The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies held a hearing on the USDA FY13 budget request on March 1.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager testified on numerous rural development programs including rural housing service programs. In his opening statement, Mr. Tonsager spoke to the importance of an “America built to last.” He said that the overall reduction in the USDA budget request demonstrates the USDA’s commitment to addressing the government’s fiscal challenges. Mr. Tonsager highlighted policies proposed in the Rural Development portion of the budget request, such as streamlining services, closing local USDA offices, and freezing hiring as steps that USDA is taking toward the goal of reducing costs.
Subcommittee Chair Jack Kingston (R-GA) commended the USDA’s reductions to its FY13 budget request, particularly the closure of some local offices. The proposal to close offices and the potential impact those closures would have on USDA’s outreach to households in need was a serious concern raised by Subcommittee Ranking Member Sam Farr (D-CA). Mr. Farr expressed concern that reducing the number of local USDA offices would undermine successful outreach to lower income households.
Households living in rural communities are geographically dispersed and reaching them through even the current number of local offices is challenging, said Mr. Farr. Tammye Trevino of USDA Housing and Community Facilities Programs responded that the ability to reach households in rural areas is a challenge but given the FY13 budget constraints, certain sacrifices need to be made. Ms. Trevino stated that USDA is developing a new policy, to be released by the end of the year, which would empower local nonprofits to fill any voids left by closing offices.
Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) asked Mr. Tonsager about other USDA consolidation efforts in light of a 2011 GAO report on program duplication (see Memo, 3/4/11). Mr. Tonsager replied that USDA is developing partnerships with other agencies to address any program duplication but that USDA needs to ensure that efforts to collaborate on issues handled by multiple agencies, such as multi-family housing, do not lose their rural focus. He stated that while multifamily housing is a program issue that spans multiple agencies, it is USDA’s role to guarantee that rural multifamily housing needs are met.
Mr. Farr expressed a final concern about the lack of affordable housing for teachers in his district. He said that it is difficult to hire teachers in rural California because there are so few affordable housing options teachers can afford and recommended that USDA consider this issue thoroughly.