Timber funds getting attention
Federal lawmakers may have finally engineered a plan to provide federal timber payments to rural counties.
The House could vote on a bi l l as ea rly as Thursday that includes $1.8 billion for the payments through 2011. The move comes as part of an agreement between the House and the Senate to have the bill on the president’s desk before they adjourn for the winter holidays.
K l a m a t h C o u n t y receives about $15 million annually from the timber payments, which expired last year and then were extended by one year. