Category: Op-ed

What I learned from my father’s service in the National Guard

In Masslive 5/18/17

Back in 2008 I got an interesting phone call from my dad. He was signing up to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard at the age of 56.

My dad had run a family medical practice in Holyoke for many years. One of his patients, who was a veteran himself, told him about the chronic shortage of doctors in the armed services. So he took matters into his own hands and signed up to help.

Less than two years later, he flew out for his first tour of duty: staffing a troop medical clinic at a U.S. base in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

I learned a few things from my father’s service.

First, our men and women in uniform make tremendous sacrifices, and so do their families. My mom was left alone for several months to manage on her own while worrying about her husband’s safety. Thousands of our military families in Massachusetts face much tougher situations.

Second, I learned the essential role the broader civilian community must play in supporting service-members and their families. Our National Guard, in particular, are often called “citizen-soldiers” because they are expected to put their private lives and careers on hold, sometimes on a moment’s notice. And their absence is felt by the community around them.

For my dad, this meant asking other doctors and healthcare providers to cover his patients and keep the practice running while he was overseas.

In Massachusetts, we should be especially proud of the role we played with the nation’s first National Guard, dating back to the first minuteman who fired the shot heard round the world.

I also learned about the many ways we need to improve care for our veterans, and about the unique challenges our men and women in uniform — and their families — face on a daily basis.

These include very real anxieties, from re-entering the civilian workforce to worrying about their families while they are away. There are several items I’m working on in the Massachusetts Senate aimed at addressing these unique needs.

Veterans also come back with a variety of skills that should transfer seamlessly to careers in engineering, vehicle mechanics, police training and others. Unfortunately, many of our state requirements for professional licenses still don’t recognize these skills, sometimes forcing veterans to retake training they already received in the armed services. I filed a bill, “An Act to aid military service members in finding civilian employment,” to correct this.

As the sun sets on the World War II generation, we have a large number of veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and the war on terror who will take their place. They deserve our gratitude and our care, which is why I continue to fight to protect the Holyoke Soldiers Home.

As Memorial Day approaches, each of us has a solemn obligation to honor those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, “have borne the battle.”

That commitment must go beyond mere words. It must be reflected in our actions and, most importantly, in the laws our citizen-soldiers fight to defend.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

How to turn Western Massachusetts into a high-tech hub

In Masslive 4/13/17

Those of us in Western Mass. watched for two generations as the 128 corridor boomed and greater Boston turned into one of the world’s great tech centers.

Meanwhile, our largely manufacturing-based economy, once a thriving ecosystem, was unable to compete as the technology revolution took hold and policymakers focused elsewhere — leading to a steady economic decline over the last several decades.

But there’s reason to be optimistic that we can transition to compete: The startup and innovation economy that was once concentrated in greater Boston has been planting seeds west of 495. Greentown Labs opened a Springfield office last year and a new Innovation Center is opening in Springfield this summer, as just two examples.

It’s our obligation — and our opportunity — to take advantage of this emerging trend and grow the tech economy in Western Mass. Indeed, it’s never been cheaper and easier to launch a tech venture outside of traditional startup hubs, given the declining cost of mobile internet technology and the proliferation of big data.

So, how do we jumpstart things here in Western Mass.?

Booming tech centers have three things in common: connectivity, access to capital and large numbers of skilled workers.

The connections are already happening.

Last week, for example, I brought researchers from MIT on a tour of the “Laser Lab” at Springfield Technical Community College. We discussed the role Western Massachusetts could play at the center of a corridor between New York and Boston known as the “Silicon Valley of lasers.” This sector alone will need to fill as many as fifty thousand jobs in the coming years — imagine what that could mean for Western Mass.

We need to make these connections permanent with an east-west rail link from Springfield to Boston, and north-south along the Pioneer Valley and into New York City.  Now that Union Station is reopening after four decades, the timing has never been better.

