January 24, 2007

West Coast Senators Put County Payments on Senate Agenda

Legislation restores federal commitment to rural schools and communities

Washington, D.C. - A bipartisan coalition of West Coast Senators today announced the introduction of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Reauthorization Act of 2007, legislation that would restore funding for the critical "county payments" law by reauthorizing the successful program for seven years. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, introduced a bill with U.S. 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).

Over 700 counties in 39 states received funding under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000, which was allowed to expire in September 2006. Despite repeated efforts by the Senators to reauthorize the bill last year, the Congress and Administration could not agree on a funding source for the legislation.

"Without county payments funding, there is a real question as to whether or not these communities can survive," Wyden said. "Schools and sheriffs' departments are already looking at lay-offs to balance their budgets, and libraries are preparing to close. With the U.S. government owning the majority of land in some of these counties, the Federal Government must meet its commitment to these communities."

"As a former educator, I am committed to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn, regardless of where they live," Murray said. "This bill will provide our rural communities with the revenue they need to ensure those opportunities for our children, and make certain that vital county services continue to operate."

"The county payment safety net was pulled from underneath rural counties," Smith said. "Now these counties are dangling from an economic tightrope. Oregon already lives with devastating federal restrictions on our forests, but we cannot live without public services and without funding for schools. That must not be the rural legacy of this Congress."

"The County Payments program is a vital lifeline supporting schools, roads, and law enforcement in more than 700 rural counties nationwide," said Cantwell. "I am committed to working with my colleagues to do all I can to continue these indispensable public services in Pacific Northwest forest communities. Congress must find the funding necessary to support this bipartisan initiative and keep our rural counties afloat."

Boxer said: "In California alone, 4,535 schools are facing imminent teacher and administrator layoffs. I am pleased to be a part of this bipartisan effort, which will provide vitally needed school funds for California's rural areas. I urge the Senate leadership to move swiftly on this legislation--our teachers, administrators, and most importantly our students cannot afford to wait another day for this urgently needed education funding."

Before the county payments law passed in September 2000, many rural counties were receiving payments as the result of 1908 and 1937 laws specifying that the government share 25 percent of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) receipts and 50 percent of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) receipts with counties in any state that hosts Federal land from which timber is cut. These payments had been used to help finance rural schools and roads. Toward the mid- to late-nineties, however, the principal source of those revenues, federal timber sales, declined by over 70 percent nationwide. Consequently, the corresponding revenues shared with rural counties throughout the country declined precipitously, hurting school and transportation funding.

In 2000, legislation authored by Senator Wyden to provide an alternative source of county funding was enacted into law, establishing a six-year payment formula for counties that receive revenue-sharing payments for USFS and BLM lands. The formula established a stable source of revenue, a safety net or "full payment amount," to be used for education, roads and county services in rural areas. The legislation also provided funding for ecosystem restoration, infrastructure maintenance and stewardship projects on national forests, fostering all-too-rare cooperation between counties, timber interests, and environmentalists. The safety net amount was based on historical timber receipts.

"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," Wyden said. "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."