Bay State Creates New Rural Commission

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.



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.

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).

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.