Delegates should fight budget cuts

Thursday, February 24, 2005

When it comes time for American lawmakers to decide the fate of rural development programs, they need to consider whether the funding for rural areas is government aid, or whether it is an investment in the future.

The question faces the current members of the U.S. Senate and House or Representatives because sharp cutbacks in rural programs are proposed in President Bush's 2006 budget.

Altogether, according to early budget estimates, the money available for federal programs in rural areas would be reduced by more than $1 billion. The proposed reduction includes a $48 million cutback in the Essential Air Service program and a $26 million decrease in the funding for Resource, Conservation and Development programs.

The Essential Air Service cutback would hit McCook hard, as the McCook Regional Airport is currently one of seven Nebraska communities receiving Essential Air funding. If the program is cut back, a local and state airport official, Doug Vap, estimates the McCook community would have to come up with more than $100,000 a year in additional support for airline service. With all the other financial demands faced by the city, it is doubtful that amount of money could be generated on an annual basis.

The Resource, Conservation and Development districts in Nebraska face a similar threat, although this area's coordinator, Roger Stockton, says the Southwest office in Cambridge is not among those targeted for funding cuts. Ironically, the offices being cut are the oldest ones, including the Panhandle office in Scottsbluff and the North Central office in Bassett. The reasoning is that the older offices have had more time to generate local funding support, Stockton said.

Looking at the big picture, the RC&Ds make a good case for continuing government funding. "For every dollar in government funding the Southwest RC&D receives, we generate $22 additional dollars in economic benefits for the region," he said. An example of the Southwest RC&D's work is the efforts to control the runaway growth of salt cedar, red cedar and Russian olives along the Republican River.

Programs such as the RC&D and rural business and housing grants are essential to uplift the small towns and rural areas of Nebraska. U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson and U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel need to be leaders in the fight to save the programs from severe budget cuts.

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