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Seen As Urban State, Massachusetts Creates Rural Policy Commission

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As part of the state budget, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law the creation of a rural policy commission in Massachusetts. It continues a longstanding effort to express small town needs in the Boston-centric commonwealth.The Massachusetts Rural Policy Advisory Commission is outlined as a 15-person group whose mission is to enhance the economic vitality of rural communities and advance the wellbeing of its residents. The governor will appoint members of the Berkshire, Franklin and Pioneer Valley regional planning commissions along with people on planning commissions from coastal Massachusetts. Legislative house leaders or their appointees will also have a spot along with additional gubernatorial appointments. Representative Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from Worthington, sponsored the legislation.

“Rural communities house about 15 percent of our population,” Kulik said. “We are largely seen as an urban state, but particularly in western Massachusetts, Worcester County and Cape Cod, we have pretty rural communities that have real challenges when it comes to delivering services such as affordable housing, maintaining our infrastructure and funding our schools and towns.”

Kulik says broadband internet and regional transportation are other issues the commission could look at. The legislation dictates that the commission will file an annual report to the legislature and executive branch by June 2nd, close to the start of a fiscal year on July 1st and late in the budget cycle.

Matt Barron is a Democratic strategist and former staffer for Congressman John Olver, who represented western Massachusetts until 2013. Coming from the Hampshire County town of Chesterfield, population 1,200, Barron says the push for this commission came after Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, took office.

“He did not appoint anybody to his administration in the cabinet, commissioner-ships or agency heads that was really from western Mass. or a rural community,” Barron said. “That was concerning because when you’re governor you’re governor of the whole state…so urban, suburban and yes rural.”

Some western Massachusetts lawmakers, representative of a largely Democratic area, also felt snubbed after not one person from Berkshire, Franklin or Hampshire counties was named to Baker’s 175-member transition team, following two terms by part-time Berkshires resident Gov. Deval Patrick.

Seven members were from Hampden County, home to Springfield and more people than the three others combined. Baker’s team said the Republican campaigned in areas many GOP candidates had not previously paid attention to and residents could expect nothing less after he took office. Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito spent a January day in Berkshire County during a post-inaugural statewide tour where he was asked about his commitment to western Massachusetts.

“I would hope that over the course of time people will make their own call with respect to whether or not we’re paying attention they way we should,” Baker said. “But if we do our jobs people should feel pretty comfortable that we’re taking everybody’s concerns seriously.”

Baker ended his speech at MASS MoCA in North Adams, saying his son goes to Union College in nearby Schenectady, NY.

“I’d be spending a lot of time driving right by you on my way there,” Baker said. “I’d be happy to stop by and make sure we spend time out here, continue to follow the progress and give you an opportunity to hold us all as accountable as I’m sure you’d like to.”

The lead liaison between the administration and localities, Polito returned to the area in June as part of a statewide effort to strengthen municipal ties. Representative Kulik says the administration of Patrick, a Democrat, did not fully consider rural issues he thought deserved attention like regional school transportation.

“This is an opportunity with a new administration coming in that can embrace this,” Kulik said. “He did support it. He signed this in the budget. He did not veto this section of the budget. So we’re hoping that it can be very useful to a new governor to help define and promote the concerns of rural communities.”

Barron says Baker didn’t veto the commission because its members are not paid and the only support from the executive branch is office space and research the commission reasonably requires. Members can be reimbursed for expenses, while the commission can seek grants, donations and federal funding. Massachusetts already has an office of rural health.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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