One of the most urban states in the nation has just created a rural policy advisory commission. We asked a rural Massachusetts political strategist why Massachusetts needs the new body. It all starts with a governor who didn’t pay enough attention to rural, says Matt Barron.
A new state commission in Massachusetts will look for ways to improve economic and social conditions for rural parts of the commonwealth.
Governor Charlie Baker signed the Rural Policy Advisory Commission into law early this week as part of the 2016 state budget.
Less than 10 percent of the Massachusetts residents live outside metropolitan counties. That's one among the lowest rates in the nation. But there are still significant rural regions that contribute to the state’s culture and economy, says Matt L. Barron, a political and rural strategist who lives in the Hilltowns of rural western Massachusetts.
We asked Barron to tell us more about rural issues in Massachusetts and explain the need for a rural policy commission. He said the commission grew out of dissatisfaction with how the governor treated rural areas during and after his 2014 campaign.
Daily Yonder: How do rural politics, culture, and economy play out in Massachusetts? Where are the key rural parts of the state? Are they cohesive politically? Are they strong enough to be a presence in the Capital?
Matt Barron: The Bay State is the third most densely populated state in the nation behind New Jersey and Rhode Island, but like every state, we have rural areas and towns. The most rural areas are western Worcester County and Franklin County along with Hampshire and Berkshire counties in the central and western part of the Commonwealth. The islands of Dukes County (Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands) are rural, as are parts of southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod.
We have “blue rural” and “red rural” with the blue being mostly in western Mass and the red being in Worcester County and in the cranberry bog communities in the southeast.
While the state is dominated by an urban and suburban power structure in the Legislature, we have a new Senate president (Stan Rosenberg – D-Amherst) who is from the west who represents some very small towns. And we have some some key House members from rural districts, like Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who filed this legislation creating the Commission. People like these are are in leadership positions, and they serve as equalizers on budget and policy matters than can be viewed as threatening to rural constituencies.
DY: Are there big economic differences or disparities between rural and urban Massachusetts? What are the key issues facing rural Massachusetts?
MB: There is an east-west economic divide across the state with Boston and many of its immediate suburbs doing very well with good jobs and the western part of the state and much of southeastern Massachusetts doing poorly. Housing prices are much higher in the Boston area and they have robust sectors in high technology, biotech and life sciences and financial services that don’t exist much in the hinterlands. Rural Massachusetts is much more dependent on tourism, the “creative economy” (arts and culture), agriculture, fishing and forestry and manufacturing. Around the urban centers and university towns in western Massachusetts, jobs in higher education and health care are key.
One of the biggest issues facing rural Massachusetts is the lack of high-speed Internet access. Wired West, a co-op of small towns, is now working on funding to build-out the “last mile” rural broadband to homes and businesses. You can’t sell a house in rural Massachusetts without fiber optic-level broadband no matter how nice the view or how good the local school system is.
The opioid crisis is very real in many rural towns where jobs are few.
We are also fighting newly proposed natural gas pipelines that aim to bring fracked gas in from Pennsylvania across working landscapes such as farms, orchards, woodlands and environmentally protected natural areas. Massachusetts is dependent on natural gas for about two-thirds of its power and many feel we should not become even more dependent on a single fuel source. There is also great worry and concern that rural Massachusetts will become despoiled so that the gas can be exported from the Canadian Maritimes, overseas to Europe where it will fetch a higher price than here at home. Other issues are ones of equity, such as getting the maximum amount of state funds for regional school transportation reimbursements and payments in-lieu of taxes (PILOT) for state lands (mostly huge tracts of state forests, parks and wildlife management areas that are hosted by rural towns but are off the tax rolls, hurting our ability to do rural economic development and grow our tax bases).
DY: What is the new rural policy commission? What do you hope it can accomplish? Why is it necessary?
MB: The commission is an advisory group of 15 members, mostly people from regional planning commissions in the counties or areas that have rural communities within their jurisdictions. The governor, House speaker and Senate president get to name the balance of the membership and everybody “shall be persons with a demonstrated interest and experience in advancing the interests of rural residents,” as per the enabling legislation. Hopefully, if we can get an all-star group of appointees, we can work with the Baker administration to head off proposed rules, regulations or initiatives that could be hardships for rural constituencies to comply with. On the flip side, there are opportunities in areas such as food and culinary tourism and green energy such as combined heat-and-power systems for rural schools and municipal buildings to use woody biomass, that we want the governor’s top aides to embrace as economic and environmental benefits from rural areas of the state.
DY: How did the council get established?
MB: The commission grew out of frustration that new Governor Charlie Baker had not campaigned much in most of rural Massachusetts and during his transition period had not named anybody from rural Massachusetts to his transition team. Once Baker was sworn in, he did not respect geographic diversity by naming any cabinet members or agency heads from rural towns. There has long been a desire to see a rural affairs director post created in the governor’s office, like exists in states such as Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Utah and Virginia, to name a few. But since Governor Baker was non-responsive to this idea, the Rural Policy Advisory Commission initiative was created by the Legislature as an outside section to the FY 2016 state budget which was just signed into law. The Rural Policy Advisory Commission grew out of a day-long December 2014 conference sponsored by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership that brought together rural stakeholders from across the state to brainstorm on how to get our issues addressed in a policy and political sphere often driven by “metro-think,” that is what is good for cities and ’burbs is good for everybody.
DY: What would you tell residents of other states about the experience of establishing the commission? Are there lessons other rural constituencies might draw from Massachusetts?
MB: All 50 states have rural portions in them, and the residents of those ZIP codes have needs that often may be different from their neighbors in cities and suburban areas. Too often, in my opinion, rural constituencies get bypassed on having their needs addressed because their small populations and status as “geographic minorities” leave them with a lack of political clout and muscle. If Massachusetts can take this step, the other states can do it, too.
DY: How will the commission operate? What will happen to its recommendations? I assume this is just one step in the process of making state policy. What will rural advocates have to do to make the most of opportunity the commission offers?
MB: The commission members may serve a maximum of three consecutive three-year terms and will elect a chair, vice-chair, treasurer and other officers from its members. There is no compensation except reimbursement for travel expenses to meetings. The language establishing the Rural Policy Advisory Commission is pretty boilerplate:
The commission shall serve as a research body for issues critical to the welfare and vitality of rural communities and shall: (i) study, review and report on the status of rural communities and residents in the commonwealth; (ii) advise the general court (our state legislature) and the executive branch of the impact of existing and proposed state laws, policies and regulations on rural communities; (iii) advance legislative and policy solutions that address rural needs; (iv) advocate to ensure that rural communities receive a fair share of state investment; (v) promote collaboration among rural communities to improve efficiency in delivery of services; and (vi) develop and support new leadership in rural communities.
Although the rural commission will not be state-funded, it will be allowed to take its Little League can around to solicit coins and other funds. This opens up the possibility of obtaining gifts, grants, donations and any federal funds to underwrite projects, studies, or analysis.
The Rural Policy Advisory Commission is mandated to do an annual report of its findings and activities on or before every June 2 to the governor and Legislature. What happens to the Rural Policy Advisory Commission’s recommendations is anybody’s guess. To really stand out and be effective, the membership of the commission will have to be passionate advocates and skillful political operatives who know how to forge alliances with the right mix of elected officials from non-rural districts to effectuate positive and meaningful change on behalf of the Bay State’s boondocks.