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The Berkshire's House delegation will serve on committee handling a wide range of issues.

Berkshire House Delegation Gets Committee Assignments

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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BOSTON, Mass. — State Rep. Paul Mark will again chair the House Committee on Redistricting.
 
Mark was chair for the last two years and will continue to work as the U.S. Census begins. The population numbers gathered by the Census is followed by the state redrawing the lines for both the federal and state districts. Mark added that it also affects a significant number of federal and state grant programs which are based on per capita.
 
"It is extremely important that our region is treated fairly and having me as the chair helps ensure that our area is going to be treated fairly," Mark said on Thursday. 
 
The Peru Democrat sees the job as a huge responsibility because all eyes will be watching state lawmakers as it plays out. He said there have been a number of issues elsewhere in the country with accusations of gerrymandering that have gone to the Supreme Court. He said the work entails a lot of legalese and a lot of following cases throughout the country.
 
"It's good for me, with a legal background, to be in that position," Mark said. "It's good that they are willing to put their trust in me."
 
Mark said it has to be done accurately and legally to avoid lawsuits. But it starts with ensuring a proper Census is done. For the last two years, Mark said the committee collected numbers from every city and town in the state and worked on developing forecasts. The group was able to share that with elected officials to preview what is to come.
 
Heading into the Census, the committee will be partnering with the bureau on rolling out education and outreach to encourage participation. Mark said there will be budget asks to roll out those programs. It will be watching the Census during 2020 to ensure accuracy and then when the numbers are in will roll out the potential maps of the new districts. 
 
Mark said the committee has a mix of new members and returning members. Also returning to the committee are state Reps. Dylan Fernandes, Colleen Garry, and Steven Howitt. 
 
"There is no region of the state that doesn't have a member," Mark said of the overall makeup of the group.
 
Mark said he is happy to return to the position. 
 
"I enjoyed it. I found it interesting. I felt it was important for Western Massachusetts. I was happy to get it," Mark said.
 
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, meanwhile, will be the House chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. It is a position he was appointed to following the death of Gailanne Cariddi in the middle of the last legislative session.
 
"I'm really excited about it. I came into it with half a session so I'm excited for a full one," Pignatelli said. 
 
Last year the group did pass a massive environmental bond bill, which earmarks a number of dollars to the Berkshires. But Pignatelli said there were a number of issues that the committee was unable to complete. He said Cariddi's death led to months of inactiveness among the group. 
 
"Last session we had 300 bills. It is one of the bigger committees," Pignatelli said. 
 
He expects a statewide ban on plastic bags to be one of the first issues. The Lenox Democrat said some 80 communities have adopted versions of a ban and he would like to craft a "one-size fits all" plan that will create uniformity across the state.
 
Last term he was also able to secure an agricultural tax credit and now he is looking for a similar one for conservation land. He said there are many farms that would consider preserving their land instead of selling but it isn't as advantageous. He hopes a tax credit will make it easier for large landowners to do so.
 
"I want to get started early," Pignatelli said.
 
He said the group will first meet in a couple of weeks and get rules in place.
 
Those in the House with chairmanships aren't given any other committee responsibilities.
 
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier will serve on four committees: Elder Affairs, Election Laws, Technology and Intergovernmental Affairs, and Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development. She'll be the vice chair of Elder Affairs.
 
"We want to make sure our seniors are well represented in the State House," Farley-Bouvier said, adding that there wasn't a person from Western Massachusetts on the committee. "I certainly advocated making sure we were represented from the Berkshires."
 
Particularly in Elder Affairs, Farley-Bouvier would like the tackle the issue of grandparents raising grandchildren.
 
"It's such a growing need not only in Berkshire County but across the state," Farley-Bouvier said. "It is a direct result of the opioid epidemic."
 
The issue is complex. Grandparents are often dealing with their own child in crisis while also trying to provide for their grandchild. They can feel isolated in this situation because there is such an age difference between them and other parents. The child could get moved back and forth between being in the care of parents and grandparents, which can traumatize the child. 
 
"It can be a real dynamic, frustrating, and confusing situation," Farley-Bouvier said. 
 
