RCAP Solutions staff members were in Washington DC for our annual conference, promoting the work we do in rural communities across the northeast. RCAP Solutions is part of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a network of six regional organizations that provide technical assistance and training for water and wastewater systems in small rural communities throughout the U.S. Pictured below is Mia McDonald, Drinking Water Specialist and Brian Scales, Chief Development & Govt. Affairs Officer with Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Ari Newmann, Director of Policy Development and Applied Research, RCAP
Each year, a contingent of RCAP staff and rural community leaders come to Washington, DC for the RCAP network’s annual Legislative Fly-In. The purpose of the fly-in is to educate members of Congress and the administration about the services that RCAP performs for their rural constituents and remind them of the importance of federal rural development programs. Despite a late-season snowfall that forced the closure of most of the federal government, this March we were able to meet with the offices of more than 100 legislators as well as Congressional committees and federal agencies.
The event helped build support on the Hill for rural development programs and for technical assistance for those programs. In the weeks following the fly-in, RCAP circulated a letter in the Senate supporting funding for technical assistance for rural water and wastewater systems that was signed by a bipartisan group of 12 Senators. A similar letter in the House of Representatives garnered 42 signatures from across the political spectrum. As Congress contemplates funding bills later this year, this strong show of support across party lines will help to ensure that funding for these programs continues.
Throughout the week members of Congress and their staff expressed the desire to hear more about how RCAP and federal community development programs are helping their constituents. In order to maintain support for these programs, it is imperative legislators continue to hear how they benefit the people they represent, and Congressional recesses provide a great opportunity to do so. Every few weeks, Congress is out of session so they can return to their home states and spend time visiting and meeting with constituents. These breaks are a great time to reach out to your Senators and Representative to try to schedule them for a visit to your community. Groundbreakings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies provide great opportunities for photo-ops which members of Congress love, and which give them an opportunity to learn about the great work that is being done throughout rural America as a result of the federal programs that they oversee. Even if you’re not planning a big event, your legislators may be interested to see the improvements your community has made as a result of the availability of water or wastewater service. Showing them the value of these programs to rural America will help keep our communities front of mind when they return to Washington and will generate support for our projects and programs.
As the 2014 mid-term election nears, Congress has gradually checked off many of the big items on its to-do list. Congress will likely devote most of the rest of this legislative session to passing its annual budget and appropriations bills that fund the federal government. We expect that the spending bills will be wrapped up before Congress heads home for its annual August recess and the election season is in full swing. The budget outlook for rural programs is much the same as last year. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, major changes are unlikely to occur.
One of the big items that Congress recently finished is the reauthorization of the 5-year Farm Bill. It passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Obama on February 7. The total bill is complex and multi-faceted and is organized into 12 titles that each address one issue area. The one that most directly impacts RCAPâ€™s work is the Rural Development (RD) Title.
This Farm Billâ€™s RD Title included a few significant policy changes that will impact rural communities in mostly beneficial ways. It included:
Instructions to USDA-RD to streamline the application process for communities applying for loans and grants
A requirement that USDA-RD report to Congress regularly on the efficacy of the agencyâ€™s programs
A pilot program to encourage local and regional planning
$150 million in mandatory funding to address the backlog in water/wastewater applications
And RCAPâ€™s top legislative priority, authorization for technical assistance for the Essential Community Facilities Program (CF).
The technical assistance authorization for CF is modeled after the successful water and wastewater technical assistance program that currently exists at RD. It sets aside a small percentage of the funds that are appropriated for the program to be used by non-profit entities to help communities adhere to the rules and requirements of the CF program. It helps ensure that projects go smoothly and protects federal investments by ensuring that communities are able to repay any loans they receive from RD. This type of assistance has long been requested by RD state offices, and RCAP looks forward to working with USDA-RD to implement this important policy change.
While the Farm Bill as a whole was not without controversy, the RD Title is a strong title for rural communities that will make many positive changes. We here at RCAP are looking forward to working with USDA to implement the new policies enacted in the bill and ensure that they work to improve the quality of life in rural America.