Senators press agriculture rural development assistant on funding, FCC relationship
Anne Hazlett, assistant to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on rural development, came under pressure Sept. 28 from several senators on whether she will push for money for programs President Donald Trump proposed eliminating and on whether the USDA will formally weigh in with the Federal Communications Commission on fixed versus wireless broadband internet access.
The interactions occurred at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on rural development and energy programs in the next farm bill.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said rural development is one of the reasons he stayed on the agriculture committee, and said it is vital to find “new resources” for the community facilities program to combat the opioid drug addiction crisis.
Leahy then asked Hazlett, “Are you going to push for providing them?”
But Hazlett responded only that, “you have my commitment to steward the resources that are provided.”
Leahy asked the question a second time, but Hazlett repeated her first answer.
“To steward them you are going to have to get them,” Leahy responded, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., added he and Leahy are “united on this.”
Leahy also said he was disappointed in Trump’s proposal to eliminate rural housing programs, and asked Hazlett if she would work with the committee to create a sustainable rural housing strategy.
Hazlett said she would work on that strategy, emphasizing innovation and leveraging resources.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he was “hearing a lot” from constituents about a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into whether it will consider wireless broadband internet access equal to fixed broadband, which would mean wireless broadband would be “good enough,” meaning the FCC would not have to try to make sure difficult-to-serve areas get fixed line service.
Van Hollen said the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has told the FCC wireless broadband, which is generally considered inferior to fixed service, should be considered separately from fixed broadband.
Van Hollen then asked whether the agriculture department will weigh in or file comments on the FCC inquiry.
Christopher McLean, acting administrator of the USDA Rural Utilities Service, was on the panel, but initially passed the question to Hazlett, who said she was not aware of the issue and passed the question back. McLean then said that, while USDA is not a petitioner, Secretary Sonny Perdue has a “dialogue” with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who is also a member of Perdue’s Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.
The exchange between Van Hollen and the government witnesses was one of several times that the role of the FCC in rural broadband came up during the hearing.
For one community to have broadband and another one not to have it “is tantamount to one group of children having textbooks and others not,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said her test of a community’s future is whether it has water and whether it has broadband capability to stream Netflix.
Besides internet access, the hearing focused on the opioid addiction crisis and the role that USDA’s community facilities program plays in providing treatment facilities to combat it.
A panel of private-sector witnesses also testified in favor of continuing rural development value-added, water and wastewater and renewable energy development programs.
Sen. Bob Casey, R-Pa., asked Hazlett about the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which he said used $30 million to get a $190 million investment that saved or retained 5,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. Hazlett said the initiative is an “exciting” example of a public-private partnership.
Hazlett said in her opening testimony that corporate locaters look at whether communities have daycare, high-speed internet service, good roads and rail access.