Wyden, Smith win critical commitment from administration to work on county funding for Oregon's rural communities

Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith have secured a commitment from the Administration to work to enact a one-year, fully-funded extension of the county payments safety net under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The agreement represents a significant shift in the Administration's stance on the county payment program.

An extension would provide up to $401 million nationally for 700 rural counties in more than 40 states. Oregon's share, combined with receipts from federal timber sales, could total approximately $270 million.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act provides vital funding for rural schools, roads and services across the nation. Oregon counties will have received $1.6 billion by the time the current program expires on September 30, 2006.

In a letter to Wyden, Smith and Senator Larry Craig, USDA Under Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment Mark Rey committed to "working with [the senators] to enact a one year extension of the program, at full funding levels, and finding mutually acceptable offsets."

"I am pleased that Senator Smith and I were able to get the attention of the Administration on this issue that is so critical to rural communities across Oregon. As a result of this commitment, I have agreed to lift my holds on all Interior and Agriculture nominees," Wyden said. "At home I have heard from school administrators who have told me that they would have to cut down the school week and from county officials who have predicted major cuts in critical services ranging from prosecutors to law enforcement officers. This agreement will help ensure that these situations do not occur."

"We shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," said Smith. "I wish our forest industries were healthy enough that we never needed a county payment program. But the fact is that we do need one and while I'd prefer a long-term solution, we have to make sure our communities can get by in the here and now.

The text of the USDA letter is below:

August 7, 2006

The Honorable Ron Wyden
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Gordon Smith
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Larry E. Craig
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senators:

Like you, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes the importance of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act. We are committed to working with you to reauthorize the program this year.

Acknowledging the difficulty in a multi-year reauthorization of this program prior to the September 30, 2006, expiration of the program's authority, we commit to working with you to enact a one year extension of the program, at full funding levels, and finding mutually acceptable offsets. We understand from our discussions that time does not permit the enactment of our proposed land sales offset as free standing legislation; as such, this would not be an offset option for the one year extension.

We appreciate your leadership on this issue and look forward to continuing to working with you.

Sincerely,

Mark Rey
Under Secretary
Natural Resources and the Environment