House Unveils 2024 Farm Bill Boosting Rural Broadband and Healthcare

Rural America faces a unique set of challenges, including geographic isolation and a declining population. To address these issues, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established over 70 programs through its Rural Development agency. These programs are largely shaped by the Rural Development Title of the Farm Bill, an omnibus bill renewed approximately every five years. The current Farm Bill, known as The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, is set to expire at the end of Fiscal Year 2024. As a result, new proposals for the 2024 Farm Bill are being debated in both the House and Senate, each offering different visions for rural development.

On May 17, 2024, House Committee on Agriculture Chair G.T. Thompson (R-PA) introduced the “Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024.” This proposal, which passed the committee with bipartisan support, aims to address several critical areas in rural development. One of the standout features is the integration of the ReConnect Program into the Farm Bill Broadband Program, creating the ReConnect Rural Broadband Program. This initiative is slated to receive $350 million annually for five years, raising the minimum eligibility speeds to 50/25 Mbps to make more rural areas eligible for loans and grants. Other broadband programs, such as the Middle Mile Program and Community Connect Program, are also set for reauthorization.

The House proposal goes beyond broadband to tackle precision agriculture, rural healthcare, and workforce challenges. It aims to establish a federal-private sector partnership to create standards for precision agriculture and prioritize cybersecurity needs. Moreover, the proposal reauthorizes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Task Force for Reviewing Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture for another year. In healthcare, the bill codifies the Rural Hospital Technical Assistance Program and provides refinancing opportunities for certain healthcare facilities. It also prioritizes projects that offer substance use disorders treatment through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program and Community Facilities Program.

Additionally, the House bill introduces a three-year rural childcare initiative and requires an evaluation of the program upon its completion. Workforce challenges are addressed by reauthorizing the Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) Grant Program, which aims to build workforce pipelines for specific industry sectors in rural America. Essential services are also a focus, with reauthorizations for the Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program and the Rural Energy Savings Program.

On the Senate side, Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) released a framework proposal on May 1, 2024, titled the “Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act.” While the Senate Majority’s proposal does not contain bill text, it offers a section-by-section framework. Similar to the House proposal, it addresses rural broadband access by establishing a version of the ReConnect Program for areas where at least 75% of households lack broadband service of at least 100-Mbps/20-Mbps. The framework also reauthorizes several other broadband programs and prioritizes substance use disorder treatment projects.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate Majority framework does not specifically mention a three-year rural childcare initiative but does mandate the prioritization of childcare projects. It also requires the publication of a resource guide for rural stakeholders to improve access to childcare facilities. Essential services are addressed through reauthorizations of various water and waste disposal programs and the introduction of the Healthy Drinking Water Affordability Assistance Program to tackle water contaminants like PFAS.

Economic development is another key focus, with reauthorizations for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program and the creation of the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan and Grant Program. The framework also establishes the Rural Partnership Program, receiving $50 million annually to coordinate partnerships and investments in rural communities.

As the debate continues, these proposals highlight the critical issues facing rural America and the diverse approaches lawmakers are taking to address them. The final shape of the 2024 Farm Bill will significantly impact the future of rural development in the United States.

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