Congress members from North Dakota and northwest Minnesota say President Donald Trump’s proposed budget could hurt rural America, especially farmers, ranchers and airports in small cities.
In an outline released Thursday, Trump’s budget proposes cutting $4.7 billion dollars, or 21 percent, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including eliminating a program that helps fund water and sewer systems in rural communities, slashing a program that donates U.S. ag commodities and financial assistance to school meal and nutrition projects around the world and reducing USDA staff at the county level.
The cuts are meant to allow more funding to shift to Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and defense.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement farmers and ranchers are doing their part to reduce debt and it’s unfair to ask for more from producers in light of low commodity prices and reductions in the Farm Bill. He also pointed out reducing local staff with the Farm Service Agency and eliminating funds for the Rural Business Program.
“The president’s proposed budget reduction for agriculture does not work,” he said in the statement. “Given the challenging times in the farm patch … we need to prioritize and maintain our agriculture budget. While we support more funding for our military and defense, we must maintain support for our farmers and ranchers.”
Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both Democrats, also criticized the budget, with Peterson saying, “It demonstrates a lack of understanding of farm programs and their impact on rural America.”
“Cuts to the water and wastewater loan grant program are wrongly portrayed as duplicative when they are the only ways for small rural communities to update their water systems,” he said in a statement. “County offices are already understaffed, and further cuts would mean private organizations would be tasked with helping farmers navigate farm programs.”
In her statement, Heitkamp called the budget a blueprint for Trump’s priorities but said it leaves North Dakota and rural communities behind.
“Some increases to defense spending are needed, but it’s irrational to pay for those increases by crippling programs that strengthen American families and rural communities,” Heitkamp said in her statement. “This budget would seriously hurt North Dakota and rural America.”
Heitkamp pointed out other agencies that could see blows to their budgets. That includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would see its spending cut by 16 percent, according to her statement.
Heitkamp said cutting funds to the Corps would put permanent flood protection in Fargo and Minot at risk. She also said she was worried about a proposal to cut a program that provided $22 million to North Dakota in an effort to help low-income families, especially seniors citizens and Native Americans.
A notable cut for Devils Lake, Jamestown, Dickinson and Thief River Falls is the Essential Air Service program, which allows small communities to support airports. The $175 million program has been on the chopping block before, though Thief River Falls Regional Airport Manager Joe Hedrick said he didn’t think the EAS would be eliminated.
“Cutting EAS is always a concern to us,” he said. “There is large bipartisan support for it … but it is always something we have to keep our mind on and remind our Congressional delegation of the program.
“Without it, we wouldn’t have air service” in Thief River Falls, Hedrick said, adding other rural cities that use EAS funds may have to close their airports. That could force passengers to pay more for air service and to travel long distances to connect to a larger airport.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., agreed, saying Congress has had to fight for EAS funds almost every year. He also noted any president that submits a budget tends to set high goals, but Congress likely will make changes.
He said he also understood the U.S. needs to build up its military, but he didn’t want to “punish the people that are helping” the country, referring to agriculture producers.
He didn’t rule out cutting programs, but he said he was concerned about cuts to the FSA.
“I’m never one of those people to say, ‘Hell no, we won’t go there,’ ” he said, adding he will look at the budget with an open mind.