The 2019 President’s Budget Misreads the Data and Misses the Point

Last week the White House released its 2019 budget proposal, essentially the Administration’s policy priorities for the coming year. The “belt-tightening” for public services in this budget proposal is even starker against a backdrop of the recent hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest entities. While that observation applies across all non-defense missions, we’ll look at natural resources conservation.

Natural resources are the foundation that has allowed the US to prosper and build the immense wealth and power it wields today. Rich soils, plentiful water, and bountiful wildlife all supported by a temperate climate help to explain the world’s most productive agriculture. The sustainable management of these essential resources—resulting in a stable and secure food supply—depends on conservation and stewardship, a mission that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is charged to deliver for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Conservation measures are an important part of the infrastructure that supports the nation’s economy while protecting its natural resource assets.

Now back to the budget. On the discretionary side, the President’s budget calls for a 16% cut in overall USDA programs. While the gross reduction to the five NRCS discretionary programs is 22%, the reduction to NRCS’s conservation technical assistance (CTA) is 24%. CTA is the backbone of conservation work on the ground. It makes possible the science and technology that fuel conservation gains, the personnel that deliver technical services and advice to farmers and ranchers, and the data and information that allow us to know how conservation programs are working for the American public. In light of major natural resource pressures facing agriculture—from drought and flooding to soil erosion, pests, and invasive species—reducing CTA support is shortsighted at best.

On the mandatory side, the President’s Budget proposes a number of actions to reduce spending in Farm Bill conservation programs by limiting eligibility to operators who have an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $500,000 or less. Ah, if only natural resource threats were distributed based on farming operation income levels… Remaining proposals make changes to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and eliminate future enrollments in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). While all of these proposals deserve in-depth scrutiny, we’ll focus on RCPP since it is a new breed of program that actually does what the rest of the budget professes to want: “…to further increase the role of the private sector…”

RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill and was a new vision for conservation programs, harnessing the innovation and interest of local advocates, and raising non-federal funding for critical conservation actions. In just three years of RCPP, NRCS has invested about $590 million in nearly 200 high-impact projects, bringing together more than 2,000 conservation partners who committed to contribute an estimated $900 million in financial and technical assistance. What investor wouldn’t swoon over a 150% return on an investment?

Why eliminate RCPP? The budget’s analysis suggests that the same function could be achieved through independent program revisions. We reject that argument. RCPP offers a way to bundle and coordinate authorities, and that won’t be readily duplicated by independent program changes. Just as important, the budget savings are small relative to RCPP benefits. Funding for the program comes from other conservation programs (EQIP, CSP, ACEP), so the argument could be made that these funds would continue to go to conservation. Yes, but that approach also misses the opportunity for partner leverage through RCPP, an estimated $2 billion over 10 years. RCPP also has its own $100 million annual budget authority. At a leverage rate of more than 150%, that would cost an estimated $1.5 billion in missed partner contributions over 10 years. In total, eliminating RCPP would “save” $1 billion while losing more than $3.5 billion in non-federal funding for critical conservation infrastructure projects through 2028.

Wiser heads will prevail, but it’s troubling that the Administration so thoroughly misses the future of conservation. The Agriculture Committees have already rejected this budget proposal, calling it out of touch. RCPP’s concept of leveraging local interest and resources is on-point. It makes the most of the federal investment and creates commitment or skin in the game, so to speak, for completion and continuation of projects that will sustain the nation’s natural resources. RCPP is the best of government, not something to be shelved. It should become a model for the future. This budget proposal misreads the data and misses the point: we need to find more, not fewer, ways to engage non-federal resources in conservation that supports a stable and secure food supply.