OMAHA (DTN) -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue named a new chief of USDA's Rural Development division on Monday, despite concerns Perdue's reorganization plan lowers the stature of the role.
USDA named Anne Hazlett as "Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development." Hazlett is a former Indiana director of agriculture who most recently was chief counsel for Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee. She takes over job responsibilities previously held by a USDA undersecretary for Rural Development, a position historically nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Hazlett will start her new position without a White House nomination or Senate confirmation.
"Small towns and the people who call them home have been my life's passion," Hazlett said. "It is with great enthusiasm and a deep commitment to rural America that I am eager to get to work at USDA and be a partner in crafting solutions to the significant challenges these communities face from economic opportunity to infrastructure, quality housing, and addiction."
The White House budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018 calls for a 26% overall cut to Rural Development programs, which includes the elimination of the Rural Business Cooperative Service and steep cuts to the Rural Utilities Service.
Perdue's USDA reorganization announced last month eliminated the undersecretary for Rural Development; Perdue proposed eliminating the position as part of a process to create a new undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.
Currently, the White House has yet to nominate any of the top sub-cabinet leadership at USDA. Perdue remains the only USDA officeholder named by the Trump administration.
USDA has repeatedly emphasized in news releases and statements by Perdue that eliminating the undersecretary position elevates the status of Rural Development because the new assistant would report directly to Perdue.
"With this addition to USDA Rural Development, rural America will have a seat at the main table and have walk-in privileges with the secretary on day one," Perdue said. "With her background of advising the Senate committee overseeing agricultural and rural development issues, Anne Hazlett comes with a depth of knowledge and experience perfectly suited to her role in helping to restore prosperity to rural America. We are excited to have her aboard."
The appointment comes even as a coalition of 578 organizations wrote key members of Congress on Monday, opposing the Rural Development cuts and the "ill-advised recommendation" to eliminate the undersecretary position.
"The administration's proposals do not sit well with family farmers and rural residents who benefit tremendously from the work of USDA Rural Development," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. "While we appreciate Secretary Perdue's heightened interest in rural economic development, President Trump's proposed budget does not align with this interest. In fact, the budget proposal and proposed USDA reorganization bring the long-term viability of USDA RD (Rural Development) into question."
A pair of Democratic senators also wrote Perdue on Friday pushing back on proposed budget cuts to Rural Development and elimination of the undersecretary for Rural Development. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was joined in the letter by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
"While we have received many communications from stakeholders, interest groups and concerned citizens asking that we oppose the elimination of the Rural Development undersecretary, we have not received one statement in support," the senators wrote. "For these reasons we cannot agree with this component of your reorganization proposal and respectfully request that you maintain a Senate confirmed Undersecretary for Rural Development." http://dld.bz/…
Perdue is scheduled to testify Tuesday about USDA's proposed budget and reorganization before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, of which Merkley is the ranking member.
USDA also has not finished the comment period for a request for information published in the Federal Register to seek reaction to the USDA reorganization. The request has gained only about two dozen responses. Still, the National Association of Realtors wrote last week that eliminating the undersecretary position would harm the effectiveness of Rural Development agencies. The realtors specifically honed in on the Rural Housing Service. The realtors stated that the Rural Housing Service provided a critical function to 20% of the population who live in rural areas and small towns. "Finding safe and affordable housing is difficult in rural communities where rental housing is often limited and access to mortgage financing can be challenging."
The realtors added, "The housing needs of rural America deserves equal footing with all of USDA's program missions, including adequate staffing and resources." The undersecretary ensures there is a unified force for rural communities.
The National Housing Coalition sent a similar letter expressing concerns about proposed funding cuts for rural development and stating the lack of an undersecretary "would also make it challenging to truly elevate RD (Rural Development)."
A few rural development directors in Iowa and Montana also expressed their concerns. Jill Heisterkamp, representing the Calhoun County Economic Development Corp. in Rockwell City, Iowa, stated she feared rural development programs would suffer with the loss of the undersecretary position. "It is critical that the rural areas are supported in their efforts to diversify their economic development efforts, as agriculture's success is heavily dependent on weather and other factors outside of supply-demand control. Therefore, if we do not work to diversify our ability to sustain our vitality as rural areas, in times of non-surplus yields, we will be facing very serious financial problems.
"By placing rural development into the silo of agriculture, I fear that support for programs that are essential to rural economic development outside of agriculture will be greatly affected and suffer."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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