“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the President’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive,” Republican Rep. Hal Rogers said in a statement last week. The Kentucky congressman was one of several Republican legislators who voiced disapproval of the “America First” budget that the White House released last week. Trump proposed major cuts to a broad swath of domestic programs, including many agencies that directly affect the rural voters who supported him in the election.
“These cuts are sensible and rational,” President Trump writes in the proposal. “Every agency and department will be driven to achieve greater efficiency and to eliminate wasteful spending in carrying out their honorable service to the American people.”
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The so-called “skinny budget” proposes eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Economic Development Administration and the Delta Regional Authority, three programs that provide much-needed funding and services to rural America. Also included in the cuts are the Office of Community Services, which administers the Community Development Block Grant and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The Community Development Block Grant funds a range of services across the country, including affordable housing programs and, in some states, Meals on Wheels.
LIHEAP, which helps low-income people and senior citizens pay their heating bills in the winter, is referred to in Trump’s budget as “a lower-impact program” that “is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes.” The Department of Human Services in Pennsylvania runs the state’s program.
“The proposal to eliminate the LIHEAP program is cruel and will put many vulnerable Pennsylvanians at risk,” says Rachel Kostelac, the deputy press secretary for the state’s Department of Human Services office. She notes the program serves roughly 345,000 Pennsylvanians each year. “The department’s hope is that the proposal is solely an ill-advised negotiating tactic from the current administration, and not a serious proposal,” she says.
These programs provide basic services to communities nationwide, including in Appalachia, where Trump won 65 percent of the vote in November. These regions in particular depend on the programs that are facing cuts for financial support and social services. The Center for American Progress reported that in the rural areas that Trump won, “one-third of families live paycheck to paycheck — a rate that is 24 percent higher than in urban counties.” Ninety-three counties in Appalachia were considered economically distressed in fiscal year 2016, according to data from the ARC.
While he never laid out specific policy plans targeting rural America, on the campaign trail Trump often pledged to bring mining jobs back to Appalachia. “It is the last shot for the miners,” he said of his candidacy, at a rally in Abingdon, Virginia, on August 10. “Their jobs have been taken away, and we’re going to bring them back, folks. If I get in, this is what it is.” The AP reported that in 2015 the US had around 66,000 coal-mining jobs, the lowest number “since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began counting in 1978.”
Rural America Takes Major Cuts
The Appalachian Regional Commission was founded in 1965 “to help close the profound socioeconomic gaps between Appalachia and the rest of the nation.” According to the Commission, in the past five years the agency has helped to create or retain over 101,000 jobs. Almost 63 percent of ARC investment dollars from fiscal years 2011-2015 supported projects that primarily or substantially benefited economically distressed counties and areas.
ARC is a federal-state partnership that also garners private investment, which helps it draw bipartisan support. In 2015, for each $1 in funds invested by ARC in non-highway projects, $8 was leveraged in private-sector funding. ARC members want to be clear that their organization is not looking for charity.
“We’re not trying to ask the federal government to bail us out,” says Jeff Whitehead, the executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc., which receives ARC funding. “We are coming together to solve some of these problems and we need that federal support and that investment to propel our efforts.”
The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program provides workforce and employer services to 23 rural Appalachian counties in Eastern Kentucky. It’s one program of many in the region that receives funding from ARC. The need for workforce development in Kentucky is especially pressing. As of October 2016, an estimated 6,254 people were employed at coal mines in the state, the lowest level recorded since 1898.
“The ARC, they’ve been a real instrumental partner in our region’s efforts,” Whitehead says. In the past two years ARC awarded $707,000 to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, which used the money to train 670 people who are now employed full-time, the AP reported. “Investments like ARC into our efforts, they’re just really poised to pay off great dividends,” he says. “The loss of ARC funding I think would be a tremendous blow to our momentum and the energy we’re seeing happen in eastern Kentucky.”
Kentucky Rep. Rogers singled out the commission by name in his reaction to the budget. “The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has a long-standing history of bipartisan support in Congress because of its proven ability to help reduce poverty rates and extend basic necessities to communities across the Appalachian region,” Rogers wrote in his response. “Today, nearly everyone in the region has access to clean water and sewer, the workforce is diversifying, educational opportunities are improving and rural technology is finally advancing to 21st Century standards.”
Colt Sandoro, the executive director of the Regional Intergovernmental Council serving four counties in West Virginia, says the loss of ARC funding “would be devastating” for his organization. The Regional Intergovernmental Council, which receives funds from ARC and the Economic Development Administration, coordinates water and wastewater planning, highway infrastructure planning, and economic development in the region. “Providing water service is a huge keystone to bringing jobs, to bringing people to live in the region,” he says. Sandoro believes the federal government has to play a role in supporting these infrastructure projects. How would his agency fare if ARC or the US Economic Development Administration are defunded? “We’d probably just be out of business to be honest with you,” he says.
A GOP Divided
While some Republican legislators have been open about their objections to the “America First” budget, not all are displeased. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama), gave tepid support to the proposal. “With a mounting federal debt approaching $20 trillion dollars, cutting government spending should be everyone’s priority. This is an important first step,” he said in a statement.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) also gave a lukewarm response to what he called “the president’s blueprint” of next year’s budget. “We are determined to work with the administration to shrink the size of government, grow our economy, secure our borders, and ensure our troops have the tools necessary to complete their missions,” he says.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) were dismissive of what they view as an insufficient defense budget, even though Trump’s proposal would increase military spending by $54 billion. The legislators are seeking a $640 billion defense budget, $37 billion more than what Trump allocates. “It is clear that this budget proposed today cannot pass the Senate,” McCain said in a statement.
Some Republican legislators were also clearly shocked to see their state’s special interests targeted for cuts. A spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) told the Boston Globe that the senator supports the ARC, saying that it is “essential to redeveloping economically distressed regions of West Virginia, especially the coal communities that have been devastated by years of regulatory overreach.” Similarly, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) voiced his objection to the elimination of funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which protects the environment and provides a boost to his state’s economy.
Of course, presidential budgets are not binding; ultimately, Congress has the final say. Plus, Trump’s “skinny budget” is not his final proposal: As White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said, “This is a budget blueprint, not a complete budget.” Trump will release a more detailed budget in May. Still, any presidential budget proposal is an indication of the president’s fiscal priorities.
“We will certainly review this budget proposal, but Congress ultimately has the power of the purse,” Rep. Rogers said. “As the full budget picture emerges in the coming weeks, I am optimistic that we can work with the administration to responsibly fund the federal government, including those agencies which serve as vital economic lifelines in rural parts of the country that are still working to overcome substantial challenges.”
The opposition coming from Rogers is especially telling. He serves Kentucky’s 5th district, where Trump won every county.