President Joe Biden’s $2.7 trillion infrastructure plan would address some long-standing needs in rural America with substantial new funding for roads, bridges, waterways and broadband, but the plan doesn’t provide the major boost in farm conservation spending many ag groups say is needed to get more farmers to adopt climate-smart practices.
Rural electric cooperatives also would be a major beneficiary of the package because of provisions that would help them transition to lower-carbon energy sources and give them an advantage over private internet services when building out broadband systems in rural areas.
Forest management also is prioritized in the bill, both in national forests managed by USDA’s Forest Service and on state and locally controlled lands.
“We would give the administration an ‘A’ for being really responsive and listening to a lot of the things that Farm Bureau and our coalition partners like Rebuild Rural put on the table,” said Andrew Walmsley, a congressional policy director for the American Farm Bureau Federation. He praised, for example, the proposed spending on transportation infrastructure, broadband and research.
“We're a little more hesitant and would like to see details that obviously aren't in the plan around some of the climate-smart ag or the zero-emission talk,” he said.
The package — officially dubbed the American Jobs Plan — is mostly an extended outline at this point, and is particularly thin on detail when it comes to some of the ag-specific provisions. For example, $1 billion is allocated for “agricultural resources management and climate-smart technologies that will open new market opportunities for farmers.” There is no further explanation for what is intended with that spending.
White House officials have conducted at least one off-the-record briefing for rural policy advocates, but neither USDA nor the White House responded to questions from Agri-Pulse about the spending plans.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is not one of the five Cabinet members that Biden has assigned to sell the plan to the public and to Congress. Instead, the five members of the “Jobs Cabinet” are Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
“It was a little surprising” that Vilsack wasn’t included, Walmsley said. “He's probably one of the best spokesman and advocates for this administration and resonates with a lot of folks.”
The plan uses a broad definition of infrastructure that goes well beyond transportation and energy. Some $621 billion is proposed for transportation, including $174 billion for electric vehicles, and another $100 billion for electric grid and power infrastructure. By comparison, $400 billion is allocated for home health care facilities and $300 billion for manufacturing support.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, applauded the transportation funding proposals, but expressed concern that expanding funding in areas such as home health care and housing would draw criticism.
“Many would argue that needs to be a separate discussion and let’s instead focus more exclusively on some of what are widely regarded as the infrastructure components of our economy that do need to be invested in,” he said.
And Biden’s proposal to fund the plan with corporate tax increases, including raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, is a non-starter with Republicans.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, told an Arkansas TV station last week he thought the bill would not get a single Republican vote. But it may not need one.
Monday evening, the Senate parliamentarian ruled Democrats could use the budget reconciliation process again in fiscal 2021 by revising the FY21 budget resolution they used to enact the $1.9 trillion economist stimulus package in March. Budget reconciliation bills need only a simple majority to pass the Senate.
Some congressional Democrats will have different ideas about how the plan should be funded. For example, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has said he would oppose increasing the corporate tax above 25%.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said he could support some of Biden’s tax increases.
“As you get into who’s paying for what, you want to make sure that everyone pays their fair share, it’s not burdensome to the middle class, and it's not all stuck on successful businesspeople,” he told Agri-Pulse.
Here is a look at how major policy areas are addressed in the package:
The $1 billion proposed for “agricultural resources management” is billed as a way to position U.S. agriculture to “lead the shift to net-zero,” a reference to the administration’s goal of making agriculture carbon-neutral by 2050.
The plan also calls for spending an unspecified amount on drought resilience.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had expressed interest in using a climate and infrastructure bill to ramp up funding for conservation programs heading into the writing of the next farm bill. The president’s plan would make relatively modest steps in that direction, but would appear to leave the door open to using USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority to fund a carbon bank.
The plan earmarks $180 billion for research and development across the economy. Biden wants to increase funding for research at USDA through the Agricultural Research Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Economic Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which provides research grants to colleges and universities. The plan also calls for more research and development funding to land grant universities, historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and universities.
The plan’s goal with the $100 billion in broadband funding is to connect every American to high-speed internet, but the priority the plan puts on nonprofit systems is already drawing fire.
A White House fact sheet says the president wants to prioritize support “for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives — providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”
The plan also calls for removing barriers that prevent ”municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.”
Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA -The Rural Broadband Association, which represents some 850 independent telecommunications companies, said the proposal was a good starting point.
“It’s a pretty bold number,” Bloomfield told Agri-Pulse. “I think it will go a really long way to filling in the gaps that we already know that we’ve got in this country ,and I think it will go a long way in looking at some of those other barriers.”
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The $174 billion allocated for electric vehicle incentives and charging stations is the largest share of the $621 billion earmarked for transportation. Some $115 billion is proposed for roads and bridges, including repairs to the worst 10,000 smaller bridges. Another $17 billion is earmarked for ports and waterways. Some $80 billion would be allocated for passenger and freight rail improvements.
Steenhoek said funding for rural bridges and inland waterways would assist with the competitiveness of the soybean industry and agriculture in general.
“Specific mention of rural bridges, that’s something that’s very important to our industry and to farmers because that helps serve as the initial link in our supply chain that allows the ultimate transaction to occur,” he told Agri-Pulse.
Tracy Zea, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, said there are a lot of unknowns on how much of the $17 billion would be used for inland waterways. “We’re going to have to compete for that $17 billion with coastal ports, ferries, and land ports of entry,” he told Agri-Pulse.
An infrastructure bill that passed the House during the last Congress included $3 billion for inland waterways, and Zea expects to at least get that much. He said the money could help fund the replacement of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River, a major priority for Midwest agriculture. Zea said the $3 billion would pay for replacing Lock and Dam 25 near Winfield, Mo., and the La Grange lock and dam on the Illinois River.
The plan calls for providing $10 billion to rural electric cooperatives to retire “expensive and polluting” power plants and replace them with lower-emitting alternatives. That’s important, in part, because the Biden administration aims to create an Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard to incentivize the use of low-carbon power.
The administration also is proposing a 10-year extension and phase-down of an expanded direct-pay investment tax credit and production tax credit for renewable power sources. There's also $100 billion earmarked in the plan for electric grid and infrastructure.
“As we plan for a future that depends on electricity as the primary energy source for a majority of the economy, strategic investments in grid modernization and energy innovation are critical,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
The plan earmarks $5 billion for a new “Rural Partnership Program,” but the White House offered little detail on how the money would be spent except to say it would “help rural regions, including tribal nations, build on their unique assets and realize their vision for inclusive community and economic development. This program will empower rural regions by supporting locally led planning and capacity building efforts, and providing flexible funding to meet critical needs.”
In addition to the surface transportation funding that would benefit rural areas, there also is $56 billion earmarked for updating drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems “across Rural America.”
USDA would get $15 billion to subsidize bio-based manufacturing programs through the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program and the Business and Industry Guarantee Loan Program.
To deter wildfires in national forests, the Biden plan would provide the Forest Service with $1 billion to back bonds issued on federal land restoration projects to speed large-scale restoration. There also is funding for USDA to fund "resilient forest restoration projects in the West for thinning, prescribed fire, and reforestation efforts."
The plan also calls for spending to make natural resources more climate resilient, in line with provisions of a bill called the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
The bill would create an outdoor restoration fund that could pay for projects on both federal and nonfederal lands. “The need and priority planning are there; the last pieces of this puzzle are the dollars to get the work completed,” said Robyn Whitney, policy director for the National Association of State Foresters.
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