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Urban-rural divide exists in budgets

Published on July 8, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on August 5, 2011 8:38AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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On the federal level it is no secret that rural interests are often shoved aside as urban members of Congress tap the federal budget for their priorities.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget is dedicated mostly to urban programs such as food stamps, school lunches and nutrition. "Flyover land" is usually "left-out land" when it comes to the federal budget.

On the state level, the same phenomenon exists. When legislators sit down to cut their state budgets, look for rural programs to take the first hit. It's not that legislators don't like rural areas. They often profess their love for open spaces and the American Gothic vision of rural life.

But legislators are also pragmatic. They take care of the areas where the most votes are, and rural zip codes need not apply.

As a result, rural areas are often shortchanged. While lawmakers can't spend enough money on urban "needs" they treat rural areas as an afterthought, mainly because they are.

In Washington state, the Domestic Development and Economic Development Division of the state Department of Agriculture ceased to exist last Friday as a result of legislative cuts. It's not that the division did a bad job; quite the contrary. Many people inside and outside state government liked the job the division's employees did.

But when it came time to divvy up the general fund, that division's budget lost out.

This is not unique to Washington state. These days rural programs -- particularly those related to agriculture -- are being cut off from the state general funds, which include revenue that is not earmarked. Instead they must rely on fees farmers, ranchers, processors and others must pay.

It's not that urban-dominated legislatures don't like agriculture. It's just that many members have other priorities for the general fund. By levying fees on farmers to support ag-related programs, they can use general funds for their priorities.

In Oregon, for example, nearly every ag-related fee increased this legislative session. The same has happened in California and other states.

Which brings up a point. If farmers have to pay fees to support nonmandatory programs, why do they need the state to act as a middleman? If legislators want to wean agriculture off general funds for nonmandatory programs, maybe agriculture should wean itself off state government.

There is no arguing that some regulatory programs need to be operated by state government. Licensing and inspections, water rights, brand inspections and other functions must be carried out to meet state or federal requirements.

But other functions could be run with less overhead by private operators. After all, one of the problems state budget writers have is the high cost of public employees compared with private sector employees. An estimated 80 percent of any government budget goes to salaries and fringe benefits.

Beyond budget matters, other issues raise deeper questions. Washington's Domestic Marketing and Economic Development Division was created in 2005 to help small small-farm operators deal with state and federal regulations and find markets. To do that, employees of the division coordinated their efforts with the Washington State University Extension Service, counties and nonprofit organizations.

Some questions:

* If regulations are so difficult to cope with that a whole state division is required to help farmers, aren't the regulations the problem? Shouldn't they be fixed first?

* Why not just hand over the division's responsibilities -- and budget -- to WSU Extension or private nonprofit groups already in existence?

Or even more to the point, was the division needed at all? Many resources are now available to small farmers that weren't around five years ago. In the nonprofit sector, the number of organizations that work with new farmers continues to blossom.

Governments at the local, state and federal level are loaded with programs and regulations that legislators adopted in good faith to meet a perceived need. Over time, though, the need is often met through outside efforts or ceases to exist, but the programs linger, along with the cost.

At the same time, other programs are initiated in other departments that duplicate efforts. The result is over-priced governmental overkill.

We're not against government. Providing for public safety, highways, public accommodations, needed regulation and certain other functions such as education are on government's job description.

But in some areas, high-priced government has intruded into businesses and personal lives -- and sent the bill to the public in the form of taxes and fees.

If the slogan of government these days is to cut the budget because the revenues just aren't there, that's fine. But budget writers must also rethink how the budget is allocated and which services government should provide.


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