WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2017 - Senate Democrats pushed Agriculture Department officials Thursday to support increased funding to boost rural economic development and fight the opioid crisis.

USDA officials also were urged to work within the administration to expand rural broadband access. 

“Rural communities are often the first to feel effects of an economic downturn and the last to see the impacts of an improving economy,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “As a result, we should be making more investments in rural America, not less.”

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., suggested at one point that the administration would be asking for money for USDA to help address the opioid crisis. 

Anne Hazlett, a former committee aide who is now the assistant to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for rural development, rebuffed repeated attempts by Democratic senators to get her to distance herself from the Trump administration’s attempts to cut USDA-Rural Development programs.

The hearing marked Hazlett’s first appearance before Congress since Perdue eliminated the position of undersecretary for rural development and appointed Hazlett to her position. 

When Stabenow asked Hazlett whether USDA needed more money for RD programs, Hazlett said she was “committed to serving the needs of rural America” and to “making effective and efficient use of resources.” 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, citing concerns about the opioid crisis in his home state of Vermont, twice tried to get Hazlett to agree to support more funding for RD programs. She said only that she was committed to “steward the resources that are provided.” 

“To steward them, you’re going to have to get them,” said Leahy, who is the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee as well as a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee. “You’ve got to ask for the money, you’ve got to push for the money.”

But Roberts then intervened to suggest that the administration may request additional opioid funding. “I’m sure that you and I will receive a call from Anne, if not the secretary first, to ask for funding on this very important topic. And we’re united in that effort.” (USDA officials did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Roberts's statement.)

While she avoided addressing specific funding issues, Hazlett argued that the new use innovation center that Perdue plans to establish at USDA will make RD programs more effective through data analysis and program outcomes measurement. The center, which she said will consist of a team of officials working with the RD agencies, can also help communities tackle challenges such as health care access by finding and linking them to other communities that have successfully addressed those needs. 

As an example, RD officials recently met with a state official and Farm Bureau leader in Kansas to advise them on the best ways to recruit doctors to rural areas, Hazlett said.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., pressed USDA to weigh in on a pending Federal Communications Commission case and oppose counting mobile broadband as an acceptable alternative for fixed broadband service in rural areas.

“Everyone says, and I believe you, that you care about broadband deployment. This action before the FCC is going to have a really big impact on the future of broadband deployment in rural areas,” Van Hollen said. 

Christopher McLean, the acting administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, noted that the chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, serves on the White House rural task force that Perdue is leading. (Pai, in fact, attended a meeting of the task force Thursday at USDA and sat next to Perdue.)

“I can report that broadband is a key focus of that effort and that dialogue,” McLean said. 

RD programs face funding challenges both within the Trump administration, which proposed deep cuts in spending in the president’s 2018 budget, and in Congress. There are 37 farm bill programs that don’t have funding beyond 2018, 10 of which are in the rural development and energy titles, which are managed out of USDA’s RD agencies. 

The expiring programs include value-added producer grants, water and wastewater funding and biorefinery assistance. 

Roberts noted the expiring programs and the importance of rural development in his opening statement, but he didn’t say how they would be funded. 

“While it is a principal duty of this committee to ensure the next farm bill provides our nation’s agricultural producers with the necessary tools and resources to feed a growing and hungry world, our responsibilities, and the role of USDA, do not stop there,” he said. 

“It is also critical the next farm bill works to support rural businesses, cooperatives, health clinics, schools, renewable energy and bio-based product manufacturers, and other essential services providers that serve as the backbone of the communities our farmers and ranchers call home.”


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