Senate Extends Timber Payments Plan for Rural Schools

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2007 (ENS) The Senate today approved a bipartisan plan to extend payments to rural counties affected by declining revenues from logging on federal lands. The plan would provide money to more than 700 counties in 39 states.

Agreed to by a vote of 75-22, the plan was added as an amendment to the $122 billion emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some $425 million of the $5 billion package will be paid for with emergency spending included in the bill, with the remainder funded by closing a series of yet to be identified tax loopholes.

The plan is "a lifeboat to keep rural communities afloat," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and cosponsor of the amendment.


Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has been a leading voice on the issue of rural county payments. (Photo courtesy Sen. Wyden's office)

The plan provides $2.8 billion to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act through 2011 as well as $1.9 billion for the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which provides money to state and local governments for loss of tax revenues from federal lands in their state.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, passed in 2000 with broad bipartisan support, guaranteed payments to eligible rural counties for public education and transportation projects.

The law was enacted because of declining timber sales on federal lands - the affected counties had historically received 25-50 percent of timber receipts from U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.

"This is not some kind of welfare program. These are not handout payments," Wyden told colleagues. "This is part of a 100 year deal that came about when the federal forest system was created."

Money from the program has been used to support more than 4,400 schools, help maintain road systems and fund law enforcement in rural counties, but it expired in September 2006.


Falling timber harvests from federal lands have had adverse impacts on some rural counties. (Photo courtesy Native Forests)

The Bush administration has proposed selling off public lands to fund a reauthorization of the law, but that concept has found little support in Congress.

The plan gradually ramps down funding by 10 percent a year through 2011 while focusing support on those communities in greatest economic need.

"A lot of folks east of the Mississippi don't recognized that we have counties that are 80 percent, 90 percent public lands," said Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican. "This is a formula that stabilizes these communities."

But it is unlikely the plan is the final word on the matter.

The Senate must reconcile the plan with the House of Representatives, which only included a one-year $400 million extension to the county payments program in its version of the emergency war spending bill. And President Bush has vowed to veto the spending package, largely due to objections over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said finding a long-term solution to the problem of rural county payments is critical.

"Our counties should not have to rely on emergency funding year after year and be faced with such uncertainty," Feinstein said. "We must provide our rural counties with a stable funding stream so that they are not in the same dire situation next year and can plan for the future."


Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, argued more of the county payments money should be specifically earmarked for education. (Photo courtesy Sen. Burr's office)

Debate in the Senate centered on an amendment to the plan offered by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, who pushed for language to funnel some 85 percent of the new money specifically to rural schools.

"I believe when you have a bill that says this money is going to be used for schools and communities, we should make a commitment that this money in fact does go to our nation's schools," Burr said.

Burr, who supported the Wyden plan, pointed to the troubles at the nation's public schools, telling colleagues "if this were a disease in America, it would be called an epidemic."

"With only 70 percent of our kids graduating with a high school diploma on time, maybe we ought to address that," Burr said.


Proponents of the program contend rural schools are in desperate need of federal funding. (Photo courtesy BLM)

Critics said Burr's plan would impose a one-size fits all solution on states and local communities, handcuffing their ability to tackle the specific needs of their citizens.

The language would "disrupt funding decisions and local government operations around the country," Wyden said. "It seeks to dictate from Washington DC how this program should operate. What is best for Asheville North Carolina might not be best for Amity, Oregon."

Burr made "no bones" about the fact that his plan would take away power from local communities.

"That's absolutely right. I plead guilty," Burr said. "I wish they were as concerned about their children's education as I am."

The Senate rejected Burr's amendment by a vote of 89-8.