New Budget Deal Delivers Billions for Rural. (And I’m Glad to Be Wrong.)

There’s a thing that happens on rare occasions when you cover federal rural policy and budgets. Let’s call it “competence.”

Generally, I would describe the Beltway process of federal budgets and legislating as a messy disaster at best; and a shameful shirking of responsibility and empty promises/ethics/morality when I’m really on a roll. But sometimes, sometimes they actually get their act together and do a thing.

I wrote in this Keep It Rural newsletter literally 21 days ago, “there ain’t no way rural budgets are gonna get their due.” And then in the last 10 days or so, glory of glories, the political calculus went all bonkers and the Senate Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act. The House is expected to do the same in the next few days, and President Biden has already said he’s gonna sign it.

This budget deal came together as a compromise from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Manchin, a friend of Big Coal/Oil and known “inflation hawk,” had previously scuttled large Democratic proposals to invest in climate action and fund billions for health care, public sector services, payments to poor and working class families, etc. But he got on board with this one, and even paid for the climate provisions and some health care benefits by raising taxes on rich people and corporations.

Manchin being Manchin though, there’s a lot of corporate giveaways, “permitting reform” to greenlight fossil fuel projects, support for his pet project The Mountain Valley Pipeline, billions for carbon capture and storage, and lots of other pro-oil and fossil fuel infrastructure provisions.

The bill does contain tens of billions in funding (see below for a more comprehensive list of what’s actually in it) that will be transformative in rural communities. Billions for wind and solar. Billions to transition rural electric cooperatives away from old and damaging fossil fuel investments. Billions for climate-smart agriculture. Billions for fighting wildfires, flood control, ecosystem restoration, and managing drought. Billions for debt cancellation for struggling farmers.

These are amounts over and above the standard budgets set by the 2018 Farm Bill, by the way. They’re basically Democratic add-ons to future budgets over the next few years. That’s gonna be big when the 2023 Farm Bill negotiations ramp up, particularly as the Republicans are widely expected to pick up the majority in the House if not the Senate, too.

In short, I was very glad to be wrong about this one. The next few years are going to be boom times for federal spending on clean energy, conservation, public lands work, improving housing, and more. That’s good news. But it’s also going to be a time to focus on the needs, and organizing, of rural communities who are going to be facing an onslaught of fossil fuel development (hello, foundations who want to make a difference in rural America). We’ll be covering it all here, of course.

Rural Reading List

In addition to the federal budget nerdery above, I want to focus this week’s reading list on the historic flooding that has devastated Appalachia in recent weeks. Our hearts hurt for the rural areas impacted by the disaster, especially our friends in Eastern Kentucky. We wish you a safe and healthy recovery, and hope that public and private assistance will flow as needed. All stories below are published by the Daily Yonder:

Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief and Recovery – How You Can Help

Historic floods have swept through parts of Eastern Kentucky, leveling communities and leaving at least 38 dead, with that number likely to rise. Here’s how you can help.

As the President Visits Kentucky After Flooding, Residents Send a Message of Resilience and Frustration

Kentuckians affected by the recent flooding want Biden to know they are strong and determined to rebuild. But they also want the federal government to know what they really need in terms of disaster relief.

Mud and Mutual Aid: The Early Days of Recovery from Eastern Kentucky Floods

With thousands of homes and businesses destroyed, Eastern Kentuckians face a daunting task to recover. While larger efforts get organized, neighbors are helping neighbors. But it’s going to take more, says the publisher of the Daily Yonder.

First Person: Before the Flood, Breaking Beans at Hindman

After the flood waters of Troublesome Creek damaged buildings, automobiles, and 120 years of history, Hindman Settlement School now faces the dual task of preserving its legacy and addressing the current needs of a hard-hit community

Commentary: A ‘Second Disaster’ Caused by Good Will

People naturally want to help others who are in need, and that’s a good thing. To avoid creating more strain for already hard-hit communities, it’s best to give cash. Here’s why, plus a list of ways to contribute to recovery in Eastern Kentucky.

One More Thing: Budget Deal Details

The Inflation Reduction Act includes some key investments that will be impacting rural America for years to come. Here’s a selected list of these federal investments:

  • $9.7 billion in grants and loans to rural electric cooperatives. This funding will be used to transition RECs from fossil fuel energy to wind, solar, or other forms of renewable energy. Funds can also be for energy efficiency improvements, as well as carbon capture and storage.
  • $1.72 billion for the Rural Energy for America Program. Funds are used for grants and loans to establish renewable energy systems for farmers and rural small businesses.
  • $5 billion for forest management on public and private lands. Funding will be for managing wildfire risk, conserving forests, and processing biomass for community energy projects.

There’s also significant rural impact to other non-USDA portions of the bill, including the potential for manufacturing and housing efficiency improvements. In other words, it’s gonna be a complicated but interesting era for all of you rural grant writers, fundraisers, and project developers out there. Get ready for a busy 2023 and beyond.

Editor’s Note: If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this email you’re a devoted Keep It Rural fan indeed. And you might be one of a handful of folks who missed this newsletter in your inbox last week. Fortunately/unfortunately, all of us at the Daily Yonder are human, and sometimes stuff complicates even our best-laid plans (and newsletters). Rest assured that we’re back, and apologies for the interruption.

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