Comerford, constituents talk legislative achievements, priorities in online town hall

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    State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, answers radio host Christopher "Monte" Belmonte’s questions about voting in Massachusetts during a live broadcast at Mike's Maze in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Mary Byrne

Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2020 8:39:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It has been a little over two years since Jo Comerford was elected as the state senator in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District.

During that time, the Legislature has dealt with large items like equitable education funding, food insecurity, safe mobility for undocumented immigrants and climate change. Some bills have passed, others have been put on the back burner. And on Tuesday evening, the Northampton Democrat was on hand — virtually, anyway — for a town hall to explain that work to constituents.

“None of it is ever as simple as we want it to be,” she said to those gathered on Zoom for the meeting.

In a poll taken during the town hall, most residents said that the bills Comerford works on are the most important issue to them.

One of the bills Comerford discussed was a proposal that Gov. Charlie Baker filed that, amid concerns over mosquito-borne illnesses in the state, would have removed restraints on the aerial spraying of pesticides. Comerford noted that the committee she chairs, the Senate’s Public Health Committee, received the bill last year and rewrote it to allow municipalities to opt out of spraying and to establish a task force to reform mosquito control.

That work came to the forefront recently when the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility demonstrated high levels of the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS — which have been linked to cancers, organ damage and immune system suppression — in the 10,000 gallons of pesticide the state used in 100 cities and towns in 2019.

Comerford highlighted the work she has done on that committee, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also chaired the Senate’s COVID-19 working group. She noted that after pressure from western Massachusetts lawmakers, the state recently opened more coronavirus testing sites in the western part of the state.

“We have been underserved this entire time,” Comerford said.

Other areas Comerford drew attention to included the police reform bill that recently passed the Legislature and work on bringing rail to the western part of the state.

There are also, however, plenty of bills that did not pass this year, including the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Comerford promised a constituent that she would not give up on supporting that bill, which advocates have pushed many years for.

“I think that’s a COVID bill,” Comerford said. “I think it has drastic public health implications.”

Greenfield resident Joannah Whitney pushed Comerford to work to increase affordable housing in the state that is accessible to those with disabilities.

“I think that’s an area where there actually are ways we could move forward,” Whitney said. “It’s been 30 years since the [Americans with Disabilities Act] was passed, so it’s time to start thinking about that in more creative ways.”

Other pieces of legislation that Comerford promised to “throw down” to 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 into an environmental and housing fund.

Currently, Comerford has been focused on fighting against the state’s standardized test for students, the MCAS. She said that the rigid, high-stakes test has changed education for the worse, and that she has proposed a moratorium on the test during the coming years, given the way COVID-19 has upended education.

Comerford noted that the state could choose a different way to assess students and teachers, and one that is less high stakes. The state requires students to pass the MCAS before graduating, but that isn’t required by the federal government, Comerford noted.

“We choose to do that in the commonwealth,” she said. “We choose to give our kids the burden to pass a series of three tests … in order to get a diploma, regardless of whether they passed their other coursework.

“And it’s wrong. Especially during COVID.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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