As lawmakers prepare to move a new farm bill, one of the smallest titles is taking on an outsized importance as Congress looks to address priority issues for the Trump administration - including rural broadband and the opioid crisis. 

Funding is being sought for both issues through the farm bill’s rural development title, which was estimated to cost just $218 million over five years under the 2014 farm bill. That's a small portion of the entire farm bill package, which had a total projected five-year cost of nearly $490 billion. 

The White House hasn’t said how it will fund rural broadband. In a report, the administration’s rural development task force named e-connectivity as a top priority for achieving “rural prosperity.” As of 2014, 39 percent of the rural population lacked broadband access. That “e-connectivity gap not only prevents rural Americans from participating in the global marketplace but also limits urban Americans from accessing the innovations and products of rural America.” the report said. 

But the report didn’t specify how to pay for broadband expansion, and there also was no mention of broadband in the leaked copy of the infrastructure plan that surfaced in January. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that his department has been working with the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce to identify broadband funding sources to determine “how they can be … concentrated in an effective way.” 

Many in the industry are looking to the farm bill for the funding, although it would likely meet only a fraction of the need.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association wants Congress to make a change in the farm bill that would allow electric co-ops to qualify for grants as well as loans for broadband expansion. Co-ops are currently limited to getting loans. Providing broadband to retail customers is simply too expensive to justify economically without grants, said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson.

“Loans may not be enough to make the economics work in these areas,” said Matheson. “Having some loan-grant combination … may be what it takes for some of the more sparsely populated areas.”

The NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents about 850 small, independent telecommunications companies, is backing a bipartisan bill called the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program (B-CROP) Act, which would allow USDA’s Rural Utilities Service’s Broadband Loan Program to also provide grants as well as loans. The grants could provide for up to 50 percent of a project’s cost, and up to 75 percent for remote, high-need areas, to be awarded in existing loan funding. Electric co-ops as well as other entities would be eligible for the grants. 

The bill also would authorize increasing RUS broadband funding from $25 million to $50 million a year. 

The bill “can help promote the deployment of robust broadband networks in rural areas that are the most challenging to serve," said NTCA's CEO, Shirley Bloomfield.

Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is sponsoring the Senate version along with Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. The co-sponsors of the House bill include former House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Agriculture Committee Democrats Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Rick Nolan of Minnesota and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona. 

Meanwhile, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees face one of the toughest funding squeezes they’ve ever had to deal with in writing a new farm bill. There is no new funding source for the bill - with the possible exception of pending disaster legislation that could provide new funding for commodity programs only - and lawmakers face demands for funding an array of rural development, nutrition and energy programs that have constituencies throughout Congress. One of those is broadband. 

Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, has been following farm bills since the 1980s, and says the funding situation this year is even tighter than usual.

“Where are the resources (for rural broadband) going to come from?" Hoefner asks. "You basically only have the commodity title, conservation title and SNAP to draw from.” 

Neither the House nor Senate committee chairmen have revealed draft language for their bills, which the panels could begin debating as soon as next month. According to a Senate committee source, any additional spending for broadband as well as the opioid crisis is likely to come from funding for existing programs. 

“Tweaks on the policy can sometimes help get more bang for the buck that’s already there,” the source said. 

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