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Trump proposes staff cuts with USDA budget reduction

Trump's proposed 2018 budget suggested a $4.7 billion cut to the USDA, including staff cuts to local Rural Development offices. (Special to the Forum)

Rural services may take a hit under the president's budget proposal, which cuts more than $4 billion from the Department of Agriculture.

Trump's budget blueprint, titled "America First" and published by the Office of Management and Budget on March 16, requests $17.9 billion for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is a $4.7 billion, or 21 percent, drop from this year's funding.

As part of the cutback, the proposal suggests reduction in staffing in USDA service center agencies to streamline county office operations as a reflection of "reduced Rural Development workload," and to encourage private sector conservation planning.

In fiscal year 2016, USDA Rural Development invested $422.8 million in guaranteed loans, direct loans and grants in South Dakota, substantially higher than $258 million invested the year before, according to a USDA report. The money was distributed through nearly 2,000 awards both years.

"USDA Rural Development programs provide access to opportunities that not too long ago were only available to individuals living in big cities," said Bruce Jones, acting state director for South Dakota USDA Rural Development, in the report.

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem expressed support for Pres. Trump's move to cut costs, though she did not directly endorse his budget.

"I look forward to working with Pres. Trump to further reduce the size, scope and cost of government, but this budget request is just the starting point," Noem said.

Noem also expressed support of a safety net for agricultural producers, creating better programs and promoting national security.

Ryan Wrasse, communications director for U.S. Sen John Thune, emphasized the president's budget is a set of recommendations, but Congress will ultimately decide the budget.

"Congress, not the president, has the responsibility of drafting and passing a budget and subsequent appropriations bills," Wrasse said in a written statement. "When the time comes, Sen. Thune's priority will be to pass a balanced budget that funds the government and its agencies in a way that benefits South Dakota."

Wrasse did not disclose Thune's opinion of the budget cut, but Thune, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has expressed support for cutting costs while promoting safety nets for farmers.

Trump also recommended eliminating the water and wastewater loan and grant programs, calling it "duplicative." The budget said the cut would save $498 million, and rural communities can be served by private sector financing or other federal investments.

In the USDA report, Jones said Rural Development invested $19.6 million in 20 South Dakota communities in 2016 to improve water and wastewater systems.

Another cut comes at the expense of the USDA's statistical capabilities. The budget did not detail how much funding would be reduced for statistical analysis, but it promised to maintain core analytical functions, like the Census of Agriculture, which is taken once every five years to determine land use, production practices, income and expenditures among others.

The president's proposed budget also provides $6.2 billion to participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and fully funds the Food Safety and Inspection Service, along with its 8,000 personnel, but eliminates the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program.