In his first budget proposal, President Donald Trump says he wants to put Americans first by boosting funds for defense and cutting some domestic and international programs.

“These cuts are sensible and rational. Every agency and department will be driven to achieve greater efficiency and to eliminate wasteful spending in carrying out their honorable service to the American people,” Trump said in an opening message accompanying the budget blueprint released March 16.

While the budget is far from the final product, it has put a spotlight on programs around the country that, in ways often unseen, are supported by federal dollars. To some, the cuts are a necessary step to reprioritize while not increasing the deficit, but to others it looks like an exercise in missing the point — cutting from small discretionary spending that helps many Americans and advances the country, while making little dent in the overall spending.

In total, the budget decreases discretionary spending from $1.17 trillion to $1.15 trillion, shifting priorities while reducing spending 1.2 percent.

North Dakota’s congressional delegation says they are open to some parts of the budget, but worry that other cuts will hurt residents here.

Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-Bismarck, said he believes the budget's focus on national defense reflects high constitutional priorities. Though concerned about some cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget, he says other cuts, including those to subsidized rural air travel, are warranted. And he’s cheering for 31 percent cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven said he was glad to see more military and veterans affairs spending, but wants to make significant changes to the USDA budget.

“Ag is doing our part to help reduce the deficit,” he said of cuts in the Farm Bill passed in 2014. “This is a real tough time in agriculture, so we need to be supporting our farmers and ranchers.”

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she’s worried the budget does not prioritize rural America, even though Trump campaigned on helping these less-populated regions.

“At the end of the day, the budget is really a blueprint. It really is a priorities document, and I’m disappointed that there wasn’t greater priority placed to rural America,” Heitkamp said.

“What it did is it plussed-up budgets for the military and for the VA and for the DHS, and then found those savings in other discretionary spending,” she said. “I think it was just a transfer, and that tells you how significant those other budgets are compared to a lot of these programs.”

Below, a look at some of the programs in North Dakota that would be affected under Trump’s proposed budget. This is by no means a final picture of budgeting for next year.

“The actual budget we live on starts in the House,” Cramer said.

#1: Legal Services of North Dakota would see funding cut in half

The only organization in the state that provides free legal services to low-income and elderly people could lose almost half its funding, $750,000, under the Trump budget, which eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Legal Services of North Dakota provides attorneys to 5,000 to 5,500 people yearly. Often they help out with divorce, child custody, power of attorney and evictions for people who couldn’t otherwise afford a lawyer.

“Undoubtedly, it would have an effect on our direct services,” said the group's executive director, Richard LeMay, adding that he would need to reduce the 24-person staff. “We couldn’t absorb that kind of a cut.”

#2: Prairie Public might have to reduce programming, staff

Public radio and television in North Dakota would likely have to reduce the quality of its programming and educational services were the budget go through. That’s because about 15 percent of the yearly budget comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an agency Trump wants to eliminate.

Prairie Public, the North Dakota affiliate, received about $1.6 million of its $8.6 million budget from CPB in 2016.

“It’s key money,” said CEO John Harris, who indicated that cuts would hurt his ability to buy programming, such as Lawrence Welk and Masterpiece Theater, and force him to lay off staff. 

The public media outlet reaches about 100,000 people weekly on TV and 20,000 weekly on the radio across 98 percent of the state.

“There is no real replacement for this money,” Harris said.

#3: Households could go cold in the winter

A program that helped 12,265 households in the state pay for heating last year is on the chopping block. Trump has proposed to eliminate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program in the 2018 budget. According to the North Dakota Department of Human Services, families qualify based on the number of people living in the home, combined income, assets and type of fuel. Last year, North Dakota homes received a total of $19.4 million with an average of $651 per family assisted.

#4: Rural airports to lose subsidies

Trump’s budget would end a program to subsidize airports in Dickinson, Devils Lake and Jamestown.

Kelly Braun, Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional airport director, said that losing the Essential Air Program would create a “real risk of those communities losing commercial service.”

“The loss of commercial services would have a huge impact on business in southwest North Dakota,” Braun said.

Each year, the program gives $4.2 million to the Dickinson airport, $4 million to Devils Lake and $2.8 million to Jamestown, according to Heitkamp’s office.

Braun said the subsidies were a “safety net” after the oil boom went bust and boardings dropped from 60,000 yearly to 16,000 yearly, which is still up substantially from the 9,000 number pre-boom. At that rate, the federal government subsidizes flights at about $250 per passenger.

Though Heitkamp has criticized the cuts, Cramer questions whether the subsidies are worth it.

“If single-digit numbers of people are getting on airplanes … It tells me there is not a whole lot of demand for it,” Cramer said. “When you’re setting priorities in a $20 trillion deficit, I can’t find myself being hypercritical of that.”

