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Secret Sites Are on USDA’s Short List for New Homes of Relocated Agencies

The finalists in Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to move two research agencies out of Washington include “multiple” undisclosed sites in Indiana, a symbol of complaints of hidden motives and scanty material to support the move. Separately, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, a perennial USDA research partner, said it feared relocation would damage the effectiveness of the grant-making National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Perdue announced the finalists as the Kansas City metropolitan area, straddling the Kansas-Missouri border, the Research Triangle around Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina, and multiple sites in Indiana. The vague description of Indiana’s entries, a contrast to the cities or counties named by other sponsors, has appeared throughout the process of winnowing “expressions of interest” into a short list of contenders. The Indiana Economic Development Corp (IEDC) declined on Friday to provide details. Purdue University and the state of Indiana are coapplicants.

“All negotiations are confidential,” said an IEDC spokeswoman. “I’m telling you that’s how it works in Indiana.” Governor Eric Holcomb expressed pleasure that Indiana is on the shortlist to snag “two research divisions … Indiana would be the perfect place for USDA to call home.”

USDA officials have said the new location for the Economic Research Service and NIFA could be made this month, affecting up to 700 employees of the two agencies. Perdue wants to complete the move by the end of this year. Lawmakers suggested a slowdown in the project early this year and requested “a detailed analysis of any research benefits” expected from relocation. The material has yet to be seen, said a congressional staff worker.

An array of agricultural and scientific groups oppose the relocations. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says the hoopla of a national competition for the USDA agencies and the attendant jobs and payrolls disguises a concerted drive by the Trump administration to weaken ERS. The administration would cut ERS staffing in half, cut its funding by 30% and dramatically limit its portfolio to the farm and agricultural sector. At present, ERS analyzes food, natural resources, rural development, and agricultural issues, including USDA programs. When Perdue announced the initiative last August, he also said he would take direct control of ERS, now part of USDA’s research wing.

“Showmanship doesn’t replace substance,” said Mike Lavender of the UCS. “Secretary Perdue’s reality-show-style contest to relocate ERS and NIFA has driven top-notch researchers from the USDA.”

In a letter to Perdue, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) said it was “concerned about the very real potential for significant loss of dedicated staff and institutional memory if a relocation were to move forward … the big and long-term question for APLU has always been whether or how that relocation can be done while maintaining NIFA’s effectiveness and work for science across the federal science agencies.” The NIFA awards more the $1 billion in competitive grants each year.

Opponents hope to stir Congress to block the relocation but the annual USDA funding bill, the obvious vehicle for a prohibition, is unlikely to be approved for months, potentially too late to stop Perdue, who has said the relocation is an internal matter. Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees generally have stayed out of the argument. They gave Perdue a free hand in redrawing the USDA organizational tree in 2017 to create the new subcabinet post of undersecretary for trade. The 2018 farm policy law overruled Perdue on one point. It reestablished the post of undersecretary for rural development; the job was abolished by Perdue to make room for the trade undersecretary.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the committee, asked President Trump on Friday “to quickly nominate a candidate” for undersecretary for rural economic development. “It is essential that a singularly focused leader take the reins of the USDA’s mission area” and its $222-billion loan portfolio, they said, because the USDA often is “the only source of capital for unserved and underserved communities.”

Besides the finalists, the USDA said St. Louis and Madison, Wisconsin, were alternatives if the finalists prove unsatisfactory.

Perdue recently described ERS and NIFA relocation as an economic development project. Usually, the USDA says relocation will save money on salaries and rent, make it easier to recruit employees, and move the agencies closer to “stakeholders.” When the search began, the USDA said small cities were in the mix. As the hunt progressed, attributes such as ease of travel to Washington and hotel space rose in importance.

“Relocation will help ensure USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers,” said Perdue. “Our commitment to the public and our employees is to continue to be transparent as we proceed with our analysis.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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