Next, our local entrepreneurs should get the capital they need, without moving to Boston or San Francisco once their ideas get off the ground. One way to do this is by providing a tax credit to investors who put their money into small businesses getting started in Gateway Cities like Springfield, Chicopee, Pittsfield and Holyoke. If a new business can get the funding it needs here, it’s much more likely to stay in Western Mass and hire local workers.

The third component is a well-trained workforce.

Western Mass needs an educated workforce ready to take advantage of the new innovation economy. Making college, particularly community college, affordable and accessible is critical for developing tomorrow’s workers and entrepreneurs. I also filed legislation to provide student loan assistance for young people who live and work in a Gateway City after graduation — because they will be the ones getting our new tech ecosystem going.

Connecting east and west, injecting capital into Western Mass and promoting workforce development would go a long way toward making the western part of our state as vibrant and competitive as the tech center to our east. The result will be thousands of new jobs and the chance to ensure every region of Massachusetts lives up to its potential.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

It’s time for a student loan bill of rights in Massachusetts

In Masslive 3/17/17

A college degree has never cost so much. Since the Baby Boomers were students, the price of a diploma has shot up more than 1,000 percent. As a result, it’s becoming impossible for middle class families to pay for higher education without taking on substantial debt. In Massachusetts, the average student loan debt has increased by nearly 75 percent over the past decade, from $17,000 to more than $29,000.

As a result, even the most responsible student loan borrowers find it hard to stay afloat, especially in the face of a dysfunctional system that protects banks and loan servicers instead of students and their families.

Last fall, as just one example, ACS Education Services, a federal student loan servicer, was accused of charging excessive late fees and flooding borrowers with harassing debt collection calls.

Right now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is pursuing Navient for steering borrowers into costly repayment plans, supplying wrong information about their loans and ignoring borrowers’ requests for help.

There is a disturbing pattern here. Too many students don’t know what their rights are when it comes to borrowing loans to pay for school. Banks and servicers often make the terms as confusing as possible and take advantage of students with deceptive practices. Once students fall behind, they don’t know where to turn for help.

That’s why State Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster and I introduced the Student Loan Bill of Rights. This law, modeled after a successful effort in Connecticut, will give students and their families new rights and protections as they navigate the loan repayment process.

First, the bill will create a Student Loan Ombudsman to defend the interests of students. This appointed official will be a one-stop customer service shop so students can clearly understand their rights and responsibilities. In a system filled with advocates for the banks, there will finally be a dedicated advocate for students and their families.

Second, the bill will enhance oversight of student loan servicers. It will create new standards to prevent abusive practices like misleading students and harassing them with late-night debt collection calls.

Third, the law will empower the Commissioner of Banks to investigate loan servicers who break the rules — and to deliver results.

Finally, the Student Loan Bill of Rights will give the state new power to fine servicers who break the rules. It can also require servicers to repay students who have been taken advantage of.

There is much more we have to do, of course. It is essential to lower the cost of higher education, especially at our community colleges, state colleges, and universities. We also need more support for vocational and technical training, and we need to expect our universities — both public and private — to do a better job controlling costs.

But protecting students’ rights in the borrowing process is an important step. At a time when the Federal Government is failing to act, we have an obligation in Massachusetts to step forward and protect our students and their families.

It’s time for a student loan bill of rights.

Senator Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

High-tech manufacturing experiencing renaissance in Western Mass.

In Masslive 2/15/17

There are many reasons for optimism about our region’s economy. Springfield’s skyline is dotted with cranes, and the next two years will see Union Station, the CRRC rail-car plant and the MGM Springfield casino open and come to life. Together, these developments represent billions of dollars in new investment and hundreds of new jobs.

But there is another economic trend worth our attention. It’s more difficult to see because it largely plays out at local, family-owned shops up and down the Pioneer Valley. It’s a renaissance in high-tech manufacturing – and the high-paying jobs that go with it.

