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Senator: Delay ERS, NIFA Move 07/18 14:01

   Majority of Employees Indicate Desire to Stay in Washington

   A member of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday urged President 
Donald Trump's administration to allow employees at two agencies more time to 
make a move to Kansas City.

By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

   OMAHA (DTN) -- So far, most employees at the Economic Research Service and 
the National Institute for Food and Agriculture are not making the move to 
Kansas City as part a reorganization.

   As a result, some members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are raising 
concerns about what may be a daunting task in replacing those employees in 
addition to filling already-vacant positions in the agency.

   The primary concern is that a so-called brain drain from the two federal 
agencies will hurt the future of agriculture research.

   Following USDA's June 13 announcement of the move to Kansas City, it was 
expected that more than 500 NIFA and ERS jobs would move from Washington, D.C. 
Multiple press reports this week, however, show a small percentage of those 
employees are making the move to Kansas City. Employees at the agencies had 
until midnight on July 15 to accept or decline relocation. ERS and NIFA 
employees have until Sept. 30 to make the move to Kansas City.

   Scott Hutchins, the agriculture deputy undersecretary for research, 
education and economics at USDA, told the committee during a hearing on 
Thursday the agency is doing all it can to make sure continuity of services is 
maintained during the move.

   Hutchins said USDA believes the move will benefit agriculture research in 
the long term, and is good for agriculture as a whole.

   "Potential savings will allow more funding for research of critical needs 
like rural prosperity and agricultural competitiveness, and for programs and 
employees to be retained in the long run, especially in the face of tightening 
budgets," he said.

   "As a result of this move, no ERS or NIFA employee will be involuntarily 
separated. Every employee who wants to continue working in their position will 
have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location 
for most."

   Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., questioned why President Donald Trump's 
administration is giving NIFA and ERS workers a short period of time to make 
the move, when needed facilities are not going to be available in Kansas City 
for some time.

   A number of experts from the agencies could be retained, she said, if USDA 
gave employees flexibility to continue working in Washington, D.C., until a 
permanent location is ready in Kansas City.

   Stabenow suggested the administration could extend the deadline for 
researchers to decide whether they will leave their jobs or relocate.

   "Instead, the administration is forcing out its employees with rushed and 
politically calculated ultimatums designed to derail important agricultural 
research," she said.

   "This relocation fits a troubling pattern of this administration undermining 
the important work of the USDA, including critical research our farmers need to 
address the impacts of the severe weather caused by the changing climate. 
Congress has resoundingly rejected multiple budget proposals that would have 
cut USDA economic research by 50%."

   Stabenow said the administration was undermining the need for expanded 
agriculture research, and the usually bipartisan support for agriculture 
research may be in jeopardy.

   "Unfortunately, the bipartisan commitment to agricultural research, which 
started over 150 years ago, is at risk," she said.

   "The administration's haphazard decision to relocate two critically 
important research institutions -- the Economic Research Service and the 
National Institute of Food and Agriculture -- will affect real people who rely 
on USDA services and hamper its capacity to support farmers, families, and 
rural communities for years to come. And for what? It is still unclear to me 
what problem the USDA is trying to solve with this move."

   Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the move to the Midwest makes sense 
considering USDA's mission.

   "It makes sense to me in the middle of the bread basket," he said. "Can we 
lower the cost of operation in a place like that? I'm almost certain it will be 
lower cost than in D.C."

   A USDA cost-benefit analysis estimated the move would save $300 million 
during a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent, or about $20 million 
per year.

   USDA said state and local governments offered a relocation package totaling 
more than $26 million.

   Stabenow and other Democrats on the committee questioned whether USDA has 
necessary funds and authority to make the move, suggesting the Trump 
administration is attempting to "go around Congress" to make cuts to USDA 
research. 

   "It's clear to me that this is not a relocation," Stabenow said. "It's a 
demolition. It's a thinly-veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA 
employees and bypass the intent of Congress. I urge the administration to stop 
this and salvage what valuable expertise is left. This decision does far more 
than hurt USDA employees. If this chaotic plan is not stopped, our farmers, 
families, and rural communities will be the ones that suffer the most in the 
long run."

   Hutchins said USDA believes locating ERS and NIFA to Kansas City will allow 
the agencies to take advantage of regional talent.

   "We believe this decision will improve USDA's future ability to attract and 
consistently retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in 
agriculture from numerous land-grant universities to complement the current 
talented staff, to place these important USDA resources closer to many of our 
stakeholders and to benefit the American taxpayer," he said.

   Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

   Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

    


(BAS/CZ)

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