New agriculture committee puts focus on region

By Sydney Ko

For the Gazette

Published: 02-27-2023 2:18 PM

Western Massachusetts will have ample representation on a new legislative committee focusing on agriculture.

Sens. Ann Gobi, D-Spencer, and Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, were named Senate chair and co-chair of the new Agriculture Committee while Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, will serve as vice chair on the House side, with Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, as House chair.

The panel was created as part of the new committee assignments announced by House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, and Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, earlier this month. Previously there was an Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee.

“I’m excited, part of what my job is in the Senate is to advance my own position on behalf of constituents,” said Comerford, who will also serve as Senate chair of the Higher Education Committee and assistant vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The Northampton Democrat’s other assignments include committees focusing on economic development and emerging technologies, racial equity, civil rights and inclusion and Senate committees on global warming and climate change, and rules.

Comerford said there are hundreds of farms that continue to be underrepresented in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester district. She said that this new and focused committee will help farmers and their “bottom lines.”

Among the bills it will consider are five Comerford has filed, including measures strengthening local food systems and promoting equity in agriculture.

“It’s the first time that the committee has been called forward — farms are intrinsic to our way of life, they’re also economic drivers,” she said.

Comerford said the move to separate agriculture from the previous committee is a way for the Legislature to pursue a unique focus.

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“I think it’s a measure how much the Legislature values food security and ending hunger,” she said.

Other Senate committees

Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, has been appointed as Senate chair of Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development Committee.

He explained western Massachusetts is a cultural hub that generates tourist economy and jobs.

“Having the ability to highlight that and making sure the institutions in my district get the attention from Boston and from state government is really important,” Mark said.

Mark’s other committee assignments will enable him to advocate for more money for local infrastructure projects. Among the committees he now serves as vice chair are the Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets and Transportation committees. He’s also a member of committees focusing on advanced information technology, the internet and cybersecurity; children, families and persons with disabilities; higher education; telecommunications, utilities and energy; and veterans and federal affairs.

“When we have even transportation budgeting coming before the Legislature, we’re making sure our area isn’t forgotten,” Mark said, referring to the need of a more robust railway connection between eastern and western Massachusetts, and a more accessible regional transportation service.

For example, Berkshire County doesn’t have evening and Sunday bus services, he said. It’s even more important to expand access to communities living in the more rural areas.

“It’s extremely difficult to get a regular recurring public transit to come into a town that couple hundred people live,” Mark said.

Sen. Jake Oliveira, D-Ludlow, has been appointed Senate chair the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee, which oversees the enactment of special laws for a city or town, the establishment of economic, district, and local planning commissions, rent control, and zoning and attends to matters affecting municipal employees.

“I speak the same language as local elected officials, whether it’s mayors and councilors, elected board members, school committee members, finance committee members … I’m just so thrilled to partner with the other committee members,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira has also been appointed as vice chair for the public health and tourism, arts and culture committees and will sit on the committees focusing on consumer protection and professional licensure; emergency preparedness and management; election laws and financial services.

As a state senator, Oliveira said he hopes to continue to provide regional equity for western Massachusetts, such as getting the fair share of funding for sectors like education and transportation.

“What I see my role as a state legislator is to partner with all the other legislators from western Massachusetts to my fellow state senators and representatives, to speak as one voice to our region,” he said.

Sen. John C. Velis, D-Westfield, has been appointed Senate chair of the Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery and Veterans and Federal Affairs committees. He was also named as vice chair of the Elder Affairs Committee and will serve on the housing, judiciary, public safety and homeland security, and state administration and regulatory oversight committees.

“In my mind, mental health and substance use are the biggest problems in the commonwealth that not enough people are talking about. And as someone who has had their own struggles in recovery, I know firsthand how these two issues can so often be concurring for people. We know that we must do more to help those struggling, and I look forward to working with members of the committee to accomplish just that,” Velis stated in a press release.

House committee assignments

In addition to her position on the Agriculture Committee, Blais will serve on Ways & Means; Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development; and Transportation.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, will serve as vice chair of Municipalities and Regional Government; and on the Steering, Policy and Scheduling; Health Care Financing; Municipalities and Regional Government; and Transportation.

Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, will serve as chair of Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development and on Higher Education.

Rep. Daniel Carey, D-Easthampton, will serve as vice chair of Post Audit and Oversight; Election Laws; Environment and Natural Resources; and Judiciary.

Rep. Aaron Saunders, D-Belchertown, will service on Human Resources and Employee Engagement; Cannabis Policy; Labor and Workforce Development, and Public Service.