USDA Rural Utilities Service General Field Representative Wayne Ahlgren tests telemedicine equipment. The USDA's distance learning program would take a 10% cut under Trump's proposed budget. Photo via the USDA

The Trump administration proposes deep cuts in funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including reductions in rural development, food stamps, and farm programs.

The budget proposal calls for a $3.7 billion, or 16%, decrease in USDA spending compared to the 2017 level.

This is the first budget document released under Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who was awaiting confirmation when President Trump’s budget outline was released last year.

While the document is vague about some proposed changes, the budget cuts appear to be targeted primarily at Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and eligibility, changes to farm subsidies and crop insurance, decreases in conservation spending, and cuts to some Rural Development programs.

The budget document highlights certain changes that it says reflect the Trump Administration’s priorities for rural communities. Specific provisions include:

  • Rural broadband grants and loans. The budget proposal maintains $30 million in funding for the broadband grants program, Community Connect. It cuts broadband development loans by 15%, to $23 million and the distance learning program by 10% to $24 million. (Comparisons are to a Congressional Research Service report on USDA broadband programs.)
  • Work requirements for SNAP. The document “proposes a bold new approach to nutrition assistance” that could have some SNAP households receive American-grown food directly, as opposed to their purchasing food at a grocery store. The proposal also would require some recipients to work to remain eligible for benefits. The change will “strengthen expectations for work among able-bodied adults,” the document states.
  • USDA re-organizations continues. The budget proposal calls for continuing USDA’s restructuring, combining the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service into a combined Farm Production and Conservation office. In addition, funding is included for the Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs division “to sharpen USDA’s fo­cus on increasing agriculture exports to foreign markets.” Last year, USDA did away with the Undersecretary for Rural Development, who oversaw broadband, business development, rural electrification and other economic development programs. USDA instead has an Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.
  • Cuts to the Economic Research Service (ERS). The budget proposes to “streamline the research efforts of the Economic Research Service by elimi­nating low priority research that is being conducted within the private sector and by non-profits and focusing on core data analyses in line with priority research areas.”
  • Changing the U. S. Forest Service’s wildfire funding formula. The budget proposes a different funding formula for wildfire budgeting, as well as the treating of wildfires like other natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. The Forest Service firefighting expenses have exceeded budget estimates in the past, resulting in cuts to other USDA program areas. For example, in 2017 USDA transferred $527 million to the Forest Service from other parts of the department to fight wildfires. Last year’s firefighting costs reached record a record $2.4 billion as a result of increasing frequency and severity of wildfires.
  • Rural development lending programs. The budget includes a $3.5 billion loan level for community facility direct loans, which provides funds to “develop or improve essential public services and fa­cilities across rural America, such as health clinics or fire and rescue stations.” The budget also requests $1.2 billion in water and wastewater treatment funding, as well as a $24 billion level for rural single-family housing loan guarantees.
  • Reforming agriculture support programs, crop insurance and conservation. The budget would eliminate subsidies to higher income farmers and reduce “overly generous crop insurance premiums to farmers and payments made to private sector insurance companies.” The proposal calls for an end to “overly generous subsidies provided to participating insurance companies by capping underwriting gains at 12 percent.” The budget also proposes reductions to conservation programs, though details of those cuts are not included in the document.

The budget’s projection tables also provides some information related to possible cuts and program changes at USDA. The Conservation Stewardship Program, for instance, projects a large cost savings due to “discretionary changes in out-year program participation.” The Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program is slated for elimination, as are “interest payments to electric and telecommunications utilities.”

The Trump administration’s budget proposal appears to be significantly different than what could emerge from the Congressional budget process. Just last week, the House and Senate agreed to guidelines on a two-year funding package for federal spending that includes increases in both military and domestic spending programs. The size and scope of those budget details will be negotiated by House and Senate appropriators over the next several weeks.

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