CHARLEMONT — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal was at Berkshire East Mountain Resort Thursday morning, talking up a plan to incentivize renewable energy that he hopes will be included in the federal government’s upcoming economic support efforts.
The conversation also touched on the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government’s response to the public health crisis thus far, Congress’ goals for working with the new presidential administration and the ongoing, high-profile impeachment case of former President Donald Trump.
Neal, a Democrat from Springfield, has served in the House of Representatives since 1989. His district originally consisted mainly of Springfield and some suburbs of Worcester, but it was redrawn following the 2010 census to include Berkshire County and some western parts of Franklin and Hampshire counties.
Since 2007, Neal has been a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which controls taxes and other revenue-raising functions, plus programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and unemployment services. He has been chair of the committee since January 2019.
Berkshire East, a locally owned ski resort in Charlemont, was on Neal’s agenda Thursday because it has aggressively pursued renewable energy, and has taken advantage of certain energy-related tax incentives that Neal has supported. The resort’s owners, brothers Jon and Jim Schaefer, emphasized that Berkshire East is the only ski mountain in the world that runs exclusively on renewable energy.
The ski resort is powered by a 500-kilowatt-hour solar facility and a 900-kilowatt-hour wind turbine.
“What we’re trying to do,” Neal said, “is to point out that the tax system can bring people economically to renewable energy. I think it is the key. The polarized national discussion over these issues can be, at least in some measure, calmed by providing incentives to move people away from fossil fuels.”
The Schaefers spoke highly of the federal government’s economic support efforts so far in the pandemic, particularly the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security), the $2.2 trillion bill passed in March, which they said included resources that have helped Berkshire East operate over the past year.
“It was really well handled. It was a brilliant move,” Jim Schaefer said. “It’s one of the best examples of government stepping in and doing everything right.”
Neal added that Congress is aiming to create a major infrastructure bill later this year, which will take a different approach to supporting the economy than the relief efforts over the past 10 months.
“This has really been about stability. Infrastructure will be about stimulus,” Neal said.
In an interview afterward, Neal indulged some questions on the federal government’s potential role in the economic recovery from the pandemic, his view of Trump’s handling of the public health crisis and his expectations for the Senate’s upcoming trial of Trump’s impeachment.
The federal government’s handling of the pandemic, Neal argued, has been less effective than it could have been because Trump delegated most responsibility to individual states.
Now, as vaccines become available, access to vaccination seems confusing and difficult because each state must handle it largely independently, Neal explained. Stronger direction from the federal government could help to improve access to vaccination, he said.
“We need a more unified response,” Neal said. “It seemed as though, from the early tweets until the evening press conferences, that there was inconsistency. I think presidents are ill-served by contradicting people from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health. They know what they’re doing.”
He added, “It is American ingenuity that developed this vaccine in record time. We can’t miss that point. Even now, the Russian vaccine and the Chinese vaccine — they don’t measure up to what America has done.”
Regarding the Ways and Means Committee, Neal said he is optimistic about working with President Joe Biden, also a Democrat, while the House of Representatives remains as a majority of Democrats, and the Senate is now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. His committee’s agenda will likely include new policies on health care, unemployment support, new tax credits, another round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the national infrastructure package that is expected this year, he said. Direct payments to Americans also seem likely, he said, as there is still broad political support for the idea.
“We’re going to argue about the size of the check. But I think it’s very likely that there’s going to be another round,” he said.
On Trump’s impeachment, Neal is skeptical the Senate will vote to convict.
“I never believed the votes were there despite what Leader McConnell said,” Neal said, referring to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the leader of the Senate Republicans. “I think the discussions now are going to move more in the direction of censure or reprimand, or something. I don’t think you can ignore what happened on Jan. 6. I don’t think you can airbrush that.”
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