NORTHAMPTON – It’s been a little over two years since Jo Comerford was elected Senator in the districts of Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester.
During this time, lawmakers have dealt with major issues such as fair financing of education, food insecurity, safe mobility for undocumented immigrants and climate change. Some bills have passed, others have been pushed into the background. And on Tuesday night the Democrat from Northampton was there – practically anyway – so that a town hall could explain this work to the voters.
“None of this is ever as simple as we would like it to be,” she told those who had gathered for the meeting on Zoom.
In a poll conducted at City Hall, most residents said the bills Comerford is working on are the number one issue for them.
One of the bills Comerford debated was a proposal by Governor Charlie Baker that would have lifted restrictions on airborne pesticide spraying amid concerns over mosquito-borne disease in the state. Comerford noted that the committee she chairs, the Senate Public Health Committee, received and rewritten the law last year to allow municipalities to opt out of spraying and set up a task force to reform mosquito control.
That work came to the fore recently when the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility advocacy group identified high levels of the “forever chemicals” known as PFASs, which have been linked to cancer, organ damage, and immune system suppression, in the 10,000 gallons of pesticides in the state used in 100 cities and towns in 2019.
Comerford highlighted the work she has done on that committee, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also chaired the Senate’s COVID-19 working group. She noted that under pressure from lawmakers in western Massachusetts, the state had recently opened more coronavirus testing sites in the western part of the state.
“We were underserved all along,” said Comerford.
Other areas Comerford drew attention to were the recently passed police reform law aimed at bringing the railroad to the western part of the state.
However, there are also many laws that were not passed this year, including the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. Comerford promised one voter that she would not give up support for this bill that proponents have been pushing for many years.
“I think that’s a COVID bill,” Comerford said. “I think it has a drastic public health impact.”
Greenfield resident Joannah Whitney urged Comerford to work to create affordable housing in the state that is accessible to people with disabilities.
“I think this is an area where there is actually an opportunity for us to move forward,” said Whitney. “It’s been 30 years since [Americans with Disabilities Act] has been passed so it’s time to think more creatively. ”
Other laws that Comerford promised to “knock down” in support were: the End-of-Life Options Act, which would allow a terminally ill adult to request and self-administer medication to end their life; a bill that would allow spouses to be paid as caregivers under certain MassHealth programs; and a luxury real estate tax that would go to an environmental and housing fund.
Currently, Comerford is focused on fighting the state’s standardized test for undergraduate students, the MCAS. She said the rigid, high-stakes test changed education for the worse and that, given the way COVID-19 has improved education, she proposed a moratorium on the test in the years to come.
Comerford noted that the state could choose a different way of evaluating students and teachers, and one that is less high. The state requires students to pass the MCAS prior to graduation, but that’s not required by the federal government, Comerford noted.
“We choose to do that in the Commonwealth,” she said. “We give our children the burden of passing a series of three tests … to get a diploma regardless of whether they have passed their other courses.
“And it’s wrong. Especially during COVID. ”
Dusty Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.