April 04, 2007

White House Budget Stiffs Rural Schools and Communities

Administration's 2008 proposal fails to include full funding for county payments

Washington, DC. - The Administration today released its FY2008 budget plan, which slashes funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. Funding for the successful program—most commonly known as the "county payments" law—was allowed to expire in September 2006, thus forcing rural communities to examine school and law enforcement lay-offs, library closures and other cut backs necessarily to balance their budgets.

The President's budget recommends more than a 50% reduction overall in the county payments program with a proposed public land sale scheme, which could include the sale of portions of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

"Congress soundly rejected the White House land sell-off idea last year on a bipartisan basis. To now come back with a recycled land sale proposal and offer no real funding for these hurting counties is beyond cynical. This affects, by and large, the very people who have most loyally supported President Bush over the past six years. To the rural families who depend on county government to provide deputy sheriffs, teachers, prosecutors, and decent roads, this is nothing short of a betrayal. I will work around the clock, in a bipartisan fashion, to convince Congress to act honorably and fulfill the Federal obligation to these families and our rural counties." Wyden said.

Over 700 counties in 39 states received funding under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000. Of Oregon's 36 counties, 33 received payments through the county payments program.

Before passage of the county payments law, Oregon 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's (BLM) Oregon and California Railroad Grant Lands 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 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.

Last month, Wyden and other Western Senators introduced 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.