Lawmakers are proposing creation of an Office of Rural Prosperity in the White House, which would be tasked with coordinating rural policy across the government.
A new bill known as the Rural Prosperity Act is likely to be the first of many rural development proposals to be considered for the 2023 farm bill. It would establish the new office, led by a presidentially appointed “chief rural adviser."
The office's jobs would include convening public hearings to gain rural stakeholder feedback, creating a White House Rural Council to resolve interagency disputes, developing a comprehensive White House strategy for rural economic development and developing a set of metrics to ensure rural programs are meeting “evidence-backed standards.”
Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., who introduced the bill with GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, told Agri-Pulse the new office would help centralize federal programs for rural development to prevent overlap in four areas: Healthcare, broadband, education and family farms.
“To me, the fact that there’s no executive branch department that has responsibility for rural America is a big gap in our focus at the White House,” Craig said. “The EPA and the USDA, all kinds of overlap of responsibility, it often leads to a fragmented approach toward rural communities that I think is holding economic development back in those communities.”
Craig said she and the bill’s sponsors are “serious about advancing the legislation itself, independently,” but acknowledged it may find a vehicle in the 2023 farm bill.
“If we can’t get it across the finish line here as an independent piece of legislation, we will consider introducing it in the next farm bill,” Craig said.
GOP Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, another co-sponsor, said the measure is a “natural fit” for the farm bill.
“Too often rural communities miss out on opportunities they could benefit from because of the maze of bureaucracy it takes to tap into them,” Smith told Agri-Pulse. “There’s a real need for a voice in the White House advocating for rural communities. While it is still very early in the process, I think this bill could be a natural fit for the farm bill.”
A companion measure has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Gillibrand expressed optimism the legislation would make it into the farm bill.
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“There are currently more than 400 federal programs dedicated to rural communities spread across 13 departments and more than 50 offices and sub-agencies – this makes it difficult for rural communities to know where to turn for help,” Gillibrand said.
Rural development analysts told Agri-Pulse that the overlap among departments and agencies puts considerable hurdles in front of rural stakeholders seeking federal assistance.
Chris Estes, the co-executive director of Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group, told Agri-Pulse the bill identified a need for more coordination on rural development.
“There’s a need for coordinated attention on rural development. All of the programs that fund development in rural are really scattered so there’s a navigation challenge on the ground,” Estes said. “There’s been long-needed coordination and attention from the leadership level around rural to bring the agencies together to help navigate and understand where there might be barriers.”
Estes, using broadband as an example, said regulations from one agency can block development projects from another agency, which the Rural Prosperity Office could address.
“The ability for communities to get access to such a critical infrastructure element like broadband is going to require some flexibility and coordination,” Estes said. “The regulatory barriers that often come in other places, like where towers go and people’s ability to develop around it, that stuff really needs to be coordinated with somebody saying: ‘we’ve got this money that these folks can use to do a development project but the regulatory barriers from this other agency are actually keeping them from getting it done. How can we help work across that?’”
Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, told Agri-Pulse in a statement the increased coordination from the new office would help direct substantial increases in funding to rural projects.
“As federal agencies distribute billions of dollars in funding for broadband deployment, coordination among the different agencies and stakeholders involved will be crucial — and we of course recognize that broadband is a critical part of a much bigger picture to revitalize rural America,” Bloomfield said.
USDA's undersecretary for rural development, Xochitl Torres Small, told reporters after a House Ag Committee hearing Tuesday that there are "real opportunities for increased federal coordination" in rural development. A "clear example" of the need is that "small communities without a grant writer sometimes have to stack multiple programs on top of each other in order to fund their project,” she said.
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