, filed after President Trump took office would offer "basic due process rights and protections to undocumented immigrants," Eldridge said.
* A police officer during a routine traffic stop can't ask about immigration status.
* When detained, undocumented persons must be told they can hire an attorney and that they don't have to talk to ICE.
* Prohibits immigration agents working within departments, such as police or the RMV.
* No "Muslim registry," in Massachusetts.
Asked if the referendum on transgender accommodations, such as bathrooms, in public buildings puts their status at risk, Eldridge said it could. If your aim is to keep the protections, "you say Yes," he said.
Another question concerned pay raises he and other lawmakers have been slammed for giving themselves. "What do you guys do in a week?"
Eldridge said he works Monday through Thursday in Boston and meets with constituents on Fridays, sometimes Saturdays. At the state house, "we work on bills," he said, and it can take years, with discussions, hearings, public forums and advocacy. "I think that most people get that we're busy," he said. "In Massachusetts, it's a full time job."
Trinity Chapel's Community Forum series, now in its sixth year, addresses timely social topics, often tough, some with speakers. Past topics the senator was asked to talk about included criminal justice reform. "We passed a law," that changed aspects of the prison system, Eldridge said, after years of "grass roots organizing" by groups like this one. "Your advocacy helped create a comprehensive bill," he said. "Thank you!"