The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Please Urge Your US Senators to Vote AT LEAST $12 Million for the DRA Budget

Posted on July 01, 2008 at 05:13 PM

Please contact and urge your US Senators to vote for at least $12 million for the Delta Regional Authority budget appropriation this year. As has happened every year for the past several years, the House of Representatives voted only $6 million, which is the same amount President Bush requested. Every year the past three years the Senate has doubled that amount to $12 million, which is the figure that has ultimately prevailed. Many Senators and Representatives supported an increase to $30 million, and that would be a far better result–but it would be an absolute travesty if Congress and President Bush actually cut the budget this year.

RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS VOTE IS WITH BOTH DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS: In keeping with our bipartisan policy of criticizing both parties equally when the merits justify it, we need to state the facts: both the Democratic majority on the House Appropriations Committee and the Bush administration are at fault in having supported the same pathetic amount of $6 million for the DRA main pot of funding in the energy and water bill. This would cut the budget in half. This is unacceptable and you should say so in no uncertain terms to your Congressional offices.

Please contact your Senators especially, because the Senators are the ones who need to make sure the Senate figure is again AT LEAST $12 million. Many of them said they supported a budget increase to $30 million, and that is what ought to be done. But if they cannot at least keep the budget where it is now at approximately $12 million, then all their promises to us that they support the DRA are meaningless. They only respond to the squeaky wheel.

In addition to the $12 million in the energy and water bill, DRA also gets $3 million through Rural Development, and an additional $8 to $10 million in transportation projects are channeled to the DRA region. The energy and water bill pot of funding is the most important part of the funding issues related to the DRA.

HOUSE COMMITTEE LANGUAGE IS ERRONEOUS: the House committee added harsh and inaccurate language erroneously criticizing the DRA, based on a letter from one Member of Congress in Mississippi, Rep. Bennie Thompson. As a matter of fact, more than 93% of DRA funding has gone to economically distressed counties.

VAST MAJORITY OF MEMBERS OF CONGRESS SUPPORT THE DRA: The vast majority of the members of both House and Senate are supportive of the DRA.

Rep. Thompson was understandably upset that his district did not get funding from the DRA in 2007, but the decisions on which funding applications are funded are made by the governors, and NOT the DRA staff, which can only determine which projects are eligible or not. If Rep. Thompson has a complaint, it should have been directed to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

It should also be noted that Rep. Thompson’s district received the lion’s share of funding from the DRA over the years from 2002 to 2007–Thompson received $4.96 million for 34 projects, Rep. Chip Pickering received $2.527 million for 13 projects in his district, and former Rep. (now Senator) Roger Wicker received $250,000 for four projects in his district. It does appear unfortunate that Rep. Thompson did not receive any funding for 2007, but in fairness that fact should be placed in the overall context of the reality that Rep. Thompson’s district received almost twice as much funding as any other Mississippi Congressional district over the course of the DRA’s short history thus far.

The current DRA funding from the energy and water bill is almost $12 million. We will also need to contact US Representatives, because in the ultimate decision from both houses we need to make sure the Senate figure again prevails. The final decision will probably be made after the election in November. Right now we need to make sure that the DRA budget at least stays at the current $12 million.

You might also tell them that partisan hostility against Pete Johnson, the Republican appointee who heads the DRA, is detrimental to the best interests of the poor people in the Mississippi Delta. We do not wish to get into the longstanding political differences among these gentlemen, but if Rep. Thompson has a complaint he should present it to Gov. Barbour, who is the one who made the decision in 2007 to not fund any DRA applications in Rep. Thompson’s district, and not the people throughout the Delta by adding this harsh langague in the appropriations bill.

While Rep. Thompson’s office said they were not in favor of slashing the budget in half, unfortunately this is an odd comment, because the House appropriations committee voted only $6 million for the DRA last week. Thompson is not a member of the Appropriations Committee, but the harsh language was added at his request.

IT IS THE GOVERNORS OF THE EIGHT STATES WHO DECIDE WHICH APPLICATIONS FOR FUNDING GET APPROVED, NOT THE TINY DRA STAFF LED BY PETE JOHNSON AND REX NELSON. You need to understand that Congressman Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, has longstanding political differences with the Republicans in Mississippi, and we do not wish to get into trying to say who is right or wrong in those political differences. But those differences are complicating matters for supporting the development of our region.

We can well understand that Rep. Thompson would be concerned about the 2007 funding decisions, since his district makes up the largest part of the DRA area in Mississippi. It would be preferable if such a large district would not go without any funding in a given year. In fact there are many people who believe the DRA needs to have its statute revised to reduce the domination of the governors in the decision-making process.

