While saying that spending cuts aimed at deficit reduction should go deeper, Rep. John Barrow hosted an event this week to inform citizens about U.S. Department of Agriculture assistance to home buyers, businesses and local governments.
Barrow, the Democrat representing Georgia’s 12th Congressional District, asked USDA Rural Development staff members to present an outreach event in Claxton. He then hosted the event earlier this week at the Evans County Recreation Department’s community center.
Interviewed on the way in, Barrow acknowledged that USDA Rural Development will not be immune to cuts under last August’s deficit reduction plan. The failure of the bipartisan super committee to agree on specific cuts triggered a requirement for $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending over the next decade. This followed about $900 billion in cuts previously approved.
“So all in all, about $2 trillion is being shaved off of deficit spending over the next 10 years,” Barrow said. “I don’t think that’s enough, by the way. I think we could double down on that and do twice as good as that. But in my personal opinion, we shouldn’t do it across-the-board.”
The across-the-board measure was intended as a spur to get members of Congress to set priorities and choose which items to cut and which to preserve, he added.
“I think it’s a failure of leadership to do it across-the-board,” Barrow said. “But across-the-board is better than nothing. We cannot continue what we’re doing. We’ve got to do something.”
Congress in recess
He returned to the district while Congress is in recess this week. When lawmakers reconvene next week, he said, deficit reduction should again be a priority.
“The thing I think is most important is how we’re going to address the spending cuts – are we going to take up more spending cuts to try to complete the work of shaving $4 trillion off of the deficit spending over the next 10 years,” he said.
He noted that $4 trillion, double the currently mandated cuts, would amount to roughly one year’s current spending.
“If you can’t shave 11 percent off of what you’re doing over the course of 10 years, you’re not really trying,” Barrow said.
The opening of the event was lightly attended. Four officials from USDA Rural Development presented information about the agency’s home, business and local government assistance programs.
“Whether folks can come here to participate directly today or not is really not as important as making sure folks know that there are folks out here who are involved in housing programs, facilities for local government, and public infrastructure projects that USDA can invest in because you can’t grow farm families if you don’t have family farmers,” Barrow said.
While facing the mandated budget cuts, Congress is due to replace the five-year Farm Bill, including the Department of Agriculture’s funding, before it expires later this year.
Last fiscal year, Georgians received $433 million in single-family home loans, including $21 million in USDA Rural Development direct loans and $412 million in USDA-guaranteed bank loans, according to the agency’s annual report. With guaranteed loans, the federal government provides a repayment guarantee to banks for borrowers who might not qualify.
USDA Rural Development also has a guaranteed loan program for business and industry. Last year 137 Georgia applicants received loans and various grants totaling $87.9 million.
USDA programs for rural city and county governments help finance construction for public buildings such as city halls, as well as water and sewer system construction and improvements. In fiscal year 2011, USDA Rural Development funneled $38.4 million into 62 awards to Georgia communities.
Ricky Sweat, USDA Rural Development director for Georgia Area 6, based in Baxley, said the agency is not scheduled for further consolidation of its offices at this time. The USDA has targeted 131 Farm Service Agency offices for consolidation, with the Candler County FSA office in Metter eyed for consolidation with the Statesboro office.
But Rural Development is a separate agency within the department. Sweat noted that the agency underwent consolidation several years ago and said it is lean now. Within his area, four offices – in Baxley, Statesboro, Blackshear and Douglas – serve 28 counties. The other five areas in Georgia are served by two or three offices each, but some of these areas are more urban.
In his remarks to participants at the outreach event, Sweat said he has seen many changes since he went to work for the agency in 1979. It was then called the Farmers Home Administration, and had 40 offices and about 340 employees in Georgia.
Now USDA Rural Development, the agency has just 16 Georgia offices with 105 employees. That workforce is slated to drop to 101 at midyear, he said.
“That’s a lot of change. One of the things it means is that there are fewer of us to do the programming,” Sweat said. “Of course all those changes kind of cascade down to you, the public, and one of the things for you is that we’re harder to find. There are fewer offices, fewer employees for you to deal with.”
He added that the agency is trying to provide citizens access via the Internet. Rural Development’s main website is www.rurdev.usda.gov, with links for information about offices in each state.
Barrow said he is generally opposed to agencies such as the FSA closing offices if spending can be reduced in other ways.
“It’s an ongoing struggle as they try to reduce their overhead,” he said. “I, as a general matter, am opposed to that because I think they’ve got to be available to folks where they live.”