Arizona’s Mark Kelly among senators introducing the Rural Prosperity Act – Arizona Daily Sun

On March 10, U.S. Senators Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced The Rural Prosperity Act, bipartisan legislation that would cut bureaucratic red tape by establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity, a permanent office in the White House tasked with coordinating federal efforts to support and connect America’s rural communities to federal programs and resources in order to improve outcomes for rural families and economies.

U.S. Representatives Angie Craig (D-MN-02), Dan Newhouse (R-WA-04), Cindy Axne (D-IA-03), and Adrian Smith (R-NE-03) will introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“I’ve heard from too many Arizonans and small business owners in rural communities across our state who have faced challenges getting the answers or assistance they need from the federal government. Our bipartisan legislation creates a one-stop-shop for Arizona’s rural communities to get the support they need from Washington without unnecessary bureaucratic red tape,” said Senator Kelly, who recently fought to include funds for rural broadband expansion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Currently, there are more than 400 federal programs dedicated to helping rural communities, spread across 13 departments, and over 50 offices and sub-agencies, which can create duplicative and ineffective bureaucracy.

The pipeline for federal funding to reach rural communities is “a mess,” said Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing. Whether it be infrastructure funds, COVID response funds, or other federal grants, “it’s really easy for metro communities to get access to federal dollars, but rural communities have a disadvantage,” Hildreth said, adding that the Rural Prosperity Act would help level the playing field by giving rural communities “someone to call” at the federal government.

While a newly founded Office of Rural Prosperity would endeavor to coordinate rural economic development, it would not preempt local authorities, Hildreth said.

“The last thing we want is the strategies to be developed at the federal government,” he said. “Local people know how to solve local problems. That’s the point.”

In the current system, many rural communities “give up along the way” when it comes to acquiring federal resources, said Coconino County supervisor Patrice Horstman. This new bill will “alleviate these hurdles by creating an information and resource hub that will ensure rural towns have the resources they need to leverage federal programs,” Horstman said.

The Northern Arizona Council of Governments (NACOG) is one local organization that stands to benefit from the Rural Prosperity Act, said Teri Drew, director of economic development at NACOG. Her organization works with 25 communities spread out over four of the largest counties in the nation.

From Drew’s perspective, access to federal funds are currently “not equitable” due to dynamics that ask federal grantees to match awards or demonstrate returns-on-investment. Such requirements inevitably favor the larger economies of metro areas. This bill would allow organizations like NACOG to “be innovative,” and better tackle the common problems in their rural areas.

Local First Arizona, a rural development council for the state of Arizona, also supports the Rural Prosperity Act. To CEO Kimber Lanning, it is “absolutely critical,” that policy be viewed from a rural lens, as many policymakers tend to originate and focus on metro areas, overlooking large swaths of American citizens. “It’s important that we elevate rural voices,” Lanning said, and she believes this bill is a good step in that direction.

It’s always good when lines of communication between rural communities and the federal government can be improved, said Flagstaff Mayor Paul Deasy. In his estimation the Rural Prosperity Act will help “ensure the voice of Americans outside of urban areas can be heard loud and clear.”

Tim Elinski — Mayor of Cottonwood and chair of the Greater Arizona Mayors Association– also voiced support for the Rural Prosperity Act, saying it would serve communities like his that “drive the economy, attract tourism and are the recreational playgrounds for our metro neighbors.”

“Rural communities are under-resourced and simply don’t have the means to wade through the often-confusing breadth and scope of federal communication and grants available, and too often federal assistance is mired in red tape,” Elinski wrote in a statement to the Daily Sun. “Senator Kelly’s bill would create a direct pipeline to Washington and a one-stop-shop opportunity for smaller communities to seek grants.”

Specifically, the bipartisan Rural Prosperity Act intends to ensure better coordination across federal agencies through the following strategies:

  • Establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity within the White House to coordinate rural economic development programs across government. The office would be led by a Chief Rural Advisor, who will be appointed by the President and be responsible for coordinating all federal rural development efforts.
  • Forming a Rural Prosperity Council which consists of members of all of the heads of executive branch departments, agencies, and offices that have programs that serve rural areas. The Council would serve as a forum to resolve interagency disputes and coordinate a whole-of-government effort to address the needs of rural communities across the country.
  • Developing a comprehensive strategy for rural economic development across the Executive Branch.
  • Engaging with stakeholders, including convening public hearings, to identify common challenges faced by rural areas.
  • Making recommendations on how to coordinate, streamline, and leverage existing Federal investments to address challenges faced by rural areas.
  • Developing a common set of metrics to ensure that all rural development programs are meeting a common set of evidence-backed standards.

Sean Golightly can be reached at sgolightly@azdailysun.com

Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.