Companies like Dielectrics in Chicopee, Meridian Industrial in Holyoke, FloDesign in Wilbraham and Advance Welding in Springfield are using cutting-edge techniques and highly skilled Western Massachusetts workers to make components for medical devices, aircraft engines, wind turbines and sonar systems sold all over the world.

Despite our leadership in this cutting-edge field, our region is not producing enough skilled workers to fill the available jobs. As a result, there are vacancies across Western Massachusetts and thousands more projected in the coming years. This shortage will become even more pronounced once the CRRC railcar plant comes on line.

Failure to address this skills gap is more than a statistic: it’s a threat to our economic future.

Wages in this high-tech field can approach averages of $75,000 a year. Imagine the billions of dollars in lost potential if we allow those positions to go unfilled, denying thousands of families the chance to buy homes, save for retirement and invest in the Western Massachusetts economy.

Eventually, we would do permanent damage to our economy because manufacturers will move somewhere with a steadier supply of skilled workers.

That’s why I spent so much time focused on manufacturing policy last session, as Senate chair of the Legislature’s Manufacturing Caucus.

It’s also why, in the new legislative session, we need to expand and improve our vocational education programs, especially in high-tech manufacturing, and incentivize collaboration between local employers and local educators.

High quality training is especially important given the competitive nature of modern manufacturing. Workers are expected to operate complex, multi-million dollar machines and the computer systems that control them. This requires mathematics and engineering skills, along with the ability to adopt new technologies like 3-D printing.

Luckily, many of our region’s leaders and organizations are preparing the next generation of high-tech workers in innovative ways.

The machine tool technology programs at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy are statewide models.

On a college level, the Smith & Wesson Applications Center at Springfield Technical Community College continues to see record enrollment and placement.

And for those striving to enter the workforce, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County and the Western Massachusetts chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association run a pilot program for unemployed and under-employed workers, including veterans, an initiative my colleagues and I substantially increased funding for last session.

There are many new initiatives aimed at supporting the Pioneer Valley’s high-tech manufacturing scene.

Valley Venture Mentors, for example, launched a manufacturing accelerator to help local manufacturers get connected to new business opportunities.

Greentown Labs, a clean-energy incubator in Somerville, is opening an office at the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park in Springfield to connect start-ups in eastern Massachusetts with manufacturing companies here, the fruits of an initiative led by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Tech Foundry in Springfield is pioneering new workforce training techniques and continues to grow and attract applicants.

These public-private partnerships need more support from Beacon Hill so they can continue to foster a vibrant, high-tech ecosystem in Greater Springfield.
We also need to do a better job marketing the high-tech manufacturing scene in Western Massachusetts and showing young people the type of futures they can have in this fast-paced industry.

Ever since George Washington placed the Armory here, Springfield – and the Pioneer Valley – has had a proud history of making some of the world’s most important and innovative products, from the first monkey-wrench to the first gas-powered automobile, from Rolls Royce cars to the rifles that won World War II.
We have been a high-tech center for centuries. Now, it’s time to recapture that spirit for the next generation.

Last year, I worked with my colleagues to secure funding for a new high-tech manufacturing program at the Lower Pioneer Valley Education Collaborative. The program is a partnership between nine area school districts, local employers and the state. During one of several visits, I met a high-school student who was learning to fashion aluminum for jet engines and other machines. He showed the same pride as my paternal grandfather, who worked as a tool-and-die maker his entire career.

At 18 years old, this young student will graduate and enter a high-tech field with clear pathways for advancement. After a few years, he can use his new skills and networks to open a local shop of his own. The products he makes will be used across the world, in some of the most important and competitive fields, from clean energy to aviation to healthcare. People will rely on his work to grow food, ship goods, fly planes, power cities and do everything else essential to powering our modern economy. And he will do it close to his home and his family, without having to move to Boston or New York or San Francisco, and without taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

As a new year begins, let’s work to make sure we give thousands more people in Western Massachusetts the same opportunity.

State Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Manufacturing Caucus and co-chair of the Gateway Cities Caucus. He represents the 1st Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Op-Ed: Making college more affordable

In MassLive, Dec. 14, 2015

This winter break, college students are bringing home more than just loads of laundry: they’re also bringing mounting loads of debt.

Student debt is a simmering crisis for young adults and their families. Nationally, 40 million people owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loans. In Massachusetts, the average student loan debt has increased by nearly 75 percent over the past decade, from $17,000 to more than $29,000. As college costs continue rise, this will only get worse.

Simply put, this is unfair and unsustainable, both for families struggling to pay tuition bills, and for our wider society, which benefits tremendously from a well-educated workforce. Skyrocketing debt is forcing young adults to delay marriage, home ownership and family-building. Student debt pushes graduates out of essential but lower-paying public service jobs like teaching. As a recent law school graduate, homeowner, and young father, I’m familiar with these types of financial strains.

I also know that in many cases, rising costs and a weak job market have combined to force many young people to forgo college altogether. These are some of the reasons why I’m so committed to tackling this issue in the Senate.

This year, for example, I joined a bipartisan group of legislators to override $5.2 million in funding cuts to UMass. I also voted to give UMass the ability to directly keep in-state tuition dollars paid by students, improving transparency and finally aligning UMass with the vast majority of other state universities.

In addition, I support a bill that would create an income tax deduction (up to $5000 per year) for contributions made to qualified college savings and 529 plans. Similar to an IRA, these plans allow families to save and pay for college tax-free. More than 30 states already provide incentives to invest in these types of plans. We need to catch up.

I also support a bill that provides full tuition, after financial aid and gift aid, for all residents who attend community college in Massachusetts, modeled after a highly successful program in Tennessee. Community colleges educate nearly half of Massachusetts college students, training them for valuable careers while also offering an affordable path to a 4-year degree.

There are also innovative programs happening locally that we can use as models. STCC and Westfield State, for example, set up a transfer program for students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree at a maximum 4 year total cost of $30,000 in tuition and mandatory fees. This approach gives families a highly valuable tool while saving for college: a fixed savings target.

Massachusetts is a global center of education and knowledge. A highly educated population is the key to our economic future. Alarmingly, while other states like Indiana and Tennessee are taking significant steps to make college affordable, Massachusetts is increasingly falling behind.

In this knowledge-based economy, a college degree has never been more important. Unfortunately, rising costs have also made it increasingly out of reach, robbing young people of their full potential. We can change that.

Eric P. Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District.

Op-ed: Fighting Hunger in Western Massachusetts

In MassLive 11/20/15

This Thanksgiving season, I’m grateful to live in a vibrant, prosperous state and nation. Yet despite the abundance all around us, there are still too many children in our community who are going to bed without dinner. This is a vital challenge we must work together to solve.

Unfortunately, there is particular need in Western Massachusetts, where the hunger rate is higher than the state average. More than 210,000 people in Western Massachusetts struggle to have an adequate food supply, according to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which provides food assistance to 15,000 local residents each week. One out of every five children in Hampden County has uncertain access to the food they need to live a healthy lifestyle.

Hunger is not easy to see even among our neighbors and friends. Many families are only one illness, accident or lost job away from having enough healthy food. One-third of households needing help, for example, have at least one working adult, but still do not earn enough to make ends meet. More than half must choose between paying for food and other living costs, including utilities, gas, rent, mortgage or medical care.

This problem is entirely preventable. Through smart policies, we can ensure that all families have access to adequate meals during hard times, while supporting our local agricultural economy in the process.

A strong first step is to continue supporting our local food banks, which play a vital role in providing readily accessible resources during hard times. In the Senate, I co-sponsored a successful funding increase for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides vital support to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and similar organizations. I also co-sponsored a measure funding the Massachusetts Food Trust Program, which ensures that citizens have access to quality food in urgent circumstances.

