Rural communities tend to be forgotten stepchildren in a state dominated by Boston and other major cities and the officials who represent them. Legislators from those rural communities work hard to advocate for their towns but a central office to push for rural programs could put a sharper focus on those efforts.
That is the goal of the proposed Massachusetts Office of Rural Policy, which was created in an amendment to an economic development bill passed by the House on Tuesday. The bill was co-sponsored by state Rep. Paul Mark, a Peru Democrat, who chairs the rural caucus. A similar amendment authored by state Sen. Adam Hinds didn't make the Senate economic development bill, but Sen. Hinds says such an office would assure that parts of the state don't fall behind because of a lack of understanding of the needs of rural towns ("Office of Rural Policy would give Berkshires an edge — and it could happen," Eagle).
There are several examples of how such an office could benefit regions that are either overlooked or failed by legislation that does not factor in their needs. While efforts to extend internet broadband to rural areas have progressed in recent years, state government has been slow to push that expansion and too many rural towns still lack last mile connections. Legislative proposals out of Boston to extend passenger rail links to the west usually stop in Springfield, forcing Berkshire legislators to argue for a further extension into Pittsfield.
Gov. Charlie Baker's generally sound policies on COVID-19 are built around Eastern Mass. statistics and don't factor in the lower coronavirus presence in the Berkshires. Whenever the governor expands testing sites, Berkshire legislators must get on their soap boxes to demand county sites. If Berkshire County is to keep its COVID levels low, it will require more testing to assure the virus doesn't go on a rampage as it has in other states.
The creation of quality affordable housing is of critical importance if Berkshire County is to attract employers and employees willing to settle in the community. The pandemic might persuade people to move out of hard-hit cites to rural areas, but they will need jobs and housing if they are to make the move. A state initiative provides payments for housing developments created by communities but Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, told The Eagle that the county doesn't benefit from the program because of Berkshire towns relative lack of housing development.
A state Office of Rural Policy with an executive director and staff to advise the Legislature, governor's office and administrative agencies of rural needs could anticipate and point out these oversights. The Bay State's rural taxpayers deserve more than a largely bureaucratic entity with lofty goals but nebulous effects. This proposal, by contrast, offers a concrete path to legitimately addressing rural areas' needs in original bills instead of later shoehorning in amendments that may or may not be acted upon before filing deadlines have passed.
Berkshire lawmakers have plenty of enthusiastic natural allies in the neighboring rural counties of Franklin and Hampshire. Even to the East, many rural communities dot the Massachusetts borders with New Hampshire and Connecticut. This should form a formidable constituency that the Office of Rural Policy can serve as a centralized advocate for their interests. Time is short in this session, but if the legislation creating the office doesn't make the deadline it should be a high priority for passage in the fall. We urge Gov. Baker to follow quickly with his signature.