Almost a year after it was created, Massachusetts’ new Rural Policy Advisory Commission got down to brass tacks on June 10 in Greenfield. After attending the inaugural session, it is clear this group has some challenges ahead if they are to become a vocal and effective voice for our small towns and rural communities.
Most of the appointees have solid backgrounds in the policy agenda that confronts rural Massachusetts. However, two gubernatorial picks to the panel stick out like sore thumbs. Konnie Lukes, the former mayor of Worcester, is a bad fit. At 181,045 residents, Worcester is the second-largest city in all of New England. Having an urban-focused politician like Lukes is a head scratcher. And Brian Bullock (reportedly placed on the panel by Lt. Gov. Karyn Politio) is from suburban Holden, which is adjacent to Worcester, part of its metropolitan area, and decidedly not rural.
The legislature gave Rural Policy Advisory Commission no appropriation, but allows them to solicit donations for their work. This is a stark contrast to the Rural Maryland Council (on which the Massachusetts commission was modeled), which has a director, staff, and a robust budget. For 2016, Maryland gets $167,000 for operating expenses as well as an additional $167,000 for a grant program. And beginning July 1, the Rural Maryland Council will receive a large increase of $2,334,000 with almost $2 million to be disbursed as grants to rural communities. The Rural Maryland Council operating expenses will come to $388,000. They are expanding the office staff and undertaking some rural research in the coming year.
When Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy was elected treasurer of the Massachusetts’ rural commission, there was a round of laughs and giggles, insinuating that the commission will not seek private funding for its work.
Fortunately, there are a host of rural philanthropies and funders that have money to give, if the rural commission can invest some time to look and ask. For example, the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has a rural entrepreneurship initiative, and there are others. According to a 2004 study by the Southern Rural Development Initiative, more than 7,500 endowed foundations are located in rural America, but their assets represent only 3% of all foundation assets nationwide, or just $15.1 billion.
Absent any money to gather data and produce and disseminate findings, RPACs recommendations will likely gather dust in some legislative filing cabinet in the State House dominated by an urban and suburban power structure little concerned with the problems in the state’s boondocks. Depending solely on the staff at the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development would be a major mistake.
The issue of broadband should stay at the top of Massachusetts Rural Policy Advisory Commission to-do list since without “last-mile” Internet access, many of the other items on the rural agenda will be stymied. Patience with the Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is running thin in the hinterlands at the long delay in getting fiber to homes and businesses. When Lt. Gov. Polito recently said there remains “a sense of urgency” about connecting the towns but in the next breath admitted that the funding would come eventually, it was seen as another example of foot-dragging by the state’s chief executive.
It is no secret that in his elections of 2010 and 2014, Gov. Baker’s electoral fortunes fared particularly poorly across the western and north-western counties of Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire. These rural areas voted ultramarine blue for the opposition party in those races for governor.
In looking at the lack of geographic diversity in gubernatorial appointees, the lack of time Baker spends here and the tortured pace of broadband completion, some in these parts speculate that a partisan payback element is in play. Some eyebrows were raised in Greenfield when the Massachusetts’ rural commission chair, Chrystal Kornegay (who’s day job is Baker’s undersecretary for Housing and Community Development) said “their (the Baker administration) urban agenda is an outgrowth of the Baker-Polito campaign.” Translation: Rural Massachusetts is not on our radar screen.
With only four meetings annually, the rural commission will have to bear down to make sure their four working groups have done their homework in order to present recommendations to the legislature next year. The rural commission website needs to have to contact information for each commission member listed. The commission (as a public body) needs to incorporate a public comment period at the beginning of their meetings so as to be able to receive input and ideas from the rural Massachusetts residents they are pledged to serve.
Matt L. Barron runs MLB Research Associates, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Massachusetts.