Climate, government trust on legislators’ minds at WMass summit

  • ROSENBERG

  • State Auditor Suzanne Bump, left, delivers the keynote address during the Western Mass Legislative Summit 2016, Saturday, Dec. 3, at JFK Middle School.

  • State Auditor Suzanne Bump delivers the keynote address during the Western Mass Legislative Summit 2016, Saturday.

  • Solomon Goldstein-Rose, who won the 3rd Hampshire District House seat in September, takes a question during the Western Mass Legislative Summit, Saturday, at JFK Middle School in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • State Auditor Suzanne Bump shakes hands with Todd Ford, executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments, after her keynote address for the Western Mass Legislative Summit 2016, Saturday, Dec. 3, at JFK Middle School.

  • Todd Ford, left, who is executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments, and Davio Danielson moderate the Western Mass Legislative Summit 2016, Saturday, Dec. 3, at JFK Middle School.

  • Solomon Goldstein-Rose, who won the 3rd Hampshire District State Representative seat in September, speaks during the Western Mass Legislative Summit, Saturday, Dec. 3, at JFK Middle School.

@StephMurr_Jour
Published: 12/3/2016 4:29:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — How can the state better serve western Massachusetts communities in terms of education, agriculture and clean energy? Could there be a solution to unfunded mandates that cripple small town budgets?

And what about the 45 Massachusetts towns that still don’t have broadband?

Valley folks had a chance to pose those questions to lawmakers including Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and state Auditor Suzanne M. Bump at Saturday’s Westen Mass Legislative Summit, hosted by the Hampshire Council of Governments.

The event featured an hourlong round table with Rosenberg, state Sen. Anne M. Gobi, D-Spencer, and state Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton.

The summit drew more than 100 people to JFK Middle School on Bridge Road in Florence. Beginning at 8:30 a.m., speakers including Bump, newly elected Amherst Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, and other leaders discussed initiatives for the 2017-19 legislative session. At 11 a.m., attendees broke into issue-focused groups to generate questions for the roundtable later in the day.

The roundtable was moderated by Bill Newman of radio station WHMP and will be aired on Newman’s radio show Monday morning.

Climate, education

The roundtable discussion covered a broad range of topics area residents said they hope will be addressed in the session, such as clean energy, education, broadband and agriculture.

Climate change and clean energy will likely be top issues in the upcoming legislative session, Rosenberg said. Some regions in the state will reach the net solar metering cap — the formula that dictates how much solar energy utilities must accept and pay for.

For lawmakers, the solar net metering cap is the key to starting a climate conversation in the legislative session.

“That will be ... the hook we can use to rejoin the climate change debate in Massachusetts,” Rosenberg said. “We lost a lot of that in the conference process this year and it was really disappointing.

“That said, we are very persistent. We may be impatient, but we are persistent and we will have another opportunity this year to have another debate. And I think you’ll see a very significant amount of work in the Legislature.”

Massachusetts will run completely on clean energy by 2050, if environmentalists have their way. By the middle of the century, Kocot said he hopes Massachusetts will emulate Burlington, Vermont — a city that runs on 100 percent renewable energy.

But lawmakers cannot make the change alone, he said.

“We can do this,” Kocot said. “Every household has to make that commitment.”

Kocot also stressed the need for new ways of funding education in Massachusetts. A review of the state’s foundation budget found the state underfunds public school spending on special education and health care costs by $2.1 billion. To bridge that gap, Kocot said he hopes to see the Massachusetts millionaire tax proposal on the 2018 state ballot. Rosenberg and Gobi agreed.

“We need to raise new money for education,” Kocot said.

When it comes to broadband, 45 towns in Massachusetts still lack the service nearly two decades into the 21st century. Kocot said plans to provide “that last mile of broadband” are moving quickly with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. According to Kocot, there is room for both Wired West and national carriers like Comcast.

“One size does not fit all. In terms of how towns are laid out, their finances, their size, the number of customers, where the nearest hub is, they’ve put together sort of a continuum of different solutions,” Kocot said.

Shifts in agriculture

Rosenberg said the spotlight is shifting toward agriculture in the Legislature thanks to conversations urban legislators are having about nutrition and fresh, local food. Gobi added that the best defense for farmers is to create an agricultural commission at the local level for support.

“Farmers are trying to find ways to sustain their farms and use the farmland in different ways,” Gobi said, referencing farm breweries and farmers who host “Tough Mudder” races on their property to raise money.

Gobi said she is optimistic that the new counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture will look at agricultural issues “with fresh eyes” in the new session.

Trust in government

Looking toward next year’s legislative session, Bump gave a talk about her “Accountability Agenda” earlier in the day. In a time where citizens do not trust the government, the auditor’s office is more important than ever, Bump said.

“I believe in our democracy, and if our government is going to live up to its architects’ expectations, it needs a solid foundation of public trust,” Bump said.

Through legislation, Bump hopes her office will gain access to Massachusetts tax returns for use in audits. The auditor explained she is pushing for legislation to ensure the auditor’s office will have access to data stored in “vast data warehouses, some of which are maintained on state servers and other information that is stored in the cloud.”

Additionally, Bump hopes to pass legislation around unfunded mandates. She said she hopes legislation backed by members of the House and the Senate on her behalf will require unfunded mandates to go through the state auditor’s office.

Following the talk, Hadley Select Board member Donald Pipczynski said he was pleased that Bump intends to confront issues around unfunded mandates. Pipczynski says MS4, a stormwater mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency, is a costly burden for Hadley.

Pipczyski said unfunded mandates tack thousands of dollars onto new building projects in town. The town is tasked with choosing the lesser of two evils: fund the mandate with town dollars, or pay the state thousands of dollars in non-compliance fees.

“I’m glad we have a voice about the mandates,” Pipczynski said. “What more can you ask for from somebody on the state level?”

Stephanie Murray can be reached at stephaniemur@umass.edu


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