League of Women Voters coffee social inspires talks on rural issues, state budget

  • From left, state Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Natalie Blais and Rep. Susannah Whipps attend a coffee social at the Five Eyed Fox restaurant in Turners Falls on Saturday. The event was organized by the League of Women Voters of Franklin County. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

  • From left, state Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Susannah Whipps and Rep. Natalie Blais attend a coffee social at the Five Eyed Fox restaurant in Turners Falls on Saturday. The event was organized by the League of Women Voters of Franklin County. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2023 12:48:49 PM
Modified: 4/2/2023 12:48:32 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Constituents had the opportunity to pick the brains of their local legislators on Saturday during a coffee social organized by the League of Women Voters of Franklin County.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, spoke with voters about topics ranging from rural issues to Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed $55.5 billion fiscal year 2024 budget during the event at the Five Eyed Fox restaurant.


One of the main topics of discussion was Healey’s proposed budget, which is now being taken up in the House of Representatives and the Senate for revisions and approval.

“We are fighting for our fair share, certainly in western Mass,” Blais told attendees.

Comerford mentioned that politicians in Boston expect revenue generated from the Fair Share Amendment, an additional 4% tax on annual income over $1 million that voters approved at November’s election, will generate roughly $2 billion per year for the state budget. While Whipps said many people had feared that the extra tax would prompt wealthy residents to leave the state, the “mass exodus is not real.”

Blais reassured attendees that the revenue generated by the Fair Share Amendment is set to fund education and transportation. She said Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll emphasized their commitment to equity during their campaign, and are now showing they care though a budget proposal that increases rural funding.

“I was thrilled to have the governor increase rural school aid,” Blais continued. “Everyone in this room has been fighting for this.”

Healey’s recommended budget, which was formally unveiled on March 1, provides $7.5 million in rural school aid, a $2 million or 36% increase from the previous year. The budget would also increase Chapter 70 state aid, regional school transportation and special education funding for all districts in the state, according to an overview compiled by the administration.

Rural issues

Similarly, the legislators spoke to unique needs of western Massachusetts, where the area’s smaller population can often feel overlooked as much of the focus in Boston is on more eastern communities.

Blais mentioned there is no public transportation in Greenfield in the evenings or on weekends.

“Economic mobility is automatically cut off if we don’t have public transportation,” she said.

She said the regional transit authorities outside of Boston need to be given more state funding to better serve people living in rural areas.

Another issue that came up was housing. Whipps said many seniors are having trouble finding accessible, safe housing in the communities where they live and hope to stay.

“You have a right to be in your community and be safe and be close to your neighbors,” she said.

Whipps advocated for allocating state money toward rehabilitating housing for seniors. She explained that if seniors were able to move out of their larger homes into more suitable housing, more families would be able to move to area, solving many of the other population-related issues that are seen in western Massachusetts.

Comerford spoke on the issue of human service worker shortages, a problem she said stems from inadequate pay. She noted that Kate Walsh, the state’s secretary of health and human services, recently testified about the need to increase the salaries of these workers.

All three politicians thanked the visitors to the Five Eyed Fox for their interest in what’s happening on Beacon Hill, as well as for their advocacy for the issues they care about.

“When you show up,” Comerford said, “you change the way Boston does business.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.


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