Critics hit reorganization of USDA energy, development office

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to eliminate a senior position overseeing rural energy and development programs has supporters of those programs asking: How much does the Trump administration care about rural America?

Plenty, says the administration, which cast the axing of the position — undersecretary for rural development — as a way to put issues like bioenergy, clean drinking water and energy efficiency under the direct control of the secretary.

Others aren’t so sure.

“This is a serious mission area,” said Lisa Mensah, former undersecretary for rural development in the Obama administration and now president and CEO of the Opportunity Finance Network, a group of community development financial institutions. “It’s a serious portfolio that needs serious supervision.”

At stake are dozens of programs ranging from the Rural Energy for America Program, which provides loan guarantees and grants to farmers and rural small businesses, to the Advanced Biofuel Payment Program, which pays producers for biofuel products. That’s in addition to programs that help rural businesses conduct energy audits, make loans to rural electric cooperatives, and make loans and grants to help build water and sewer systems in rural areas.

The agency has a total loan portfolio of about $215 billion, Mensah said.

In announcing the change last week as part of a broader reorganization of USDA, Perdue called the decision on rural development an “elevation” that would have those programs answer directly to him. He also said he was creating a new undersecretary post for trade, meeting a farm bill mandate, although creating the new post doesn’t require eliminating an existing one.

“It is my commitment to always argue for the needs of rural America, which is why we are elevating Rural Development within USDA,” Perdue said in a news release. “No doubt, the opportunity we have here at the USDA in rural development is unmatched.”

While lawmakers praised the move on trade, Perdue’s decision on rural development hasn’t won much approval in Congress.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he hopes the reorganization will benefit rural areas and that he was planning to review it in more detail; the ranking Democrat on the committee, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said in a statement, “I have real concerns about eliminating the Undersecretary for Rural Development. This proposal would eliminate an important voice for rural America and bypass Congress’s role to confirm a qualified nominee.”

One of Perdue’s Democratic allies in Congress, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), called the elimination of the undersecretary position “new territory” and said he would analyze the proposal to ensure it makes the programs “more streamlined, less onerous, and more responsive.”

Perdue’s allies say he is a firm supporter of rural areas, having grown up on a farm in Georgia. And it’s possible that he’ll take a direct interest in those programs, said former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who served in the Clinton administration.

“I do think he’s got a great interest in rural development,” said Glickman, who has worked with Perdue at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank. But the secretary doesn’t have much time to take on additional responsibilities, he said.

“It’s hard to be secretary and undersecretary at the same time,” Glickman said.

The National Farmers Union and other groups criticized the plan yesterday in a letter to leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees. An undersecretary already reports directly to the secretary, they said, questioning Perdue’s reasoning that direct control would elevate rural development’s status.

The decision also comes as the administration calls for budget reductions at USDA, including in rural development programs, the groups said.

“These programs help make critical investments in our nation’s workforce and infrastructure. Many rural communities have not shared in the economic recovery and this is hardly the moment to downgrade the office and programs that are essential to improving the quality of life in rural America,” wrote the groups, which included the National Association of Counties, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Environmental and Energy Study Institute.