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As a special task force kicks off its work, the U.S. Agriculture secretary says that the president “is very expectant of action.”
WASHINGTON — Top officials in the Trump administration turned their attention on Thursday toward a White House initiative meant to help rural America.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue presided over the inaugural meeting of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. The group was created by an executive order that President Trump signed in April.
It is charged with identifying changes to regulations, laws and policy that would give a boost to agriculture, economic development, public works and quality of life in rural areas.
“While economic recovery is occurring across the United States, it’s not occurring equally,” said Perdue. He noted that rural unemployment and poverty rates are disproportionately high.
The task force will have until Oct. 22 to develop a report with recommendations. Perdue said that the goal is for the report to be an “operational plan.”
“The president is very expectant of action,” the Agriculture secretary told reporters after the meeting. “He’s serious about this,” he added. “And I’m serious about it as well.”
Trump drew strong support from rural parts of the country in last year’s presidential election.
About two dozen agency officials participated in Thursday’s meeting. Among them were White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai.
Several meeting participants showed a keen interest in easing regulations.
“Most of the farm people say, ‘man if ya’ll just leave us alone, that’d be the best thing you could do,” Perry said. “And leaving them alone translates into don’t overregulate.”
The deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Paul Winfree, said a “big issue that is at the forefront” of Trump’s domestic policy agenda is both deregulation and “creating better regulation.”
Perdue, however, suggested that the task force would seek to be measured in the regulatory changes it recommends. “No way are we looking to wipe the slate clean regarding environmental regulations or food safety regulations,” he said.
Promoting agricultural trade, upgrading infrastructure and improving internet connectivity in rural regions were some of the other topics that received attention during the meeting. The discussion was mostly meant to frame the work the task force will undertake moving forward.
The fiscal 2018 budget proposal Trump submitted to Congress last month includes deep cuts to domestic programs that have traditionally provided assistance to rural areas.
For instance, it calls for eliminating funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports economic development in 13 states. And it would zero out funding for a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and grant program for rural water and sewer systems.
Route Fifty asked Perdue after Thursday’s meeting how these proposed cuts square with what the task force is trying to accomplish.
“The budget will be put together,” he replied. “The president has submitted that. But we’ll see where we come out. Rural development I can assure you, from his perspective, is very important,” he added. “Watch and see.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter with Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.