Fostering partnerships between local food growers and nearby residents also helps fight hunger, while promoting local agriculture in the process. For this reason, I co-sponsored funding for Massachusetts “Buy Local” groups, which generate new customers for our local farmers and also provide communities with fresh local food options. Many local farms in Hampden and Hampshire Counties participate in this program.

I also support our local farmers’ markets, as well as our community supported agriculture programs, where people can get help buying shares of a local farm harvest. In addition, innovative programs like the School Sprouts Educational Gardens help show our children that it’s possible to make healthy food choices even when resources are scarce.

Rachel’s Table, Loaves and Fishes Kitchen, the Springfield Rescue Mission, Project Bread, Friends of the Homeless, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Mayflower Marathon and many other hunger-fighting efforts further help those among us struggling to keep food on the table.

Together, we can and must ensure that one of the most basic necessities of life is accessible to all families, both during the holiday season and at all other times of the year. I’m proud to champion those efforts at the Statehouse.

Eric P. Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District.

***
Food Banks and Related Organizations: Donation Information

The Food Bank of Western Mass
By Mail: The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts
PO Box 160 Hatfield, MA 01038
Attn: Development Department
By Phone: 413-247-9738 x108
Online: https://www.foodbankwma.org/donate/one-time-donation/

Open Pantry Community Services
By Mail: P.O. Box 5127, Springfield, MA 01101-5127.
By Phone: (413) 737-5354
Online: http://openpantry.org/donate.php

Springfield Rescue Mission
By Mail: 19 Bliss Street, P.O. Box 9045, Springfield, MA, 01102-9045
By Phone: (413) 732-0808
Online: https://www.hope4springfield.org/donate-online

Project Bread
By Mail: 145 Border Street, East Boston, MA 02128-1903
By Phone: (617)-723-5000
Online: http://www.projectbread.org/ways-to-give

Friends of the Homeless
By Mail: 755 Worthington Street Springfield, MA 01105
By Phone: (413) 732-3069
Online: https://www.fohspringfield.org/index.php/ways-help/donate/

Op-ed: Ensuring our seniors age with dignity

In MassLive 10/26/15

During a recent visit to the Ludlow Senior Center, I spent time chatting with local residents about everything from new grandchildren to the rising cost of prescription drugs.

These conversations are important, especially since our Commonwealth’s population is aging at a rapid pace. By 2035, nearly a third of Massachusetts residents will be over 60. These demographics are even more pronounced in Western Mass, which is older than the state as a whole. Policymakers need to be prepared for this change.

That’s why I joined the Legislature’s Committee on Elder Affairs. In my role on that committee, I regularly talk with seniors in our area. The main lesson I’ve learned is that seniors and their families require special attention and creative approaches from their elected leaders.

In Belchertown, for example, I spoke with a woman from the Pine Valley Plantation, a senior housing community, who was concerned about prescription drug costs and limited transportation. At a community dinner at the Hampden Senior Center, I spoke with families doing their best to care for aging parents.

One of the most important ways to support seniors and their families is ensuring each community has a high-quality senior center. These facilities serve as one-stop locations for everything from daily meals to health screenings, exercise classes and transportation. They make our communities more attractive places to live and allow people to remain in their homes longer, enhancing our neighborhoods and property values.

New senior centers in Chicopee, East Longmeadow and other communities do a great job of providing these vital services, but we can do more to bring them to all residents regardless of where they live. As a significant first step, I co-sponsored a successful budget amendment that brought a large funding increase to our Councils on Aging, who organize and run each community senior center. I’m also a strong supporter of the new Springfield Senior Center being built near Blunt Park.

In addition, I know that many seniors are worried about housing costs. That’s why I’ve worked closely with town, state and private sector officials on a new senior housing development in the Ludlow Mills, and support the eventual development of senior housing at the former State School site in Belchertown.

Many seniors want to stay in their homes as long as possible, but have a hard time accessing vital healthcare and home support services. To help, I’m supporting a Senate bill that takes steps to improve the quality of these services, including Alzheimer’s care and physical therapy.

