Rural Development: Title VI (Rural Development) and Title XII (Miscellaneous)
Provides assistance to rural communities for improved rural health outcomes (particularly in the area of substance abuse); rural broadband investments; community and economic development program planning, coordination, and implementation; water and waste disposal and wastewater treatment facilities; general business assistance; and rural energy, electrification, and cybersecurity.
- Directs the Secretary to prioritize or set aside funds for telemedicine projects, community health facilities, and rural health and safety education programs aimed at prevention, treatment, or recovery from substance abuse disorders.
- Provides loans, grants, and other assistance to rural communities for broadband services, prioritizing assistance to rural communities that lack access to high-speed broadband and face other socioeconomic disadvantages. Increases the minimum acceptable standards of broadband for those projects.
- Establishes provisions for rural communities, business development, and rural infrastructure. Prioritizes support to community, business development, and infrastructure projects that support implementation of strategic plans on a multi-jurisdictional basis and reserves a portion of funds for such projects.
- Requires USDA to re-establish the position of Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development.
New Programs and Provisions
Improving Health Outcomes in Rural America. Gives new emphasis to rural health issues, primarily through the direction of program funds. The first section focuses on rural substance abuse, directing the Secretary to set aside 20 percent of Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program funds for projects providing treatment services for substance use disorders. Requires the Secretary to give priority to Community Facilities applications that provide facilities for services, including telehealth services, designed to prevent, treat, and assist in the recovery from substance abuse, and to the Rural Health and Safety Program for education and treatment projects aimed at reducing substance abuse in rural communities. These provisions remain in place from fiscal years 2019 to 2025, and no national reprioritization of these programs is allowed except for a significant public health disruption as described below. Additional funding is authorized for Distance Learning and Telemedicine programs, as the authorization of annual appropriations is increased from $75 million under the 2014 Farm Act to $82 million for fiscal years 2019 to 2023.
To help rural communities address an unanticipated increase in mortality or morbidity (compared with nonrural communities), the Secretary is authorized to temporarily reprioritize up to 20 percent of funds of certain rural grant and loan programs, on a national or multistate basis, to address this trend. This reprioritization may extend up to 4 years and may not be used to allocate more funds to an affected State.
Where necessary to preserve rural access to health services, the refinancing of rural hospital debt is now eligible for rural development loan/loan guarantee programs if assistance would meaningfully improve the financial situation of the hospital.
Connecting Rural Americans to High-Speed Broadband. Requires the Secretary to provide grants, loans, and loan guarantees to finance rural broadband projects.
- Rural broadband projects must give highest priority to unserved rural areas—defined as lacking residential broadband service at transmission speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream—and efforts must achieve minimum transmission speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
- Funding priority goes to projects providing broadband service to rural communities (1) with a population of less than 10,000, (2) experiencing outmigration that have adopted a strategic community investment plan providing broadband service to rural communities, (3) with a high percentage of low-income people, (4) that are isolated from other significant population centers, or (5) that provide rapid and expanded deployment of broadband on cropland and ranchland for use in precision agriculture applications.
- Expands the rural broadband loan/loan guarantee program to include grants for extending broadband service into service territories in which at least 90 percent of households lack service, with a greater share of grant funding permitted in less densely populated communities. The Secretary is authorized to use some of the grant funds to provide payment assistance to broadband loan recipients.
- For broadband loans and loan guarantees not seeking grant assistance, at least 50 percent of households in the proposed service territory must be unserved. The 2018 Farm Act authorizes appropriations of $350 million per fiscal year for 2019 to 2023, a substantial increase from $25 million per fiscal year authorized under the 2014 Farm Act (without a grant component). Between 3 and 5 percent of funding for the broadband loan and grant program is required to be used for technical assistance and training of program applicants.
- A Middle Mile Infrastructure Program authorizes appropriations of $10 million per fiscal year for 2019 to 2023 to provide funds for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of broadband infrastructure that connects rural Internet service provider connection networks with broadband Internet backbone networks.
- The Innovative Broadband Advancement Program replaces the Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program, for the purpose of demonstrating innovative broadband technologies or improved methods of broadband deployment in rural areas.
- The Community Connect Program—which provides grants to unserved areas to promote economic growth and enhance delivery of health care, education, and public safety services—authorizes appropriations of $50 million per fiscal year for 2019 to 2023.
- Other provisions promoting broadband access in rural areas include new reporting requirements on rural broadband projects, enhanced coordination of broadband programs serving rural areas between USDA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), establishment of a Federal Rural Broadband Integration Working Group, and establishment of a Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture (the latter task force is included in Title XII of the 2018 Farm Act).
