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Trump budget cuts agencies aimed at building up Appalachia

Nathan Baker • Updated Mar 16, 2017 at 10:57 PM

President Donald Trump’s “America First” budget proposes eliminating a 52-year-old federal-state partnership that has benefited rural residents throughout the Appalachian region, including in Northeast Tennessee.

The Appalachian Regional Commission helped extend Interstate 26 through Northeast Tennessee, provided assistance to Erwin when CSX closed its 175-acre train yard and paid for infrastructure to pipe clean drinking water to rural homes in the Telford and Little Milligan communities.

The president’s proposal, subtitled “A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” provides increases to defense spending and law enforcement while eliminating the ARC’s $120 million appropriation, $3 billion for the Community Development Block Grant program — used by rural communities to provide housing, build infrastructure and stimulate job growth — and a slew of other domestic agencies and programs.

“Programs like ARC and CDBG are very good at delivering infrastructure projects in those highly needed, low-income areas,” said Ken Rea, Deputy Director for Economic and Community Development for the First Tennessee Development District. “A lot of communities look at those programs as their bread and butter, and I’d hate to see that go away.”

In 2016, ARC provided the Development District with $88,243, according to the organization’s records. Rea and his staff help connect potential projects to funding available through the commission and the CDBG program, administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, serving 420 counties in 13 states stretching from New York to Mississippi, was rooted in Kennedy-era policy aimed at boosting income, education, health care, and transportation in areas that lagged behind the rest of the country.

One of its flagship initiatives is the Appalachian Development Highway System, 3,090 miles of modern highways cut through the mountainous terrain to connect the region with major transportation routes.

Part of the system includes Interstate 26 and U.S. Highway 23, a corridor which stretches from Asheville, North Carolina, through Johnson City and Kingsport, to its terminus in Lucasville, Ohio.

The I-26 extension, completed in 2003 between Asheville and the Interstate 81 interchange, was 80 percent funded by ARC grants. It replaced a steep and winding road through Sams Gap that frequently gave large trucks trouble.

In 2016, with Erwin left reeling after 300 railroad jobs tied to the CSX railyard left town, ARC provided two grants to the ailing town.

One, for $400,000, arrived through an initiative of President Barack Obama to expand Erwin Utilities’ fiber optic broadband network to the Temple Hill and Bumpass Cove areas. The other $353,000 grant was awarded to the Mountain Harvest Kitchen at Unicoi, a food business incubator and training center.

In an emailed statement, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., applauded the Trump budget proposal’s support for national defense and assured the safety of programs benefitting rural Appalachia.

“President Trump’s budget blueprint lays out a serious plan that prioritizes our national security, takes care of our veterans, and protects our borders,” Roe’s statement said. “I’m also pleased the president proposed scaling back or eliminating programs that he views as wasteful.

“In the weeks and months ahead, Congress will decide whether or not to adopt the president’s recommendations. Programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission, which does tremendous good for rural Appalachia, have bipartisan support in Congress and I don’t expect they will be eliminated. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress and the president to work toward getting our fiscal house in order and balancing our budget.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged individual congressmen’s affinity for appropriations benefiting people in their districts.

"The president's beholden to nobody but the people who elected him, and yes, I understand that every lawmaker over there has pet projects," he said. "That's the nature of the beast."

Sen. Bob Corker did not address the budget plan’s reductions to domestic programs, but did take aim at Medicare and Social Security programs.

“I sincerely appreciate the Trump administration’s effort to cut waste and encourage efficiency, but the fact is that until the president and Congress are willing to address the real drivers of our debt — Medicare and Social Security — we will be complicit in shackling future generations with the financial burden of our own lack of discipline,” Corker said. “That is not a legacy I want to leave.”

With Trump’s proposal on the table, Congress will now take up the task of shaping the recommendations into an appropriations bill and a budget plan for the nation.

Email Nathan Baker at nbaker@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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