The rural programs threatened by Trump’s budget

The rural West may have helped elect Trump, but his vision leaves them behind.

 

President Donald Trump’s budget outline would slash funding for, or even eliminate, many programs that are important to the rural West.

Programs that provide clean tap water, allow rural Westerners to travel by air and purchase land for public parks and conservation are among the many targeted in his budget blueprint, which pays for a $54 billion hike in military spending by greatly reducing spending on many other government services.

Many details were missing from the budget outline, and Trump is expected to present his full budget request to Congress in May. But members of Congress from both parties have spoken out, telling him that he doesn’t have authority to divvy up taxpayers’ money — they do. “I cannot support many of the proposed cuts in this ‘skinny’ budget,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that decides funding for Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and related agencies.

Rural America’s angst about being left behind may have been key in propelling Trump into office. But his prescription for America presented in his budget outline would remove many programs designed to help the rural West catch up to the rest of the country. Cuts to these programs, if approved by Congress, could be detrimental to parts of the rural West:

Water and Wastewater loan and grant program: This program provides a special pot of money — $498 million in 2017 — for rural communities to create, expand or modernize tap water treatment or sewage disposal facilities. Priority is given to low-income communities with populations of less than 5,500 people. The president’s budget would eliminate it, suggesting that rural communities can be served by the private sector or other government programs.

Essential Air Service: Since 1978, small airports around the West have relied on this program to stay in operation. In 2017, the program will subsidize flights for about 60 communities in Alaska and 115 across the rest of the United States, with a budget of about $175 million. The president proposed to eliminate the program, though, saying that some flights aren’t full, and the subsidies per passenger can be high.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT): Local governments near public land use PILT funding to provide police, fire protection, emergency response, road maintenance and other crucial services to residents. The budget blueprint calls for reduced funding but doesn’t specify by how much.

National Wildlife Refuge fund: This program provides funding, $13 million in 2016, for local communities near wildlife refuges, to make up for property taxes that counties don’t get from refuge land. The Obama administration also tried to eliminate this funding, arguing that communities benefit from wildlife refuges because of the opportunities for recreation and tourism they provide.

Rural Business Cooperative Service: The budget cuts $95 million from this Agriculture Department program designed to generate jobs and provide training in small communities. Anticipating less rural development work for the department’s staff in rural America, the budget reduces staff in its service centers.

FEMA: The budget proposes cutting the Federal Emergency Management Agency by $667 million. It highlights pre-disaster mitigation grants as one place to reduce. Those grants help communities that are sitting ducks for disaster boost their defenses, such as by improving drainage systems to avert increased flooding from the bigger storms hitting American due to climate change.

Yucca Mountain: The budget rekindles the decades-long dispute about permanently storing nuclear wastes in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. It provides $120 million to restart licensing activities. Republican and Democratic leaders from Nevada fiercely oppose the project. “Any attempt to resurrect this ill-conceived project will be met with relentless opposition, and maximum resources,” Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval said.

A federal employee records water pressure and temperature during a curing process for a USDA Rural Development sewer project. The program has funded water projects that help bring rural communities into compliance with environmental regulations of pollutant discharges.

Assistance to Alaska Native Villages: This Environmental Protection Agency program, which in 2016 had a $20 million budget, provides grants for drinking water treatment and wastewater disposal for rural and native Alaska communities. In Kwethluk, Alaska, for example, the program installed in-home tap water for a community that until recently hauled drinking water and used ATVs to carry open buckets of sewage and dumped them in a lagoon outside of town.

U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Grant Program: This EPA program was designed to clean up the two countries’ shared rivers and reduce illness from contaminated drinking water. Over the past decade it has provided sewage treatment to hundreds of thousands of homes and clean drinking water to tens of thousands of homes.

The EPA’s Puget Sound restoration funding: Washington’s Puget Sound, the nation’s second largest estuary, is in distress from decades of toxic pollution and increasing acidification due to climate change. The EPA has been helping pay for tribal, local and state programs to clean up toxic waste, restore salmon and reduce runoff. Trump’s budget would zero out the program’s $28 million federal funding.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line: Many rural Southwestern communities, including in New Mexico, rely on this Chicago-Los Angeles train line. Trump’s budget would end subsides that kept long-distance passenger rail routes like this running. His budget argues that they have been unprofitable for too long. The line needs upgrades and without federal funding, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., says it could have to be rerouted or entirely abandoned, hurting communities that depend on it.

Denali Commission: For decades the Denali Commission has helped fund programs to provide or upgrade electricity or other needed infrastructure for Alaskan communities. When former President Barack Obama visited Alaska in 2015, he gave the commission a new job, helping coordinated rescue efforts for Alaskan villages at severe risk due to climate change. Funding for the commission in 2017 is $15 million. The commission has been working on a plan to relocate the village of Newtok, but plans for three other at-risk villages haven’t progressed much. “If we shut down,” said Joel Neimeyer, federal co-chair of the commission, “we will have done not nearly enough for the other three.”

Members of Congress from both parties have spoken out in favor of many of these programs, so their fate is far from sealed. Some of them have survived proposed budget cuts in the past. However for the president to achieve his goal of dramatically increasing military spending, deep cuts will be necessary in domestic programs.

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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