She said support groups have been formed throughout the state but there is more work to do with the school systems, getting grandparents more financial support, and working through the legal process of guardianship and grandparents' rights. It's an issue she's learned about directly from constituents, she said. 
 
Farley-Bouvier had previously sat on the committee some years earlier. The importance of the work has been growing because of the aging demographics in the Berkshires.
 
The Pittsfield Democrat said she wants to use the position to back the age-friendly efforts going on in the county, protect seniors from being scammed, and support Meals on Wheels. She is also pushing for a bill to dementia care.
 
In Election Laws, a new committee for Farley-Bouvier, ranked choice voting is expected to be debated. The concept is to switch from simply which candidate in an election has the most votes to allowing voters to rank the candidates in order of preference.
 
Farley-Bouvier said she supports enabling legislation to allow cities and towns to enact it at the local level first.
 
"I'd like to see that as a great first step because it is like a laboratory," Farley-Bouvier said.
 
There the kinks of such a system will be worked out before such an election is held statewide. She said the committee will also be discussing proposals for enabling legislation to lower the voting age in local elections. 
 
In the last few years, the Legislature made voting more accessible through such actions as early voting and Farley-Bouvier expects that discussion to continue.
 
Cybersecurity will be the top issue in Technology and Intergovernmental Affairs, Farley-Bouvier said. She said not only is it about the systems in place but also the workforce needed to provide proper cybersecurity. 
 
Finally, in Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, Farley-Bouvier said a priority will be to increase state support for marketing in the Berkshires. She said tourism is a key part of the economy here but yet the county is competing with upstate New York, where that state has been significantly outspending Massachusetts in marketing.
 
Notably, Farley-Bouvier was not put on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, on which she's served for the past seven years. That surprised her. 
 
"I've gained a lot of expertise in the area of child welfare so I am very much going to continue to work in that area," Farley-Bouvier said, adding that expertise transitions well to tackling the issue of grandparents raising grandchildren.
 
The newest member of the delegation, John Barrett III, wanted Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development but didn't get it. Instead, he was surprised with a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
 
"It is the most significant committee to be on because they put the budget together," Barrett said.
 
The budget is already off to a late start as the legislative session has been slow going. Barrett said, "there is a lot of catch up that has to happen" to get a budget out. Ways and Means wasn't one he had asked to be put on.
 
The North Adams Democrat was also assigned to Workforce Development. He's filed a number of bills in that realm and had previously served as the head of BerkshireWorks -- now Mass Hire -- in Pittsfield. He said the Berkshires are importing people to work because the current workforce isn't properly trained for the jobs available.
 
"We have to create a lot more jobs and to do that we need to train the workforce," Barrett said.
 
Barrett is particularly fond of programs that have employers provide the training. He's pushing for the state to subsidize the salaries for workers being trained on the job for a period of time. 
 
"My big thing is we have to have a trained workforce," Barrett said. "I believe our workforce training programs are inadequate."
 
The former North Adams mayor and county commissioner was also appointed to Municipalities and Regional Government. He said his experience in municipal government will help provide expertise on home rule petitions that filed. He is also on the Post Audit Committee.
 
"They tried to tie into my experience and background," Barrett said of the assignments he was given.
 
While Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development was his first choice, he said he'll still be able to work on the issue.

Tags: legislative committees,   legislators,   

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BCAC Taps Community For Needs Assessment

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff

Christina Maxwell of the Food Bank of Western Mass talks  about food security.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Poverty was the topic of conversation on Friday to help the Berkshire Community Action Council gauge the needs in the community.
 
Community leaders and experts lead a panel Friday morning at the Berkshire Athenaeum to help spark a conversation among participants focused on poverty and its different catalysts.   
 
"We are all interested in working on the destabilizing effects poverty is having on our community and so we hope that we will get some good information here," BCAC Executive Director Deborah Leonczyk said. "So please give us your ideas, your suggestions. Give us your experiences we need to hear it all."
 
She said as the federally designated anti-poverty agency in the county, every three years BCAC must "take the pulse" of the community and find out what the needs are. This will inform the action plan for the next three years.
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