OVER 93.3% oF ALL DRA FEDERAL GRANT FUNDING HAS GONE TO ECONOMICALLY DISTRESSED COUNTIES. The DRA has sent its tiny funding to the most distressed areas. Within the states, the governors decide which of the distressed counties gets the tiny amount of available funding. That is the issue in Mississippi.

CONGRESSMAN BERRY SAID HE IS COMFORTABLE WITH THE STEPS THE DRA TOOK TO ADDRESS HIS CONCERNS ABOUT ADMINISTRATIVE SPENDING–You should know that Congressman Berry said he was comfortable with the actions the DRA took since he expressed concern about their administrative spending last year. It is Rep. Thompson who is criticizing the DRA.

But the Congress can come up with at least $12 million if they want to–as a matter of fact they could easily come up with $30 million if they wanted to, because that is the tiniest drop in the bucket of the federal government’s budget. As Rep. Davis said, it’s a question of priorities, and they can fund something if they want to, and if they hear loudly enough from their constituents, they will act accordingly.

In fairness to Gov. Barbour, his office indicated that there were objective problems with some of the local funding applications from Rep. Thompson’s district, such as asking for very large amounts of money. These applications are made by the local development districts, and naturally some local districts do a better job than others in crafting their funding applications. With the limited budget, applications that ask for more modest sums are much more likely to be approved, according to Barbour’s office. They also said that a couple of the projects from other districts that were approved had the merit of large local contributions to go along with the DRA federal funding, and that is understandly looked upon favorably in the application process.

NEED TO REVISE THE DRA STATUTE–Many people have suggested that Congress should revise this process so that local, federal and state levels have input at the crucial phase of deciding which applications receive funding. The local planning districts are involved in the first phase of putting forth the applications for funding, and the only role of the DRA is just to certify whether the projects are eligible for funding under the statute. The governors are the ones who ultimately decide which projects are funded and which are not.

GOVERNORS SHOULD PLAY A MAJOR ROLE–We fully agree that the governors always have and always should play a major role in the DRA. But if the funding decisions were more of a consensus among federal, local, regional and state levels, it would help the governors, because there would be less complaining about the funding decisions, and there would be far fewer accusations than a particular governor made a particular decision based on favoritism or politics. We are not saying any particular governor is doing this, only that the current process might be fine-tuned and revised.

FUNDING IS SO TINY THAT VERY FEW PROJECTS CAN BE FUNDED–The number one reason that the DRA cannot serve very many distressed communities in the Delta is that they have only the tiniest amount of money. Their federal grant program includes about $8 million annually to serve 240 counties and nine million people. That is a tiny budget for such a huge task.

We understand and agree with Rep. Thompson’s frustration at not receiving any funding at all for this cycle. But he inserted language in the appropriations bill bashing the DRA for allegedly not spending money in distressed counties. Over the region as a whole that is not true, since as we said, over 93% of the funding has gone to economically distressed counties.

We would respectfully submit that a Congressional district as large as Rep. Thompson’s should get at least some modest funding each year. For this district to get zero funding will inevitably raise concerns about the process.

Any Senator or Representative who tells you that Congress doesn’t have the tiny amount of $12 million for the DRA is either misinformed, not being candid, or is under political pressure to say that. As Congressman Artur Davis correctly and wisely said at our conference, any time the Congress or the national administration tells you that there is not enough money for some program, it is FALSE, because they can always find funding for programs they really support. It is a question of priorities.

The figure of $12 million is itseLf pathetic. When Members of Congress tell us how true-blue they are in really going to bat for the DRA, you need to press them much more forcefully on that point. The tiny Denali Commission that serves a few hundred thousand people in one state–and that state is the relatively prosperous state of Alaska–gets approximately $51 million from several different appropriations bills. The impoverished region of parts of eight states and over nine million people gets $12 million. We contacted 31 Congressional offices and 15 Members spoke at our recent conference. Are they so weak and without influence that they cannot even out-compete the one thinly populated state of Alaska for funding?

The Appalachian region is a totally different case, because they are a big, impoverished region that legitimately needs help like the Delta does, and the Appalachian Regional Commission has existed for over 40 years, unlike the relatively new DRA. But they get $73 million through energy and water and over $400 million for their highway program. There is no justification for Appalachia getting almost $500 million and the Delta getting a total of $23 million from three sources, of which the energy and water funding is the most important.

Please contact your Members of Congress, especially your Senators, ASAP, and tell them they ought to increase the funding, but if they cannot keep it at the current level of $12 million, that is unacceptable. Thanks–Lee Riley Powell, Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347