New agriculture committee puts focus on region

By SYDNEY KO

For the Recorder

Published: 02-27-2023 3:09 PM

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

Sens. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, and Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, were named Senate chair and vice chair, respectively, of the new Agriculture Committee. Meanwhile, Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, will serve as vice chair on the House side, with Rep. Paul Schmid III, 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 joint committees focusing on economic development and emerging technologies, racial equity, civil rights and inclusion, as well as 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 the committee will consider are five Comerford has filed, including measures strengthening local food systems and promoting equity in agriculture.

“Farms are intrinsic to our way of life,” she said. “They’re also economic drivers.”

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 of 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 the Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development Committee.

He explained western Massachusetts is a cultural hub that generates a tourism 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 where 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 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 for 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 residents living in more rural areas.

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

In addition to chairing the new committee focused on agriculture, Gobi will serve as vice chair for the Joint Committee on Higher Education. Her other appointments include the Senate Ways and Means Committee, as well as joint committees focused on community development and small businesses; judiciary; public safety and homeland security; and veterans and federal affairs.

House committee assignments

In addition to her position on the Agriculture Committee, Blais will serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, and on joint committees focused on transportation; and tourism, arts and cultural development.

Rep. Aaron Saunders, D-Belchertown, will serve on the House Human Resources and Employee Engagement Committee, as well as on joint committees focused on cannabis policy; labor and workforce development; and public service.

Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, will serve on joint committees focused on mental health, substance use and recovery; revenue; and transportation.

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