Column: Michigan needs a ‘rural ombudsman’

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Michigan’s official state motto is: “Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice,” or, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

Michigan is a large state composed of great and struggling cities, sprawling suburbs and our often-forgotten rural communities.

We are asking our new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who visited all 83 counties during her campaign, to show rural Michigan some special love and appoint a senior-level cabinet member to be her advisor on rural policy. This person would report directly to the governor and would work with all state departments and agencies.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

The director also would meet with community leaders, serving as a “rural ombudsman” to find state-level solutions for policy issues. We also believe Whitmer should appoint a Commission on Rural Issues with representatives from across our state.

Whitmer has demonstrated by her words and deeds that she will leave no part of our state behind as the 21st unfolds. This appointment would be a tangible step to make her commitments come alive.

We have all seen the national and state reports on the increasing number of citizens moving to urban and suburban communities, while rural areas are seeing drops in population. Employers like Amazon and Apple also are expanding in urban areas. While this is occurring, we see the list of rural issues continue to grow and become more complex.

The two largest rural areas of Michigan are Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula accounts for 3 percent of the state’s population and approximately 30 percent of the state land mass.

In the U.P., here are some of the issues people are facing: energy costs and access, road development and repair, internet and broadband access, access to economic development growth, health care availability, poverty and education costs.

There also are struggles over water and environmental issues around the Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. In Lame Duck last year, former Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature agreed on a plan to preserve Line 5. While it presents serious environmental protection issues, it also is the major supplier of propane to the very rural Upper Peninsula, which depends on propane.

Other areas of our state, like Southwest Michigan, face similar issues. All rural areas would benefit from Whitmer appointing a rural policy director.

In the past, we have had formal and informal urban/suburban policy agendas, but we have never had a formal state rural policy agenda, much less a cabinet-level appointee.

There are many possible individuals to fulfill this role. Experience would be ideal in the legislative or executive branch, local office and business ownership in a Michigan rural community.

Policy matters. Having a focus on and commitment to rural Michigan would help create opportunities for areas of our state often overlooked in Lansing debates.

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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins was deputy chief of staff to Gov. Jim Blanchard, director of Department of Mental Health and State Superintendent of Schools. He has also been president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida and is considered an expert on China.

David Haynes
David Haynes

David Haynes is the former president of Northern Michigan University and currently a professor of Public Administration at NMU. He served as state business ombudsman and special assistant to Gov. James Blanchard.