AS GOV.-ELECT MAURA HEALEY prepares to take office, we’re hearing a lot about “regional equity” these days. But defining exactly what this is beyond some nice-sounding buzz words is elusive.
Residents of our small towns and rural communities know that the issues and challenges they confront on a daily basis are often overlooked and unappreciated by the bureaucrats and the state agencies in Boston. A concrete step Healey could take upon assuming office is to name a director of rural affairs to work out of the western Massachusetts governor’s office in Springfield.
Members of the Legislative Rural Caucus are far outnumbered by their colleagues from the state’s cities and suburbs and it is highly unlikely that any rural legislator will be chairing a powerful committee in the upcoming 193d session of the Legislature. Having a top staffer in the governor’s office whose sole mission is to be an advocate and ombudsman for rural Massachusetts would send a strong signal from Healey that the concerns of the 172 towns with a population of 10,000 or less will have a seat at the table.
There is ample precedence for this type of job in other states such as Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia. Some are full-time and others part-time and some work in the governor’s suite while others are assigned to the lieutenant governor. But whether they are called rural policy advisor, special advisor for rural partnerships, rural affairs coordinator or director of rural development, they all serve as the conduit between their state’s rural constituencies and the governor.
There is also no shortage of issues to be addressed in the rural parts of the Commonwealth. From protecting our working landscapes of the agriculture and forestry sectors to increasing the number of doctors, dentists and mental health professionals and strengthening the tourism economy that supports many small businesses, a gubernatorial rural affairs director could play a critical role in making sure that the needs of our small towns are heard by her excellency and the cabinet secretaries and commissioners who run the administration.
If the Healey-Driscoll regime truly wants to represent the entire state, naming a director of rural affairs would be welcome gesture at making regional equity more than rhetoric – but a reality.
Matt L. Barron of MLB Research Associates is a political consultant and rural strategist and resident of Chesterfield.