On a visit to the East Longmeadow Senior Center, I rode along with a Meals on Wheels volunteer, delivering dozens of meals to homebound seniors. Along the way I had the chance to chat with many of the meal recipients and hear a bit about their lives. We certainly have a lot to learn from our seniors – they’ve spent a lifetime living and working in our communities.

It’s our solemn obligation to ensure that all members of our community age with dignity. Everyone has a role to play, including our policy-makers at the State House.

Senator Eric P. Lesser is a member of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Elder Affairs, which reviews and promotes policies affecting seniors in the Commonwealth.

Op-ed: Promoting innovation in government

We live in a time when technology is transforming almost every aspect of our lives, from how we shop and travel (Amazon, Airbnb, Uber), to how we communicate and find entertainment (Facebook, Instagram, Netflix). Thanks to mobile Internet, almost all human knowledge is now accessible with a few taps on the Smartphone in your pocket.

But one sector that has been very slow to change is government. As a result, our state government is not as efficient or responsive as it needs to be. Just one small example: after taking office this January as the youngest member of the Massachusetts Senate, I flipped open my laptop to get to work. I was surprised to learn the State House still doesn’t have Wi-Fi.

Every day, I hear from constituents who spend hours waiting in lines, making endless phone calls, and taking time off from work to handle routine government business that could probably be completed with a few swipes on an iPhone. Recent high-profile mishaps, from the flawed rollout of the Health Connector to the error-plagued transition to a new computer system for unemployment benefits, have made it painfully clear that failing to properly incorporate new technology comes at significant cost. This isn’t about big government or small government: it’s about efficient government. Massachusetts, as one of our nation’s great innovation centers, can and must do better.

Locally, we’ve seen how new technology can improve government services. The police departments in Belchertown and Ludlow use “text a tip” to follow leads. ShotSpotter, a technology that tracks the location of gunshots, helps to quickly and accurately dispatch police. Chicopee recently set up free Wi-Fi, and Boston has an entire unit dedicated to using technology to improve city services, from fixing potholes to tracking your child’s school bus.

Other states have good examples to learn from, as well. Connecticut set up a program to collect and analyze motor vehicle crash data, giving law enforcement new tools to improve traffic patterns. Utah’s Open Data Catalog improves government transparency by consolidating various types of state data in one location, so citizens have easy access to state maps, demographic info, and more detail about how their tax dollars are spent. I hope to bring more initiatives like these to Western Massachusetts, so we can improve government services and make our Commonwealth more transparent and efficient.

That’s why I’m currently working on several initiatives to promote more innovation in government. I co-sponsored the Innovate Communities Bill, filed by Senator Karen Spilka, which passed the Senate over the summer. This legislation would encourage tech startups to partner with cities and towns on new ways to deliver services. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has recommended a new “Center for Excellence” to focus on how to use technology to improve government across various departments, from healthcare and energy to education and transportation.

Technology is rapidly changing the world by speeding up the delivery of goods, services, and information while increasing transparency and accountability.

It’s time we do the same for state government.

Eric P. Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District

Back to school, for the little ones, too!

In MassLive 8/27/15

As summer winds down and families gear up for back-to-school season, it’s a good time to remember the vital importance of early education.

Study after study shows that the most significant brain development occurs before age 5. Every dollar invested in high-quality early education yields a return as high as $16, in large part due to reduced remedial and special education and improved graduation rates.

As the parent of a toddler, I’ve cherished watching my child’s growth and learning firsthand. Every day my wife and I marvel at the new words and discoveries our daughter encounters.

While there is no substitute for active and engaged parenting, we know that early education, whether preschool, kindergarten or other programs, makes a critical difference in children’s lives.

We also know that expanding access to preschool and kindergarten not only helps our children, but lifts our entire community by unlocking the full potential of our next generation.

