Protecting County Payments
Unless Congress acts, local governments in Oregon will lose massive amounts of funding. Over $149 million for schools, crime prevention, libraries, and more—funds that are part of a 100-year old promise.
At issue is a program called the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The Act guarantees federal funds to rural counties that used to benefit from timber sales from logging on federal lands. The law expired at the end of 2006, and unless Congress acts, the funds will dry up in the summer of 2007.
How did this happen?
Writing in the Oregonian, a teacher named Edwin Battistella explains it best:
How we got here is a long story. More than half of Oregon is federal land. In the 1860s, the government granted about 4 million acres of Western Oregon forestland to what soon became the Oregon & California Rail Road Co. to promote construction of a rail line from Portland to California. The company managed the land so corruptly that President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, and much of the land was eventually returned to public ownership. The result was that taxable property at the county level was cut nearly in half.
Part of a century-old deal was that logging revenue from this land would be shared by the federal government with local counties. For almost 90 years, timber revenue far outpaced local property taxes in much of rural Oregon. But in the 1990s, timber revenue declined by about 70 percent, and today property taxes are the main source of local revenue. Until this year, however, a remnant of the timber payments continued as safety-net funding for counties under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.
This act was passed at a time when the federal budget had projected surpluses. Now Congress has chosen not to reauthorize it. Of course, it's not just one county in Oregon that will be affected. Altogether, 700 counties in 39 states are facing crises because of the act's demise. But Oregon will be the hardest hit: Last year Oregon counties received more than $149 million; California was second with about $66 million.
What's happening now?
Senator Wyden is standing tall for Oregon. He's going toe-to-toe with the Bush Administration - who want the county payments to end:
"The Administration must understand how vital these funds are for rural communities. Without this funding, children will be denied educational opportunity, rural commerce will suffer and public safety will decline. There is no issue more important to the life and future of rural communities than funding county payments."
Most importantly, Senator Wyden has pulled together a bipartisan coalition of Senators from Western states to co-sponsor a new Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Reauthorization Act of 2007. They include Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Gordon Smith (R-OR), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Jon Tester (D-MT).
Announcing the proposal, Senator Wyden said:
"In 2000, we hailed passage of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act as a victory for rural school children across the country. Today, it is the most important issue facing rural communities in Oregon. We must act now in order to get these counties off the fiscal roller coaster and back to stable funding for schools and public safety."
On March 6, Senator Wyden opened the first hearings in the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Natural Resources - of which he is the chairman. He argued forcefully:
It is important to recognize as we hold today’s hearing, the future of rural communities literally hangs in the balance. Countless sheriffs, teachers, librarians, county commissions, search and rescue squads, students and parents are watching—probably live on streaming video— to find out whether their jobs and their communities will survive or whether the Federal government will continue to honor an almost 100 year old obligation to rural counties. ...
The Administration is again proposing to sell off almost 275,000 acres of public lands as a way to fund the program, a proposal distinguished only by its ability to forge a bipartisan chorus of opposition in both the House and the Senate.
On March 20, Senator Wyden joined with Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Max Baucus (D-MT), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to announce a $5 billion multi-year deal - which will be included in the supplemental budget bill. Senator Wyden said:
"With Senator Reid’s leadership we have crafted a lifeboat to keep rural communities afloat. This proposal will mean more than $1 billion for Oregon schools, public safety, roads, and other essential county services. It couldn’t come at a more critical time."
On March 28, the US Senate voted 75-22 to include the Wyden-Reid-Baucus-Bingaman proposal in an emergency funding package.
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