#5: ‘Veteran’s Choice’ program could become permanent

Trump is asking for legislative authority to put in stone a program that allows veterans to access care near them, a program that has been improving for rural North Dakotans.

The budget proposal asks congress to approve $3.5 billion in spending for the Veterans Choice Program. Under the program, people who would need to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs facility can have doctor’s appointments in their own community.

A pilot program in North Dakota allows veterans to call in to the Fargo facility, where staff schedule their medical appointments in their own communities. Ross Tweten, public affairs office for the Fargo VA, said the pilot program combined with Veterans Choice has become well-liked in the state after a rocky start.

“Now when we’re doing town hall and engaging with the community, veterans are giving a lot of positive feedback about the choice program and about our pilot,” Tweten said.

#6: Schools could lose after school programs, see increased class sizes

About $9 billion in proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of Education would affect North Dakota schoolchildren and their parents.

Trump wants to eliminate 21st century community learning grants that fund afterschool programs across the state to the tune of $5 million.

Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the cut would be a “big hit to our programming, especially in our small rural schools and even in our large schools.”

The cuts also would eliminate $10 million in Title II funding, which has in recent years allowed North Dakota schools to reduce class sizes, according to Baesler.

The budget also shifts $1.4 billion in funds to school choice programs. Baesler said she was reassured by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that the state could maintain control over how the funds would be used.

#7: Universities could lose health and medical research dollars

The University of North Dakota relies heavily on funding from the National Institutes of Health, whose budget Trump wants to reduce from $31.7 billion to $25.9 billion.

“A cut in that would be felt right here in North Dakota,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, dean of UND’s School of Medical and Health Sciences.

Wynne said nearly 25 percent of the school’s budget comes from NIH, and the dollars have funded research, including for eating disorders and Alzheimer’s disease. With one of the oldest populations in the country, Wynne argued that research needs to happen here.

“Research pays big dividends, and that’s why we really shouldn’t allow this roller coaster of funding. This is really important to North Dakotans, because it impacts their health,” Wynne said.

#8: Cuts to Environmental Protection Agency

The Trump budget suggests cutting $2.6 billion, or 31 percent, of the EPA’s budget, to include defunding the Clean Power Plan and reducing funds for the Office of Research and Development by $223 million, or about half.

Heitkamp, who has opposed the Clean Power Plan, said she worries that cuts to research will hurt North Dakotans.

“It just seems like they really hacked away at the innovation budget, which is exactly the wrong direction, given the challenges that we’re facing,” Heitkamp said. “We know that we can develop technologies that will make coal utilization a clean source of energy, we just need time and we need a little bit of help, and it doesn’t look like there’s help coming in that budget.”

Cramer said he’s glad to see cuts to that agency, but hopes the cuts will be in the enforcement area.

“The EPA has been public enemy No. 1,” Cramer said.

#9: Defense spending could trickle into North Dakota

The Trump budget calls for a $52 billion increase in defense spending, which focuses on battle readiness.

Though the budget lacks specifics, Cramer said he is hopeful some of the money will lead to investments in the U.S. Air Force bases in Minot and Grand Forks.

“I have no doubt that it will be very beneficial to all the states that have big installations,” Cramer said.

Heitkamp said she is glad to see money for modernization in the budget.

“That will be very important, I think the president has persuaded that we need to modernize our nuclear deterrent,” Heitkamp said.

Though Trump talks about nuclear defense in the budget, Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that probably won’t affect North Dakota yet. The biggest spending around nuclear defense in North Dakota isn’t expected until the late 2020s or early 2030s, when the intercontinental ballistic missiles are scheduled for replacement.

#10: Rural development programs could lose funds

Some projects that benefit rural North Dakotans would be pulled back under the Trump budget, something that has raised varied levels of concern among all of the congressional delegation.

The USDA is asked to $4.7 billion or 21 percent of its budget. That includes eliminating the rural water and wastewater development program that made eight loans worth a total of $16 million and 10 grants worth $8.1 million to North Dakota projects in 2016. Cuts would also likely reduce staffing for some county offices.

Trump called the water program “duplicative” and argued these communities could be served through private financing and other federal grants. Cramer agrees, saying these federal funds are a small part of the state’s investment in water infrastructure.

But Eric Volk, executive director of the North Dakota Rural Water Systems Association, considers the funds vital.

Last year, the program helped finance water supply to Kathryn and southeast North Dakota and build dikes and lagoons near Oakes. Volk said there are 16 more projects in the backlog for federal funding.

“Many of these communities in the backlog simply cannot afford private sector financing at the present terms and rates and will not be able to expand/upgrade for business expansion, housing, new users, etc.,” Volk said in an email.

“When you have to build infrastructure, but you don’t have the population to spread it over, in terms of recovery for revenue, you need a little assistance,” Heitkamp said. “And that’s what this is intended to do: maintain rural communities and maintain rural areas and populations so we can continue to produce what we produce.”

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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