Virginia is a state of contrasts, with urban and rural areas facing different challenges and opportunities. While urban areas enjoy economic growth, cultural diversity, and technological innovation, rural areas struggle with poverty, health disparities, and lack of infrastructure. To address these issues, two legislators from different parties and regions have proposed a bill to create a new secretary of rural affairs for Virginia.
The need for a secretary of rural affairs
Rural Virginia needs more attention and support from Richmond, according to Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, and Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, who are co-sponsoring the bill. They argue that rural regions of the commonwealth are in desperate need of help, and that the current efforts to help them are too little, too fragmented, and too late.
They cite some alarming statistics to illustrate the plight of rural Virginians:
- Rural Virginians are more likely to live shorter lives, face unnecessary hospitalizations, fail to complete high school, and struggle to obtain employment that facilitates economic self-sufficiency.
- Rural Virginians attend crumbling schools with high teacher vacancy rates, travel great distances to find a hospital, struggle with uneven access to broadband, and live in communities that lack a sufficient tax base and necessary infrastructure.
- Rural Virginians have not been given the resources needed to dramatically change their fortunes, and those who need the most, all too often get the least.
The bill’s sponsors say that these problems are self-reinforcing and interconnected, and that they require a holistic and coordinated approach to solve them. They believe that creating a new secretary of rural affairs would provide such an approach, and would ensure that rural Virginia has a voice and a seat at the table in the state government.
The role of a secretary of rural affairs
The bill directs the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to examine the feasibility of establishing a new secretary of rural affairs for Virginia, and to report its findings and recommendations by November 1, 2024. The bill also outlines some of the possible duties and responsibilities of the secretary, such as:
- Developing and implementing a comprehensive rural development strategy for the commonwealth, in collaboration with other state agencies, local governments, and stakeholders.
- Coordinating and overseeing the delivery of state programs and services to rural areas, and ensuring that they are effective, efficient, and equitable.
- Advocating for the interests and needs of rural Virginia in the state budget, legislation, and policy making.
- Promoting and supporting rural economic development, education, health care, broadband, infrastructure, and quality of life.
- Identifying and addressing the gaps and barriers that hinder the growth and prosperity of rural Virginia.
- Serving as a liaison and a resource for rural communities, businesses, organizations, and citizens.
The bill’s sponsors say that a secretary of rural affairs would not create a new bureaucracy or duplicate existing functions, but rather would streamline and enhance the state’s efforts to help rural Virginia. They also say that a secretary of rural affairs would not favor rural areas over urban areas, but rather would balance the needs and interests of all Virginians.
The support for a secretary of rural affairs
The bill has received bipartisan support from other legislators, as well as from various groups and individuals who represent or work with rural Virginia. Some of the supporters include:
- The Virginia Rural Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for rural Virginia and provides information, education, and leadership development to rural stakeholders.
- The Virginia Association of Counties, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of the 95 counties in Virginia and provides legislative, legal, and educational services to its members.
- The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of Virginia farmers and promotes agriculture and rural life.
- The Virginia Rural Health Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes the health and well-being of rural Virginians and supports the development and sustainability of rural health systems.
- The Virginia Cooperative Extension, a state agency that provides research-based educational programs and resources to rural communities in the areas of agriculture, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and community viability.
These supporters say that a secretary of rural affairs would be a game-changer for rural Virginia, and that it would demonstrate the state’s commitment and investment in its rural regions. They also say that a secretary of rural affairs would be a catalyst for innovation and collaboration, and that it would create new opportunities and solutions for rural Virginia.
The outlook for a secretary of rural affairs
The bill is currently pending in the House Rules Committee, and it is expected to be heard and voted on in the coming weeks. The bill’s sponsors are optimistic that it will pass the House and the Senate, and that it will be signed by the governor. They say that they have received positive feedback and encouragement from their colleagues and constituents, and that they have not encountered any significant opposition or criticism.
They also say that they are not alone in their vision for a secretary of rural affairs, and that other states have already taken similar steps to address their rural issues. They point to examples such as:
- North Carolina, which has a secretary of rural economic development, who leads the state’s efforts to stimulate economic growth and job creation in rural areas.
- Pennsylvania, which has a secretary of agriculture, who oversees the state’s agricultural industry and rural development initiatives.
- Vermont, which has a secretary of commerce and community development, who manages the state’s economic, housing, and community development programs, with a focus on rural areas.
The bill’s sponsors say that Virginia should follow the lead of these states, and that creating a secretary of rural affairs would be a historic and transformative move for the commonwealth. They say that they are confident that their bill will become a reality, and that they are hopeful that it will make a difference for rural Virginia.