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By Colin A. Young

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 18, 2017....When Cabinet secretaries sit before a legislative committee for an oversight hearing, it is usually a time for lawmakers to question the administration on policy, implementation of programs and how taxpayer money is being spent broadly across the state. But it can also be a good chance for legislators to check in on pet projects.

That was the case Wednesday when Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton sat before the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets to detail his executive office's $211 million in capital spending plan for this fiscal year. After a 35-minute presentation, Beaton fielded questions from the committee.

Rep. Bill Driscoll of Milton took the opportunity to inquire about a project to improve the life of one of his constituents, though a non-voting constituent.

"My understanding is that one of my favorite constituents, the river otter at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, that his home was slated to be (renovated) as part of the capital projects last year, but that was taken off the list," Driscoll said, referring to an otter that greets and entertains guests at the Blue Hills. "I'm wondering if there is a plan to renovate that exhibit. It's kind of fallen into disrepair and it can be a little scary at times to visit it."

Beaton delicately told Driscoll that the otter exhibit renovations are not included as part of the current capital plan.

"At the moment, I don't believe we have a plan for it right now with the number of difficult decisions we have to make about where we use our money," the secretary said. "Obviously the Blue Hills is an oasis for so many in a densely populated area. But there are other needs even within the Blue Hills that, historically, we have had to make."

Rep. Michelle DuBois of Brockton told Beaton she had a number of questions for him, but would start with the one that is most important to her personally.

"We just got $75,000 appropriated in the budget, so I'm just wondering what are the chances DCR will be releasing those earmarks that we were able to reinstate," she asked, sharing a story about how she has worked over a number of years to improve McKinley Park in Brockton. "If that earmark was released this McKinley Park project would be 100 percent complete and I've been working on it since the day I got elected to the City Council, that was some 13 years ago, and it's only come to fruition now that I've been in the State House so it would be a big, wonderful achievement for me."

Beaton lauded DuBois' work and said the entire administration would like to see that project completed, but told the representative he could not give her an answer.

"We are in the midst of some turbulent times over the last few years and we are really trying to be judicious and making sure we're being responsible with the budget and looking at revenues as they're coming in," he said. "In short, I can't right at this moment look at you and give you an answer other than we just don't know yet. We have to let time play out and see how revenues come in."

Chairman Antonio Cabral of New Bedford, whose House Bonding hearings rarely pass without a plug for the long-stalled South Coast Rail project, also had a handful of local issues he wanted Beaton to weigh in on.

When will the process of handing over management of the State Pier in New Bedford to MassDevelopment occur, Cabral asked. Beaton said the transition would occur "imminently" or within the next few weeks.

And what, Cabral asked, about the dredging project in New Bedford Harbor? When will that get underway? Beaton said it is an important project, but one that the state needs to identify the best way to pay for.

Cabral also wanted to know the latest on the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey, the official vessel of the commonwealth, which is undergoing repairs at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine.

"It's on course. The repairs are happening. DCR has its hand on the tiller right now, figuratively speaking," Beaton said. He added that the Massachusetts Maritime Academy is part of the conversation around where the ship will be homeported once it returns to Massachusetts.

Wednesday's hearing was also a chance for Beaton to tell the committee about a handful of projects he is most excited about, including the planned acquisition of the Paine Campground Wellfleet.

"This is an amazing place, very close to the bike path down the Cape and a tremendous asset for the commonwealth," Beaton said. "I can't wait for that ribbon cutting. I'm going to camp out there as soon as DCR gets in there. Very excited about that next season."

The secretary also pitched the committee on a project he has told them about previously: the Walden Pond visitors center.

"We celebrated a ribbon cutting -- Don Henley was actually there, for any Eagles fans in the room. He's actually a really cool guy," Beaton said. He added, "This was pretty exciting because I'm a Thoreau enthusiast so this was a great year for me because it's also Thoreau's 200th birthday so we have been having a yearlong celebration of all things Thoreau over at Walden Pond."


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