An Assignment of the Times for the New Massachusetts Senate…
With Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka’s release of committee assignments, the upper house on Beacon Hill can now get down to legislating. The budget will take up oxygen and the House must still appoint to joint committees. Still, lawmaking will soon begin in earnest with full Democratic control of Beacon Hill for the first time in nearly a decade.
Committee assignments will shape, to some extent, the first term of Western Mass’s two new senators. However, for the region’s returning senatorial champions, additional trust and responsibility is evident in Spilka’s other selections.
This was especially apparent for Northampton Senator Jo Comerford. She will transition from the chair of Public Health to Higher Education, both joint committees with the House. Comerford also received a leadership slot on Senate’s Ways & Means Committee.
“It’s crucial for the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district to have strong representation on Ways and Means,” she noted in a statement. “This position will allow my team and I to expand on the regional equity work we’ve been doing since taking office.”
Following years of setbacks, the GOP has no senators in Western Mass save Sutton Republican Ryan Fattman. After redistricting, he now represents a smidge of Hampden County. Nominally, Spilka’s assignments are only for Democrats. Yet, Senate Republicans are now so few, they could caucus in a Volkswagen Beetle with room for staff. Thus, each GOP senator will sit on gobs of committees.
The relative power of committees is subject to some debate. The joint committees, for which each house sends a co-chair can be bottlenecks. The House, as the larger body, has more votes on joint committees and can kill inconvenient legislation there. However, the Senate has clapped back by using its Ways & Means Committee to develop legislation.
To Comerford’s point, she is not only on Ways & Means—or alone among Western Mass senators. Rather, she is its third-ranking member as assistant vice-chair. It’s a notable bump especially since she did not serve on the panel in the last legislature. It is not, however, altogether unexpected.
As chair of Public Health in her first two terms on Beacon Hill, Comerford worked closely with the senate president during the pandemic. The Noho Democrat oversaw tough but substantive probes into key decisions then-Governor Charlie Baker’s administration made.
Nevertheless, co-chairing the Higher Education Committee is an obvious spot for the senator representing four out of the Five Colleges. She said she was “extremely excited” to lead it after being vice-chair last session. Perhaps nodding to the senate president, Comerford namechecked a top priority Spilka outlined last month at the Senate’s inauguration.
“Time for free community college,” Comerford said. “I very much look forward to working with my House Co-Chair and colleagues, with our institutions of higher education, with advocates and researchers, and with current and future students.”
Comerford shall serve vice-chair the new Joint Agriculture Committee and sit on the Senate’s Rules and Climate Change committees. She will also be on two joint committees: Economic Development and Racial Equity, Civil Rights & Inclusion.
Springfield Senator Adam Gomez shall serve with her on the Senate Ways & Means Committee, the joint Economic Development Committee and the Racial Equity. Gomez is a vice-chair of Racial Equity.
Beyond those three committees, Gomez shall co-chair the Joint Cannabis Policy Committee and be a Joint Election Laws Committee vice-chair, a position he held last session. He shall sit on the Senate Juvenile & Emerging Adult Justice Committee and the Joint Committee on Community Development & Small Business.
“I am thankful to the Senate President for the committee assignments I received today and excited to get to work on my new joint committee chair role. I look forward to this new session!” he told WMP&I in a statement.
Another senator’s assignments also signal trust from the senate president. Spilka elevated Westfield Senator John Velis to co-chair of the Joint Mental Health, Substance Abuse & Recovery Committee. Spilka has pressed mental health issues as senate president, passing two bills last session alone. The post pairs well with the Veterans Affairs Committee, which Velis, a veteran himself, will continue to chair. The two issues not only overlap substantive but Velis can identify with both. His own struggle with alcohol prompted his pursuit of a seat on Mental Health.
This session, Velis will also be a vice-chair on the Joint Elder Affairs Committee and serve on four joint committees: Housing, Judiciary, Public Safety & Homeland Security and State Administration & Regulatory Oversight.
“In my mind, mental health and substance use are the biggest problems in the Commonwealth that not enough people are talking about,” Velis said in a statement. “And as someone who has had their own struggles in recovery, I know firsthand how these two issues can so often be cooccurring for people. We know that we must do more to help those struggling, and I look forward to working with members of the committee to accomplish just that.”
On the Veterans Committee, Velis pointed to several ongoing high-profile matters from last session. Among them is renovating the Holyoke Soldiers Home and revising its governance following the devastating coronavirus outbreak. He also highlighted the Veterans Secretariat rising to cabinet-level post and outreach to women veterans.
“This is an area that I will always be passionate about and I am thrilled to continue this work to ensure that Massachusetts remains the best place for service members and military families to call home,” he said.
For the region’s two new senators, there is a mix of typical freshman posts and notable omissions.
Beckett Senator Paul Mark will co-chair the Joint Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development Committee. It is not uncommon for new senators to chair this post, but Mark embraced it eagerly. Tourism and the arts are major industries in his sprawling 57-community district anchored in the Berkshires,
“As Chair of Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development I get to showcase the amazing cultural venues of the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts while also advocating for funding in support of the arts and our creative sector,” he emailed.
After a decade in the House, Mark can handle more than that, though. He will be a vice-chair on the Bonding and Transportation joint committees. He has seats on five more joint committees: Advanced Information Technology, the Internet & Cybersecurity; Children, Families, & Persons with Disabilities; Higher Education; Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy; and Veterans.
In his email, Mark plugged something critical about all of his committees. Yet, having a seat on Transportation stands out as East-West rail evolves.
“Transportation is so important right now as we continue on the path of making West-East Rail service a reality and fighting for rural transit options and funding for our regional transit authorities,” he said.
“All in all, I think this is a big win for our area and shows a lot of confidence in the work my fellow senators think I am capable of, and I plan on working very hard to advance our priorities this session,” Mark continued.
Ludlow Senator Jake Oliveira shall sit on several key panels, too. The former School Committee member opted to not pursue any education assignment. His town government background shall not waste away, though. Oliveira will co-chair the committee overseeing municipalities.
“I’m thrilled at the opportunity to put my extensive experience in local government to meaningful use as Chair of the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee,” Oliveira said in a statement. Tracing his own local government path from student School Committee rep to full Committee member, he added. “I understand how municipal government works from my experience on the ground level.”
Although seemingly humdrum, co-chairing Municipalities will put Oliveira at the middle of the constant, annual flow of home rule petitions. For example, Boston city councilors wnat to revive an elected school committee. If it gets by Mayor Michelle Wu, it would land on Oliveira’s desk next.
Oliveira will join Mark on the Tourism Committee as vice-chair and serve as a Public Health vice-chair. He will separately sit on the joint committees on Consumer Protection & Professional Licensure; Emergency Preparedness & Management; Election Laws; and Financial Services.
In his statement, Oliveira indicated these panels not only touch but will assist in providing constituent services.
“I’m grateful to be involved with committees that have such a direct day-to-day impact on the lives of my constituents,” he said. They touch on things like “protecting their rights as consumers in the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee or addressing their well-being in the Public Health Committee.”
With Adam Hinds and Eric Lesser retiring, the rather powerful chairs they held last session go on to others. Hinds had co-chaired the Revenue Committee, which oversees taxation. It will play a central role in the implementation of the Fair Share Amendment. Falmouth Senator Susan Moran shall be the Senate Chair this session.
Lesser had chaired the Senate Ethics Committee during an unusually busy period for the panel. Winchester Senator Jason Lewis shall chair it now. Lesser had also served as Senate chair of the Economic Development Committee. Andover Senator Barry Finegold shall chair for the next two years.