Connecting state and local government leaders
The president proposed eliminating the economic development agency in his initial budget proposal. Tim Thomas, the prospective nominee to co-lead the ARC, spoke with Route Fifty on Friday.
WASHINGTON — President Trump intends to nominate one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's state staff members to lead an agency that works on economic development issues in Appalachia, the White House announced on Thursday.
Tim Thomas is the president's pick to serve as the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Thomas currently works as a field representative in McConnell‘s Bowling Green, Kentucky office. He previously held a post in the environmental cabinet of former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican whose term ended in 2007.
"I'm a native Kentuckian. ARC, for the 50 years of its existence, its been a very important agency to the eastern half of my home state," Thomas said when reached by phone on Friday.
In Trump's first budget proposal, which was released early last year, the president proposed defunding the ARC. Congress, however, has shown little enthusiasm for eliminating the agency. McConnell is among those who has opposed the idea.
The commission was allotted $152 million in the last budget cycle. Lawmakers have so far only passed stopgap budget legislation for the current 2018 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1.
Route Fifty asked Thomas if he was uneasy taking the helm of an agency that the Trump administration had proposed axing.
"Funding for, and the existence of the agency, those are all questions that are determined by Congress acting in conjunction with the administration," he replied. "And Congress has made the decision that there will be an ARC and it will be funded."
A federal-state partnership established in 1965, the ARC works on economic development initiatives in parts of 13 states, stretching from New York in the north, to Alabama and Mississippi in the south.
Thomas said he expressed interest in the leadership post at the commission during the transition phase of Trump's presidency. "Certainly a positive reference from Senator McConnell was helpful in that regard," he added.
The co-chair position requires Senate confirmation and falls under the jurisdiction of the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso.
Thomas said he did not have any information about the timeline by which his nomination, and potential confirmation, would proceed.
A priority area he said he believes the commission should continue to focus on going forward is workforce development, particularly in areas affected by downturns in the coal industry. "Opportunities to help with that population, whether it's retraining or otherwise, are certainly going to be very important," Thomas said.
He also indicated he was interested in exploring whether the agency could do more to support small businesses and entrepreneurs. And he said he thinks the commission should do all it can to help combat the problems in the Appalachian region with opioid addiction.
Two representatives of the White House press office did not respond to emailed requests for comment Friday about whether the Trump administration's position has changed with regard to funding the ARC.
The White House announcement naming Thomas as the prospective ARC nominee says that during his time in Fletcher's environmental cabinet he was a special assistant to the secretary and acted as a federal facilities coordinator, overseeing environmental regulations at Department of Energy and U.S. Army installations.
Thomas also served during his final year in Fletcher's administration as executive director of the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. He said the authority is involved in providing loans and grants for primarily water and wastewater projects, and that its work is similar to some of the programs overseen by the ARC.
After departing from Kentucky state government, Thomas worked for Swift and Staley, Inc., a firm based in the western part of the state that offers infrastructure services, including facilities management and site security, to government clients.
The Senate confirmed the current federal co-chair of the ARC, Earl Gohl, in 2010.
Prior to taking the position, Gohl held positions with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. Before that, he was a special assistant and associate assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor and spent about two decades in Pennsylvania state and local government.
The Appalachian Regional Commission is led by federal and state co-chairs.
Each year, the 13 governors in the states that the commission serves elect a governor to serve as the state co-chair. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has held the position since February of last year.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.