Other New Programs and Provisions
Technical Assistance Program for Tribal Entities. The Secretary, in coordination with the Office of Tribal Relations, is authorized to establish a program to provide technical assistance to improve access by Tribal entities to rural development programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through available cooperative agreement authorities of the Secretary.
Rural Business-Cooperative Service Programs Technical Assistance and Training. Authorizes the Secretary to make grants for technical assistance and training to assist rural communities in accessing programs offered through Rural Business and Cooperative Services, with a priority for grants serving persistent-poverty counties and high-poverty communities. Appropriations of up to $5 million per fiscal year for 2019 to 2023 are authorized for these programs.
Council on Rural Community Innovation and Economic Development. The Council is established to (1) better coordinate Federal programs directed to rural communities, (2) maximize the impact of Federal investment to promote economic prosperity and quality of life in rural communities, and (3) promote innovation to resolve local and regional challenges faced by rural communities. The Council is intended to be the successor to the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity established by Executive Order 13790 issued by President Donald J. Trump in 2017 “to ensure the informed exercise of regulatory authority that impacts agriculture and rural communities.” The membership of the Council shall be composed of the heads of 26 executive branch departments, agencies, and offices.
Rural Water, Waste Disposal, and Wastewater Programs. Permits the Secretary to provide the Water, Waste Disposal, and Wastewater Facility grants to entities that assist eligible rural water systems with long term sustainability planning. The 2018 Farm Act increases the maximum amount of financing an eligible entity can receive (from a revolving fund) from $100,000 to $200,000. The 2018 Farm Act also decreases the authorization of appropriations for this program from $30 million to $15 million per fiscal year. The 2018 Farm Act increases the authorization of appropriations for the Rural Water and Wastewater Circuit Rider Program from $20 million in fiscal year 2014 to $25 million for each of fiscal years 2019 through 2023. The 2018 Farm Act also increases the authorization of appropriations for the Emergency and Imminent Community Water Assistance Grant Program from $35 million for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2018 to $50 million for each of fiscal years 2019 through 2023.
Rural Innovation Stronger Economy Grant Program. Establishes a competitive grant program for “rural jobs accelerator partnerships” to improve the ability of distressed rural communities to create high-wage jobs, accelerate the formation of new businesses, and identify/maximize local assets. Available grants range from $500,000 to $2 million, with $10 million authorized to be appropriated for the program each fiscal year.
Cybersecurity and Grid Security Improvements. Authorizes the use of loan funds under the Rural Electrification Act to make or guarantee loans for cybersecurity and grid security improvements.
Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development – In Title XII, the 2018 Farm Act directs the Secretary to re-establish the position of Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development as a permanent, mandatory position.
The Northern Great Plains Regional Authority. This program—which authorized an economic development commission to develop regional plans and make loans and grants for infrastructure and economic development in five Great Plains States—was eliminated under the 2018 Farm Act. This program had authorized appropriations of $30 million annually for FY2008-FY2018.
USDA’s rural broadband loan and grant programs continue as an ongoing source of funding for rural America. The USDA Rural Utilities Service’s Telecom programs are designed to reduce the digital gap between urban and rural communities, with priority for small, low-income communities that are isolated from major population centers and are experiencing outmigration. The 2018 Farm Act strengthens the USDA effort with higher program funding, better coordination among Federal agencies, a simplified loan and grant application process, and stricter eligibility requirements (to ensure that USDA funds are directed toward high-quality services).
The Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program now includes a grant component to extend broadband service deeper into rural communities. Appropriations of up to $350 million per fiscal year are authorized for grants, loans, and loan guarantees—a substantial increase from the $25 million authorized under the 2014 Farm Act, which did not include a grant component. During 2012-17, USDA assistance to rural telecommunications (including the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee and other USDA programs) ranged from $175 million to $500 million (see chart). Increasing the authorization for Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program from $25 million to $350 million could add up to $325 million to help extend rural broadband services.
In addition to the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, the 2018 Farm Act increases authorized funding for several new and existing rural development programs, including:
- Distance Learning and Telemedicine program (authorization for appropriations increased from $75 million to $82 million annually);
- Community Connect grant program (authorized at $50 million annually);
- Rural Innovation Stronger Economy Grant Program (new program, authorized at $10 million annually);
- Rural Water and Wastewater Circuit Rider Program (increased from $20 million to $25 million annually);
- Rural Decentralized Water Systems (from $5 million to $20 million annually), and
- Emergency and Imminent Community Water Assistance Grant Program (from $35 million to $50 million annually).
The 2018 Act also reduces authorized appropriations for several existing programs, including:
- Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (authorization for appropriations reduced from $40 million to $20 million per fiscal year); and
- The Northern Great Plains Regional Authority (eliminated, having authorized $30 million annually for FY2008-FY2018).