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Shop Talk: Q&A with Karen Spilka, State Senator

April 27, 2009

Worcester Business Journal
April 27, 2009

Before running in a special election for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2001, Karen Spilka was an attorney. Today, she continues to serve the public as the state senator for the second Middlesex and Norfolk District, which includes what many describe as the fast-growing MetroWest region. Here, Spilka talks about how her background as a mediator has aided her work on Beacon Hill, as well as her outlook on the difficult state budget negotiations ahead and federal stimulus aid.

How does a background in mediation help you at the State House?
Between the social work skills and the background in conflict resolution arbitration mediation, I think it really does help. I used to train people in mediation and train people in active listening skills. You learn to understand the differences between positions and interests. What a person’s position is may not necessarily be what their interest is in getting something out of a negotiation.

What are you hearing from the business people that you talk to?
I think that they are concerned. People are worried that the economic situation still seems to be going downward instead of upward, and they’re wondering how they are going to continue to support their employees. Lines of credit are tough for small businesses right now. Most want to survive these tough times so that when things start getting better they’re ready to take off.

You’ve been named to the joint committee that has oversight on the federal stimulus dollars coming to Massachusetts. What has the committee done so far?
We’ve had two hearings already. I think the focus has been on trying to be as transparent as possible. We want to get as much information as possible out to our communities. We also want to make sure that as this money comes in we know what the criteria to disperse it is.

How do you define MetroWest?
That’s a great question. I would say that my district is pretty much MetroWest, but it’s larger than that. Some people say it’s the area between 128 and Worcester – I don’t think it’s that big. Clearly from Natick to Marlborough/Westborough and then north and south. It’s the general area of 495. It’s a community of interests that has sprung up on its own after the last 30 or 35 years.

Do you see a way of really helping solidify MetroWest’s identity? How does that happen?
I think it has been happening. This region has really self-identified. The 495/MetroWest Corridor Partnership has helped. Before that there weren’t reasons for the communities to collaborate and work together.

What are the key statewide issues that you are grappling with on Beacon Hill?
Money and lack of it. Our economy is in unprecedented times. I don’t know how to emphasize that sufficiently. The value of the global economy has halved. That is a very sobering fact. So, the challenge is that we are facing very tough fiscal times. With that there are some opportunities to look at things and consider how we can best use what limited resources we have, particularly in preparing a budget for 2010.

Where is the budget for 2010?
The House released its budget and the Senate will do the same thing in May and then conference committee will occur. We’re still hoping to have this done in a timely fashion. The problem is this is all so fluid. In the past the governor’s budget has been the low water mark and the House and Senate each put a little more in. Unfortunately with this year, the governor’s budget may be the high water mark.

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