That’s why I’ve championed early education programming and access in the Senate. For example, I joined my Senate colleagues to restore $17 million in funds to help our cities and towns transition to full-day kindergarten. Alarmingly, while Massachusetts has a formula for funding elementary and high school, there is no equivalent formula for kindergarten and preschool. I’m working on measures to fix this and move toward universal, full-day preschool and kindergarten.

To this end, I support an initiative that calls for a fully funded early education program for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts, along with universal full-day kindergarten. In the Senate, I also championed a recent funding increase for the Boys & Girls Clubs, which provide essential early learning programs across the Commonwealth. I also joined the rest of my Senate colleagues in a bipartisan veto override to restore funding to Preschool Expansion Grants.

We also have great examples of innovative work happening locally.

For example, I co-sponsored an increase in state funding to Square One, based in Springfield and one of the most respected early education providers in Massachusetts, as well as to Talk/Read/Succeed!, a local nonprofit that promotes early literacy.

In addition, I’ve worked closely with Link to Libraries, an organization based in Hampden that has donated over 230,000 books to local elementary schools and leads a program that promotes reading at home. The Davis Foundation, also based in Springfield, provides grants across Hampden County and has done innovative work on early education.

During a recent visit to Brunton Elementary School in Springfield, I sat with a group of kindergarteners as they learned about colors and shapes with a set of wooden blocks. They might not appreciate it just yet, but the education they’re receiving will open a world of possibilities for them and their families in the years ahead.

Our mission as adults is to ensure that those young people, and all young people, have the necessary tools to make the most of their potential.

We’ll all be better off as a result.

Op-ed: Tourism, arts and culture are important economic engines

In MassLive 7/27/15

As we enter the dog days of summer and start packing our bags for family vacations, it’s a good time to remember all the great attractions that we have right in our backyard. From Six Flags to the Quabbin Reservoir, from Yankee Candle to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Pioneer Valley has some of the most popular destinations in New England.

These attractions are more than just a fun place to spend the day; they help make up Massachusetts’ third largest industry, employing 130,000 people and producing $18 billion in revenue a year.

For this reason, I was eager to be appointed Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development, which is responsible for overseeing and supporting such a vital segment of the Commonwealth’s economy.

Tourism, arts and culture is especially important to our economy here in Western Massachusetts. Every year, thousands of people visit Hampden and Hampshire Counties for work, vacation, or family. Tourism­ related employment in our region alone totals nearly 5,000 people, with a payroll of more than $120 million annually. Direct spending by travelers in our region is over $500 million, resulting in over $11 million for our local communities. And with the MGM Casino, the new Dr. Seuss Museum, and the opening of new rides at Six Flags New England, not to mention the renovation of Springfield’s Union Station with new rail service, we can only expect that number to grow.

But our ability to attract visitors and the dollars they bring with them is not something we can take for granted. We’ve all seen the billboards as we drive along I­91 inviting us to ski resorts in Vermont and casinos in Connecticut. Our neighboring states are competing hard for tourism and culture dollars, and if we don’t keep up, we risk falling behind, and losing a lot of economic opportunity in the process.

That’s why my committee worked to secure millions of dollars in new resources for our tourism and culture economy. In this year’s budget, we increased funds for the promotion of local attractions like Bright Nights and the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden. I also collaborated with my colleagues in the House and Senate to secure a multi­million dollar increase for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which supports local institutions like the Community Music School, the Enchanted Circle Theater, the Quadrangle Museums and the emerging Springfield Cultural District.

These initiatives add vibrancy to our region and attract more visitors to our area. And when it comes to tourism, arts and cultural development, the investment more than pays for itself. According to the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, every dollar spent on tourism promotion can produce a seven dollar return on investment. That’s because visitors do more than just stop our attractions, they also eat at our local restaurants, stay in our local hotels, and shop in our local stores.

So as we get out and enjoy our summer vacations, let’s also keep in mind how important all the attractions are right in our own backyard, and what an important role they play in creating jobs and driving our local economy.

Eric Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District.