Local legislators speak to planned bills, focus in 2021

  • HINDS

  • BLAIS

  • MARK

  • WHIPPS

  • COMERFORD

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2021 3:23:00 PM
Modified: 1/8/2021 3:22:45 PM

Editor’s note: This week, the Greenfield Recorder is running a series of articles on what residents can likely expect in 2021. This next installment focuses on local state legislators.

The five members of the Western Massachusetts legislative delegation say they have always worked well together, so it’s no surprise that they have some of the same hopes and visions for their districts and the region in 2021.

The continued COVID-19 crisis, health care and health inequities, mental health, hunger, job loss, affordable housing, redistricting, the environment, economic development and education are at the top of their priority lists.

Sen. Jo Comerford

“I learned a lot in my first session and now it’s time to build on the work and successes during the second session,” Sen. Jo Comerford said. “We’ve got an economic crisis created by COVID and the pandemic has put a spotlight on health inequities.”

The Northampton Democrat said she will file more than 60 bills in the coming years, but the ones she sees as most important are related to racial health equity and public schools, as well as a municipal building bill for small towns that need help constructing fire stations, police stations, public works buildings and other municipal buildings.

“I want to see us double down on what small rural communities need,” she said. “We also need equitable funding for school buildings.”

Comerford said there will also be an expansion to a bill concerning “farms and food security” that will improve the economic security of the region’s farmers.

Sen. Adam Hinds

Sen. Adam Hinds said his focus will be on businesses and communities and just “helping them get through” until a vaccine is available to most, if not all, residents of Western Massachusetts. He has secured $100,000 to provide small business grants to businesses in the greater Shelburne Falls area and would like to see the state invest in health and schools.

Carbon sequestration and how forests are used is another one of his top priorities as he continues his work with climate change.

“We’ll also be preparing next year’s budget, so I’ll be looking at income and equality,” said Hinds, D-Pittsfield. “I’ll also be looking at infrastructure, economic development and education through a regional lens.”

He intends to file about 70 bills this year.

Rep. Susannah Whipps

Rep. Susannah Whipps, an independent serving the 2nd Franklin District, said she’s concerned about the mental health of children, adults and seniors.

“Children aren’t in school and mandated reporters’ eyes aren’t on them,” she said. “Abuse and neglect reports are down 55 to 60 percent, so I’m concerned about what we will learn when this is over.”

She said hunger, job loss and housing are also huge concerns for her, and they are tied to the mental health of the community.

“As legislators, we’ve been pushing telemed for years, so it’s good news that it’s being used in rural areas during the pandemic and insurance is covering it,” Whipps said. “We’re going to push for it to continue after COVID.”

Whipps said as people work from home and children learn from home, she’ll be pushing to make sure everyone has broadband.

“This is a wonderful place to live,” she said. “If we finally get that done, we’ll see an influx of younger families — we’ve got some great schools. That’s what we want to see.”

She’d also like to see everyone have access to a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.

Rep. Natalie Blais

Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said she’s looking forward not only to working on the issues mentioned by her colleagues but getting back to in-person office hours where she can be face-to-face with her constituents.

“I want to be able to talk with people in their backyards again,” she said. “I think that connection is one of the most important parts of the job. Zoom and the phone has been fine during a pandemic, but the people are what drives our decisions and I want to see them.”

Blais said at the top of her list is making sure constituents continue to receive a high level of services, especially those who are unemployed, hungry or face other significant challenges like housing assistance.

“Infrastructure has always been a priority for me, including affordable housing, bridges and roads, and broadband, to name a few,” she said. “I’ll be identifying new funding and programs that will serve our rural area. We’re here to give the people a voice.”

Rep. Paul Mark

Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said he’ll be focused on redistricting for most of the year. The chair of the House Committee on Redistricting said he and others did a lot of work to this point to make sure it goes the way it is supposed to, because once done, it will be that way for the next decade.

“Now that all that is over, including the U.S. census, we’re in a bit of a waiting mode,” Mark said. “The data will have to be presented to the president by the end of January. The timeline has changed significantly because of COVID. Deadlines were missed. But the numbers should be with the states by April 1.”

He said redistricting will take place in November.

“We’ll have public hearings in the spring, even if it has to be virtual,” he said. “Maybe if enough people have received the vaccine, we can have some in person. We want as many people heard as possible. We want districts to be fair, represent the way each district looks and represents their interests.”

Mark said he’ll also continue to work on student debt and loans, employee ownership, broadband and the environment, among other issues.

Working as a team

“Working as a team, we were able to get the RMV reopened, get additional COVID-19 test sites to the area and give a voice to our constituents,” Blais said. “We’ve accomplished some good things together.”

Hinds said he especially realized this past year that even through a crisis, the team worked together.

“We’re fighting together for our thriving communities, and it’s very important to have a team like this when you’re doing so,” Hinds said.

“We make such a good team,” Whipps agreed. “We’re constantly in contact. That will continue.”

Mark said it has been challenging to not be able to see the other members of the delegation in person, but they’ve found ways to work it out.

“I’m hoping we’ll be back together, in person, by next fall,” he said.

Comerford said she agrees with all of her colleagues.

“Our hallmark is that we work close as colleagues, teammates,” she said. “It’s important to all of us that we support each other. It’s important to me to support them. With a close partnership like this delegation has, we get things done.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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