A report from Hank Hayes:
Federal grant dollars were being handed out across Northeast Tennessee Thursday, and recipients were smiling. But a number of those smiles might not be there next year because of anticipated federal government spending cuts, Gov. Bill Haslam predicted.
“The grants we saw today will be harder to come by,” Haslam, a Republican, said after announcing a $145,026 federally funded grant to East Tennessee State University for a habitat at the Gray Fossil Site. “I don’t know that for a fact, but I think a lot of the discretionary programs in federal government, I’m betting, are going to have a cutback. I’m not saying programs like this are going to go away, but I think they will be a lot harder to come by.”
Earlier in the day at the Farm House Gallery and Gardens in Unicoi, about $3.3 million in federal grants and loans were being doled out to 14 projects ranging from water line replacements to buying a new emergency service vehicle.
“When I look around this room, what I see are partners…” Bobby Goode, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program, told a gathering of project recipients. “Tennessee is such a rural area. … What we’re about is rural development.”
The Rural Development program, Goode noted, invested more than $1.3 billion in Tennessee last year, with more than 80 percent of that money being loan dollars.
The money brings everything from broadband services to water and sewer line infrastructure to rural communities, Goode pointed out.
Goode introduced U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, a critic of the Obama administration’s spending habits, as a friend of the program.
“He’s trying to get water to everybody,” Goode said of Roe, R-Tenn .
Before the event began, Roe admitted federal grants most likely will be pared down by Congress after a deal passed to raise the $14.3 trillion federal debt ceiling and cut trillions in spending.
“Some (grants) are probably going to get cut,” said Roe, who started his political career as a planning commission member in Johnson City. “But the loan guarantees, I think, will not, especially the water projects. … I think the best money you can spend is in water infrastructure.”
Roe told the gathering that the federal government is spending about $1 million on each soldier serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I think we need to bring some of that money back and put it in our own infrastructure. … I think it’s time to come home,” said Roe. “We have a lot of people in our area who don’t have potable drinking water. In Washington County, there are 140 miles of roads without utility water. ”
Last month, Roe voted for and the House passed an appropriations bill extending non-highway funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency established in the 1960s to increase job opportunities and incomes in 13 Appalachian states, including Tennessee and Virginia.
The Obama administration had sought $76 million for ARC’s non-highway programs, which awards grants to local development districts and nonprofit organizations that build low-cost housing.
But the House appropriations bill called for $68.4 million going to ARC, and the Senate hasn’t scheduled action on its version of the bill.
ARC says that in 1965 one in three Appalachians lived in poverty, but in 2008 the region’s poverty rate was 18 percent. The number of Appalachian counties considered economically distressed was 223 in 1965. In fiscal year 2011, that number was 82, according to ARC.
Roe said he didn’t know what ARC’s future holds.
“ARC has been a huge help to this area,” Roe said. “But funding is up for grabs right now. I don’t know where it will end up. … All the areas affected by ARC, there will be some reductions. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”