The NC Rural Center reacted favorably to the State Budget signed into law Thursday, November 18, citing numerous wins for the 78 rural counties in our state. The Center particularly highlights the allocations that will expand rural broadband availability, incentivize healthcare providers to practice in rural regions, make historic investments in water/wastewater grant programs, fund and stabilize the small business sector, and increase funding for workforce housing, as a part of their 2021 Rural Counts Advocacy Priorities.
“As the state’s rural economic development leader, we are really pleased to see our policymaker’s commitment to top priorities for rural residents in this year’s budget,” said NC Rural Center President Patrick Woodie. “Prioritizing important and key issues like broadband accessibility, healthcare incentivization, and small business funding will have a direct and long-lasting impact on the quality of life of our constituents across the state.”
Key wins for rural communities are identified by the Center as follows:
- Broadband: $15 million allocated for 25 rural Community Colleges, and about $1 billion in federal funding to expand broadband availability, and establish the Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) grants program, as well as funding of broadband mapping, a digital literacy campaign, and more.
- Healthcare: $4 million to incentivize providers to practice in rural regions through the Rural Health Loan Assistance program; $5 million for the federal Small Rural Hospital Improvement Program; and about $9 million for rural health infrastructure projects.
- Water/Wastewater: More than $1 billion in historic investments in water/wastewater grant programs thanks to federal American Rescue Plan Act funds; the largest investment in water systems since the 1998 Clean Water Bond.
- Small Business: $120.5 million in a second round of funding for the State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) (an initiative first established by the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 and funded by the U.S. Department of the Treasury that has since been managed by the NC Rural Center); a $5 million Capacity Building grant program for Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs); and $3 million in nonrecurring funding in 2021-2022 and $2 million recurring in each fiscal year for the One North Carolina Small Business Program.
- Housing: $170 million for the Workforce Housing Loan Program, which assists with “gap financing” of the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit.
As encouraging as these investments in rural infrastructure and development are, the Center also lifts up the continued needs that did not appear in the final State Budget that were a part of their 2021 Rural Counts Advocacy Priorities, particularly broadband affordability, closing the health insurance coverage gap, small business truth in financing, and increased funding specifically for rural housing development.
“While we are encouraged by the budget and commitment to rural priorities, there is always more work to do,” said Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy Brandy Bynum Dawson. “Our state’s rural residents continue to need support, particularly in the areas of broadband affordability and adoption, small business truth in financing, and fully closing the health insurance coverage gap, and our team will continue to work with legislators toward this support.”
Key continued needs for rural communities are identified by the Center as follows:
- Broadband: Affordability implementation for low- and moderate-income households and ensuring that unserved and underserved rural communities have the capacity to take maximum advantage of the broadband programs being funded at the state and federal level.
- Healthcare: Allowing health providers to work within their full scope of practice and fully closing the health insurance coverage gap, as well as assisting communities in addressing social determinants of health.
- Water/Wastewater: Continued work to implement the infrastructure, organizational, and financial management recommendations detailed in the 2017 State Water Infrastructure Authority Master Plan.
- Small Business: Support for the Small Business Truth in Financing Act, which requires non-bank commercial lenders to provide disclosures of the financing costs of their products; as well as continued support of the state’s robust network of small business resource providers, especially those that focus on unserved and underserved small business owners and entrepreneurs.
- Housing: Increased funding for the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund from its current $7 million to $15 million, as well address critical rural housing stock and other needs.
The NC Rural Center’s Advocacy Program, Rural Counts, thanks state legislators and the Governor for their commitment to rural communities, and will continue to work with advocates and policymakers toward enhanced rural support in the sessions to come.