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Trump budget cuts: North Country program faces ax

By: Kevin Landrigan

Union Leader

PLYMOUTH - President Donald Trump's budget outline last week put many popular federal spending programs affecting New Hampshire on the chopping block, and among the most vulnerable may be one that promotes trade, tourism and job creation in the Granite State's northernmost regions.

The $7 million Northern Border Regional Commission for New Hampshire and three other Canadian border states hardly is a federal budget-buster.

But it underscores the dilemma facing Trump as he tries to negotiates a final, fiscally-conservative budget on Capitol Hill.

In the name of eliminating "duplicative" or even under-performing programs, can he afford to alienate the very voters who helped deliver his stunning victory last November - those living in rural counties in key states?

Trump narrowly lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton but he was the first Republican presidential hopeful in 28 years to take Coos County.

Most recent grants in 2016 coming from this commission range from a walking trail along the Androscoggin River in Berlin to infrastructure needed to finally bring jobs back to a Northumberland paper mill closed a decade ago.

"President Trump campaigned on the promise that he would look out for those in rural, economically-disadvantaged areas like the North Country, but instead, his budget proposal stabs them in the back," said Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield.

"Instead of supporting efforts to bring new jobs to the North Country, his budget puts corporate special interests ahead of the hard-working people of New Hampshire."

But the state director of Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally-conservative group, said no one should be surprised Trump came out wielding the budget-cutting knife on domestic programs that are staples for the liberal Democratic base in Congress.

"We're still going through the numbers and haven't formed a position yet on Trump's budget, but it's predictable in order to increase spending for the military and homeland security as Trump has, he was going to reduce spending on programs that Democrats have always championed," said Greg Moore.

Trump's $1.1 trillion budget only covers discretionary spending - about a third of the total - and makes significant cuts to finance that $52 billion increase on defense and homeland security. It doesn't spell out spending on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid or contain estimates for federal revenue, interest on debt or deficits.

Trump's budget eliminates 62 programs and agencies, many that have offered federal support for decades. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is surely the most visible one in New Hampshire since it has supplied $25 million to help nearly 28,000 citizens in the previous year.

But there's also the Community Development Block Grant program, or CDBG, that in 2014 gave the state $8.7 million for a variety of programs from upgrading sidewalks and child care centers to supplemental support for Meals on Wheels for senior citizens.

In Manchester alone, those grants in 2015 supported 13 different areas from tree planting and municipal infrastructure to fighting crime and treating abused and neglected children.

Mayor Ted Gatsas noted in his proposed budget last month that community block grants, if they remain, would support the Boys & Girls Club, City Year, Meals on Wheels program, the Girls at Work "Build Me Up" program, the Granite United Way BRING IT program and the Queen City Bike Collective.

Trump said the Community Development Block Grant program has spent more than the taxpayer has gotten back in lasting benefits.

"The Federal government has spent over $150 billion on this block grant since its inception in 1974, but the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results," the Trump budget said. "The budget devolves community and economic development activities to the state and local level..."

Moore said LIHEAP, CDBG and other longtime programs have built-in constituencies that cross partisan lines, and Trump has to know some of these cuts could be pared back as part of the horse trading that takes place putting every budget together.

"It's the art of the deal right," Moore said alluding to Trump's best-selling book. "He allows Senate and House Republicans to add back some of the spending they want most as long as they can pay for it elsewhere and they look like heroes to the voters."

The Northern Border Regional Commission, however, and 18 others eliminated in Trump's budget are stand-alone programs not attached to any federal agency.

These independent programs include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Arts, two perennial favorite targets for conservatives.

Trump-state commissions 

But there's also the Northern Border Regional Commission and two others like it created by Congress for the federal government to be a partner with states, towns and private investors to bring jobs and tourists to economically-disadvantaged parts of the country.

The NRBC includes Coos, Carroll and parts of Grafton and Sullivan Counties of New Hampshire along with the northern border regions of Vermont, Maine and New York. Trump lost all those states but won all the Maine counties served by this program and nearly all those in New York.

There's also the Appalachian Regional Commission that supports activities in 13 states, including three critical to Trump's victory, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina. The third is the Delta Regional Authority based in eight Southern and Midwestern states, all of which Trump won except for Illinois.

The Obama administration's 2008 Farm Bill created the Northern Border Regional Commission and, unlike many federal programs, every supported project requires a match based on the economics of that county.

In poorer Coos County, the non-federal support need is only 20 percent; in wealthier, Grafton County it's at least 50 percent of the total cost.

"One of the unique benefits is it has been able to be very versatile and has to be because it leverages other investments brought to the table to make a project work," said Resources and Economic Development Commissioner Jeff Rose.

A $250,000 grant in 2016 helped convince Northumberland voters to approve another $400,000 to build water and sewer improvements to the former Wausau Mill property that closed its doors in 2007.

And last fall, NSA Industries, a Vermont-based, metal fabricating company brought 60 workers and signed a long-term lease to the Chapman industrial park that sits on the site of the former mill.

"There were a lot of partners to make this happen but the commission's role was pivotal," Rose said. "Now that we have one tenant, others have been looking at that site and there's real optimism going forward."

Over the past two years, the commission has backed two business incubators, the Enterprise Center in Plymouth and the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center in Lebanon.

Business Incubators 

Chris Wellington, chief executive officer of the Grafton Regional Development Corp., said the Plymouth project would never have gotten off the ground in 2013 without the commission and in 2015 it supported 41 full-time and 15 part-time jobs at 12 businesses.

A $45,000 grant for the Dartmouth-linked incubator helped connect two buildings and convince one company, Avitide, not to leave but to remain in the region and to expand.

"This funding as menial as it sounds makes a huge impact," Wellington said. "One of the great things about this program is its flexibility, we can accept the grant and then go after the rest of the match and not have to have it all up front."

This model allowed a $250,000 grant as the stake to the $11.3 million needed to build 52 units of affordable, permanent housing for veterans in Plymouth.

Soldier On which operates a continuum of veteran housing is committed to opening by the spring of 2018.

The state's all-Democratic congressional delegation vows it will do all it can to preserve this program which has faced elimination in years past from the Republican-led US House of Representatives.

"President Trump's proposed elimination of the Northern Border Regional Commission is mindless and ignores the economic needs of Northern New Hampshire," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH.

"I will fight this in the Senate to ensure his administration doesn't take New Hampshire's rural economy backward."

But survival for this commission and the two others could depend on how hard Republican governors go to the mat for them in this case Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and Paul LePage in Maine.

Like Trump, Sununu won Coos Country - the first Republican for governor to do so since 2002.

Sununu's office did not respond to a request for comment.

"Throughout the Northeast when you've got Republicans like Susan Collins in Maine openly defying this president, a lot of these programs could rise and fall on whether the Republican in that state's corner office decides to make a stand for them," Moore added.