US Rep. Neal talks tax code, health care: Public forums draw questions, some answers | The Berkshire Eagle

Congressman Richard Neal, D-Springfield, gave his full attention to audiences in the Berkshires on Friday, spending more than four hours speaking with constituents attending public forums in Williamstown and Pittsfield, in addition to meeting with local delegates off-stage to hear their concerns.

In his talks, Neal made efforts to bring updates from Washington, and to field questions as they pertain to local interests.

As Ranking Member of the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, tax reform was a key issue discussed both in an afternoon lecture, “Why Real Tax Reform Is So Hard,” presented at Williams College with two of his staff members, and a town hall-style forum hosted in the evening at Berkshire Community College.

“We need a tax system that improves quality of life for all Americans,” Neal told a Williams audience of about 60 students, faculty and interested community members.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill plan to deliver a first-draft tax reform framework during the week of Sept. 25. Neal said that when his GOP counterparts promised “bold” reforms that will allegedly upset the wealthy, his retort was, “Six secretaries of treasury have sat in that same seat to tell me as much.”

To the some 100 people gathered in the Berkshire Community College crowd Neal said, “People at the top don’t need any relief. They’ve done fine.”

What complicates a tax system overhaul, which hasn’t had any major amendments since the 1980s, is that there are “4 million words in the American tax code.”

“If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s making it more simple,” he said.

But how to go about that — from negotiating tax rates to agreeing on permissible deductions, and determining goals for revenue and annual growth — have yet to be agreed upon on a bipartisan platform.

In talking about issues relative to Berkshire County, Neal talked about the prominence of population decline and employment gaps, noting that in New England, “18,000 precision manufacturing jobs go unanswered.”

He also held up a copy of Thursday’s Boston Globe that featured an article on how Berkshire County residents still struggle to make ends meet while the community continues to attract wealthy tourists and cultural investments.

“The Berkshire divide widens,” he said. “The young people leave and the pinch hitters stay on.”

Neal said, “you need a magnet to keep people” and noted how Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer is offering a competing bid as a site for Amazon’s second North American headquarters.

When questioned about recent business closures in the Berkshires, including this week’s announcement of the closing of the 60-year-old Country Curtains company, which employs some 360 staffers in Lee and Stockbridge, Neal said that “the economy is going to change regardless” and that digital commerce will continue to affect retail businesses like this. He also said increasing costs of utilities like electricity will make it harder for smaller businesses to keep their facilities running.

The congressman continued to speak on the issue of energy and renewable alternatives to fossil fuels on a national level, and how tax incentives can help push the agenda, so long as people are willing to support things like solar panels and wind turbines in their communities.

On the national topic of health care, Neal, during the BCC forum, was asked by an audience member, “What will it take for you to jump on board for Medicare for everybody?”

While his Massachusetts Congressional counterparts and several Berkshire delegates have spoken in favor of this, or at least a single-payer national health care system, Neal redirected his attention to the current Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.” He asked constituents to “not lose sight of the ACA,” even with the development of what’s known as the “Graham-Cassidy Bill” released earlier this week, as a last-minute attempt to repeal the ACA.

The bill was developed by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, with support from Sens. Ron Johnson and Dean Heller. In essence, the senators say their proposal “repeals the structure and architecture of Obamacare and replaces it with a block grant given annually to states to help individuals pay for health care.”

One other topic that constituents repeatedly questioned Neal about at both events, is his decision to co-sponsor a bill known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, along with 253 other representatives, including Neal’s 4th District Democrat counterpart Joseph P. Kennedy III. The bill, in part, “prohibits any U.S. person engaged interstate or foreign commerce from supporting any request by a foreign country to impose any boycott against a country that is friendly to the United States” including Israel. Several citizens said they felt the bill violated first amendment rights and cited an analysis done by the American Civil Liberties Union to support their concerns.

Neal said he’s awaiting a response from Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who helped write the language of the bill, for a clarification on whether the bill violates free speech and the right to peacefully boycott something.

Batya Sobel of the Jewish Voice for Peace Western Mass Chapter came all the way from South Hadley to voice her concerns and ask the congressman to withdraw his sponsorship. Though Neal declined to commit to doing so, he said he would reach out to the group to talk more.

“We’re going to take him up on his offer,” she said.

Overall, Neal’s visit seemed well-received, despite criticisms expressed by Western Mass citizens earlier this year about his lack of availability. Forum attendees said Neal would be welcomed back “anytime” and Neal said his staff will gladly provide his track record of visiting his district’s communities over the past five years.

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