Trump budget cut would harm loyal supporters in Pa. coal country

Supporters welcomed Donald Trump Jr. during the grand opening of a Trump campaign headquarters in September near Canonsburg in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal economic development agency designed to lift up one of the nation’s poorest regions, including a large swath of rural Pennsylvania.

With his promises to bring back U.S. manufacturing and resurrect coal jobs, Trump racked up big vote margins in Appalachian counties across 13 states in November.

Now, Trump’s proposal to “zero out” the ARC could cost some of his most loyal voters needed assistance such as a program in Prosperity, Pa., that prepares out-of-work coal miners for jobs in cybersecurity, software development, commercial truck driving, and other careers.

The regional commission, born in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty 52 years ago, also builds roads, sewers, hooks up broadband internet cable in remote areas, and nurtures small businesses, among other development tasks.

Advocates for the Appalachian commission, which works in partnership with states, argue that its programs are not mushy government giveaways but build infrastructure that helps attract private investment to the region.

ARC money helped create about 2,600 jobs and retain 7,500 more in Pennsylvania during the  2015-16 fiscal year, said Jill Foys, executive director of the Northwest PA regional development agency, one of seven groups doing the ground-level work in the state. Companies helped during that time period exported $869 million worth of goods and won $516 million in government contracts, she said.

Foys said it was surprising that Trump’s budget would eliminate the Appalachian commission. “It’s step one,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to share the good work we do. It’s important for people to know how deep it goes and how many communities have benefitted.”

Over the past two years, the federal government pumped an additional $100 million in so-called Power grants to help counties hurt by the downturn in coal production throughout the commission’s territory. Though there are no coal mines in northwestern Pennsylvania, the problems of the industry led to the loss of 2,000 jobs at a Venango County plant that made mining equipment and at the GE locomotive plant in Erie, since there was less call for coal trains.

“We were hit pretty hard when you consider the multiplier effect from each lost job,” said Foys, who is based in Oil City, Pa. A Power grant of $100,000 is helping her commission develop a plan to extend broadband internet coverage in northwest Pennsylvania.

“It can be be very difficult to entice private industries to move into our rural areas because there isn’t the population and infrastructure to give the return-on-investment for internet providers to wire broadband,” Foys said.

The Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission is using a $1.2 million grant to create an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in Cambria and Somerset Counties, according to Steven Howsare, executive director.

Business coaches and mentors will help people start businesses and will renovate buildings to house fledgling businesses. It is projected to create 125 jobs, priming $3.7 million in private investment, the agency says.

The Appalachian Regional Commission was founded in 1965 as a federal-state partnership to promote economic growth in a region encompassing all of West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. More than 25 million people live in the territory.

Of the 420 counties in the Appalachian region, Trump carried 401 of them, often by double digits. In Pennsylvania, Trump won 48 of the 52 counties served by the commission. Allegheny, Centre, Lackawanna and Monroe Counties went for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

A 2015 evaluation of ARC’s impact found that $3.8 billion invested  over five decades resulted in 312,000 jobs and $10.5 billion in additional earnings in the mountainous region. The poverty rate fell from 30 percent to under 17 percent.

During his campaign, Trump promised to help blue-collar and rural Americans, the people who work with their hands in manufacturing and coal-mining and agriculture. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he said during his inaugural address, which was focused on the working class.

The Appalachian program has powerful friends in Congress and the governors’ offices in the region, so reports of its death may be greatly exaggerated, though it’s always possible it could shrink.

“We are not going to allow any cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. “It’s very important to eastern Kentucky and has been for a number of years. That’s not going to happen.”

Rep. Hal Rogers (R.,Ky.), an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee, also said last week he would fight the cut, calling the administration’s proposal “careless and counterproductive.”

Presidential budgets, of course, are only starting points for long negotiations with Congress, which controls the purse strings. The spending proposals therein show a president’s policy priorities but are never enacted precisely as he would wish.

Trump’s budget was unveiled March 16, proposing deep cuts to spending on domestic discretionary programs and foreign affairs in order to increase money for defense and homeland security. It did not address entitlement spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the fastest-growing parts of the federal budget.

The Appalachian agency has been in budget-cutting sights before. President Ronald Reagan asked to eliminate it in every one of his budgets through the 1980s, but Congress never went along.

“It never happened because Congress saw value in what we do,” Howsare said. “This is successful. I’m pretty encouraged it won’t happen this time either.”