Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Is Rural Infrastructure Funding Headed Our Way?

President Biden is in Wisconsin today, visiting rural parts of the state with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The point of the trip, according to press reports, is to build support for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal inked last week between the White House and a group of bipartisan Senators.

The $1.2 trillion deal includes $579 billion in new spending and would support mostly transportation, internet, and water projects over eight years. The deal is similar in some ways to Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan Act, but includes much lower levels of support for rural infrastructure and economic development funding.

A large block of Democrats is also threatening to derail the deal in the Senate unless the remaining infrastructure funding needs identified by Democrats over the last year are included in a budget reconciliation package at the same time. The potential exists for Congress to pass the infrastructure bill with 60 votes (as long as all Democrats and 10 Republicans vote for the bill). Budget reconciliation can be passed with a simple majority once per year, which is how the Democrats were able to pass the American Rescue Plan earlier this year.

What this all means for potential rural infrastructure projects is hard to predict. I tend to be skeptical of Washington, D.C. getting its collective act together and accomplishing much. But it does happen occasionally, like with the American Rescue Plan (narrowly passed by only Democrats) or some major public lands and conservation bills that got delivered in the Trump years (by all Democrats plus many Republicans).

Evaluating this particular bipartisan deal is still a work-in-progress, though some details have emerged, and it’s clear the senators are falling short on delivering what rural America needs. The best and brightest working on expanding high-speed internet to rural folks and low-income urban people, for instance, say that it will take around $100 billion to build internet infrastructure for all. This deal has a little more than half that. On the other hand, rural electric cooperative reformers are seeking $100 billion to transition co-ops from coal dependence to clean energy, and the proposal only includes a small fraction of that, currently. Additionally, the deal does not include much to address climate change, clean up pollution or solve the rural water quality crisis. 

That said, I know plenty of rural people and organizations who are happy to see anything funded that helps their town or region. Even just expanding existing USDA Rural Development programs with a boost over the mandatory farm bill funding levels is progress.

Over the next six months we’ll see whether the Democrats can use their barely-noticeable majority to stand together and deliver trillions in aid for rural America. We’ll see how things shake out in the Beltway and how that will determine what rural people think about the people representing us, and how we vote in 2022 and beyond. And, we’ll see what difference the federal funding makes in our rural economic health and quality of life. We’ll see.

Cross your fingers, rural America. There’s still a chance for the biggest injection of dollars into rural job creation and infrastructure in U.S. history. Hopefully we get to experience it.

Rural Reading List

If the light drama of Beltway politics and federal budgets doesn’t float your boat, here’s some other rural news and information you might find interesting: 

Will Biden Deliver for Rural America? The Promise of the American Rescue Plan

The Brookings Institute in the Daily Yonder, policy wonks meet rural journalism. Very cool.

Rural Covid-19 Vaccinations Continue at Roughly the Same Pace

The latest update in the Daily Yonder’s county-based map documenting rural and urban vaccination rates. Worth a fresh-eyed look.

Nebraska’s Gap Between Urban and Rural Vaccination Is Widest in Nation

Second in a row on the vaccination article list, this is not a ranking I’d like my state to be leading in.

This Time the Scoreboard Tells the Whole Story

The latest Alan Guebert column has some important thoughts about the court-ordered restraining order on funding that would provide debt relief to socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

One More Thing: Speaking of Rural Infrastructure…

My brain is on rural infrastructure for a few reasons. One, I report on federal budgets in rural America. Two, the political impact of federal spending priorities for rural voters is always interesting to me.

The third reason, though, concerns anecdotal conversations I had with family members and friends while I visited West and Southwest Missouri last week. Two local rural electric cooperatives that provide electricity to a broad very-rural region between Kansas City and Springfield, are building out a fiber-based high speed rural internet service. Local people are fired up about it, since existing service is usually (very-expensive-but-low-speed-low-volume) satellite internet not usable for Netflix or home video conferencing and online learning.

A news release announcing the project says the buildout will “deploy fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks providing high-speed internet access to 24,000 homes and businesses spanning 17 counties in Missouri.”

“We’re in a race in rural America,” said Conexon Partner Jonathan Chambers (the company partnering with the rural electric cooperatives on the fiber buildout), “a race between connection and isolation. Isolation means poorer access to education, health care, and economic opportunity, which in turn means people abandon rural areas. That’s the trend of the past several decades… Connection through high-speed internet access has the chance to reverse that trend.”

I gotta tell you that affordable high speed internet is sparse around my home county. Heck, my sons and I had to take multiple four-mile-to-town trips per day while visiting because our phones and computers had no internet access on the family farm. No, Mom, we can’t just use your telephone.

When I lived there from 2010-2016, we had internet that cost anywhere from $79/month to $129 per month. And we ran out of data-speeds that allowed video to be streamed about two days into the 30 day billing cycle each month. Heck, I couldn’t even send a 10-page PDF attached to an email without running to the Adrian Community Library to get the thing through if had any photos or graphics loaded into it. It is a major annoyance, and makes living in the area more difficult than living in similar areas with excellent internet connectivity.

All of this is to say that it’s important to know the federal budget is backing this exciting project—the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is paying for it—and I’ll be following along as this effort reshapes the internet landscape of my home town and home region. I’m not sure many people will notice, but this is real progress and real potential change being delivered to a quite-conservative rural area by the public sector. We’ll see who gets the credit when the newly wired region starts to celebrate with ribbon cuttings and photo-ops for suit-wearing politicos weilding spades.

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