Blais’ first bill calls for creation of Office of Rural Policy 

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, filed her first piece of legislation that calls for creation of a state Office of Rural Policy. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2019 11:37:54 PM

As her first piece of filed legislation, newly installed state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, called for creation of a state Office of Rural Policy, “to enhance the economic vitality of rural communities and to advance the health and well-being of rural residents.”

The bill, which was co-sponsored by another Franklin County legislator, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, advances one of the recommendations of the two-year-old state Rural Policy Advisory Commission, which is drafting a statewide rural policy plan that incorporates ideas presented in a series of recent listening sessions, including one that drew more than 50 people on Dec. 13 in Greenfield.

The 15-member commission last May proposed creating a state Office of Rural Policy based on models in Maryland and Pennsylvania, with an executive director who would work on programs to further the needs of the state’s rural areas — defined as having a population density of under 500 people per square mile. Hampshire County’s square mile density is about 300, while Franklin County’s square-mile density is a little under 100.

“The goal of this legislation is to provide an office with an executive director whose only job is to look out for the needs of rural Massachusetts,” said Blais, who filed 19 bills in all by Friday afternoon’s deadline for new legislation. “The office will focus on the issues that are critical to the welfare and vitality of rural communities, including economic development, education, environment, health, housing, infrastructure, technology and transportation.”

The office would be an independent public entity overseen by the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, which was established in 2015.

“Throughout the campaign, many voters told me that they felt as though rural western Massachusetts was being left behind,” Blais said. “I want voters to know that I heard them, and that this legislation is in direct response to their concerns.”

Among the other bills filed by Blais are those that would establish a Massachusetts “rural jobs act,” promote cluster residential development, improve access to dental care, offer additional aid to school districts with low or declining enrollment, establish old growth forest reserves and provide for “timely reimbursement” to municipalities for veterans’ benefits.

Blais, formerly the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce executive director, was elected to fill the vacancy in the 1st Franklin Distruct left by 25-year veteran Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who has retired.

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