(In)secure rural schools, once again

 

Many struggling Western counties will find themselves in even worse financial shape if an expiring federal law isn't renewed soon. Since 2000, local governments in 41 states have received billions of dollars from the feds to compensate them for reduced revenue from timber sales. Especially in logging-dependent states like Oregon and Washington, which saw federal timber production drop dramatically in the 90s, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act has helped counties pay for schools, public safety and road projects.

The Act expired last fall, and the final payments went out this month. Oregon got the biggest chunk of funding, with $108 million, while California received $48 million, and Washington and Idaho $31 million each. But it's not a bucket o' cash that can be used anywhere it's needed – the funds are earmarked for specific uses. For example, Oregon's Curry County has $33 million of federal money squirreled away in its road fund, which it can't dip into to plug budget gaps in other areas.

Historically, the Secure Rural Schools Act has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and Western politicians have fought hard for its continuance. When it was up for reauthorization in 2006, the Bush administration proposed funding it by selling off tens of thousands of acres of public land. That idea didn't gain traction in either party and Congress eventually came through with appropriations to extend the funding for a year. In 2008, the Act got another extension, to 2011.

But this time, hard as it is to believe, the proposed renewal of the Act may go nowhere. Given the poisonous stagnation in Congress, the burgeoning deficit, and the growing backlash against anything even faintly resembling an entitlement program, HR 3599, sponsored by Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., may not make much headway.

From the National Association of Counties:

HR 3599 is a companion bill to Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) SRS legislation (S 1692). While the Senate legislation has garnered bipartisan support, House Democrats and Republicans are split on how to move forward. Democrats would prefer a clean extension of the program, while House Republicans are insisting on new forest management provisions that would expand logging and increase land usage.

Meanwhile, without renewal, rural counties in the West will be hurting in a major way. One example: Without those supplemental payments, Oregon rural counties will lose 3,000 to 4,000 jobs, and business sales will drop by up to $400 million, according to projections in a 2009 Oregon State University study.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

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