Economic PolicyEconomy

The Distressing Case Of The Delta Regional Authority

By now you’ve probably heard about President Donald Trump’s proposed budget. Among other things, it would abolish funding for the Delta Regional Authority (DRA).

The DRA is an government agency (funded, of course, by federal taxpayer dollars) that services eight states, including parts of Arkansas. It was established in 2000.

Although funding for the DRA was included in legislation that funds the federal government through September, questions about whether the DRA is an effective use of taxpayer resources remain.

It might come as no surprise to you that Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the DRA, thinks it’s doing a fine job.

Masingill said last month in a statement:

Since being created by Congress in 2000, DRA has been the leading advocate for supporting job creation, building communities, and improving lives across the eight states and 252 counties and parishes we serve in the Mississippi River Delta region and the Black Belt of Alabama.

Amy Fecher, deputy director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), testified before a federal House Appropriations subcommittee in support of keeping the DRA’s funding intact.

Fecher said:

DRA’s primary goal is to help bring economic prosperity to one of the most distressed areas in the country. It is a successful model of public-private partnerships…and I urge you to continue funding DRA so it can continue to make strategic investments in infrastructure, businesses and family in the Delta region.

While these are all laudable goals, it’s reasonable for taxpayers to ask if they’re receiving a good return on investment on the millions in federal funds given to the DRA since 2000.

If you believe the region that the DRA services should be exhibiting economic progress, you’re in for a disappointment.

According to its fiscal year 2016 report, 20 counties have gone from non-distressed to distressed in one year within the DRA’s service area. By comparison, only two counties improved from distressed to non-distressed.

The DRA defines “distressed” as a county that has an unemployment rate one point above the national average, or a per capita income of 80 percent or less than the national per capita income.

One might also wonder, after looking at a summary of DRA projects funded in 2016, if the DRA actually knows where “the Delta” is located. For example, Mountain View received $200,000 from the DRA to help a boat company expand. I do not have a position on whether the project is worthwhile — and I do not want to single out Mountain View — but I doubt that most Arkansans would consider Mountain View a part of the Delta, even though it’s in the DRA’s service area.

All in all, about half of the DRA’s expenditures in 2016 went to areas such as Mountain View, Little Rock, and Bull Shoals — which aren’t even in the Delta.

The DRA seems to be an example of a government institution whose continued failure justifies its own existence. Federal lawmakers should look at more cost-effective ways of promoting economic opportunity in the Delta region, rather than continuing to throw tens of millions of dollars every year at the DRA.

A spokesman for the DRA did not return a request for comment.

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