Representative Stephen Kulik hails from Worthington in Western, MA, and represents 16 rural communities to the north and west of Springfield. Steve went to Newton Junior College, and then attended Northeastern University before finishing his studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Representative Kulik started his public service on his hometown’s Planning Board and then Selectboard. He then served three years as a County Commissioner. Steve was the President of the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association and the President of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. He has been a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for the last 24 years, and is currently the Vice Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Steve is the founder and co-chair of the Small Town and Rural Caucus. He is also Chairman of the national organization of state legislators called State Agricultural and Rural Leaders (SARL). Rural and agricultural issues have been a priority for Steve since he began his legislative career.
We asked Steve what he sees as the biggest issue for Massachusetts agriculture. He said the biggest problem with MA agriculture is sustainability, with no growth in rural population and the ‘brain drain’ of young people leaving their small towns after they graduate. The loss of population and the loss of representation at both federal and state levels are a serious concern for education and infrastructure. Forty communities are without broadband access in western MA. Those forty communities account for only 30,000 people out of almost 7 million in the state. Steve said, “It’s hard to get anyone’s attention to help those few towns and their small populations get access to broadband. The private sector won’t help because it is not financially viable, and the towns do not have enough of a voice in Boston to put pressure on the state to provide broadband.”
We then asked the Representative about what he considers to be the biggest issues, outside of agriculture, that the state is facing. He immediately answered, “The cost of health care”. He said it is a $40 billion commitment to provide health care to the residents of the state. Currently 42% of the State budget is health care cost alone. The good news is that 98% of the state’s population has some form of health coverage. The second biggest problem for the state, Steve said, is the loss of revenue over the last few years. The lawmakers admit that they do not fully understand why. They believe that part of the drop in revenues is fewer hours worked and lower wages paid to the employees of the state. The lawmakers also know that purchases at brick and mortar store sales are shifting to internet sales, which has affected sales tax revenue. He also believes that wealthy residents are holding onto investments, because they are waiting to see what happens in Washington in terms of tax policy. Steve’s proudest accomplishment as a Representative has been casting a vote for marriage equality.
Representative Kulik noted with deserved pride that the House was able to complete work on the budget in two days, albeit long days. When we asked how they could manage getting a budget approved in two days he responded with; “Revenue is down, so there is no new spending and plenty of advanced work. We held eight public hearings around the state, each focusing on a different agency. Forty-two percent of health care costs in the budget accounts for much of the discretionary spending. The Governor provides the legislature with a good budget, the lawmakers are involved in decision making with the Governor before the budget even gets submitted to the House. The hearings are held jointly by the Governor, House and Senate.
We asked Steve what he values most about CSG-ERC. He said, “CSG-ERC provides the benefits of a regional forum for agriculture and rural issues. ERC member states and provinces all have similar issues, which sometimes are very different than other regions of the country.” Steve added, “My favorite part of the ERC meetings is learning what other states are working on and how they are solving the problems that Massachusetts might be having.” He learns so much from his peers in other states and considers the attendees to be like family.
Finally, we asked how the state’s remaining dairy farms are faring in this tenuous market. His response was that they are doing okay because the state has a dairy assistance program which provides a tax credit to dairy farmers. The dairy assistance is capped at $4 million in any given year, and is not given when dairy prices are up. Rep. Kulik says that many farms have told him that the assistance has really helped them over the years.
Steve’s last comment was how much he believes in legislative organizations like CSG-ERC and sharing of ideas, solutions and the networking between legislators.
You will be able to meet Rep. Steve Kulik and the other members of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Policy Committee this summer at the CSG-ERC Annual Meeting, August 13 through 16 in Uncasville, CT. Registration is available online. We hope to see you there.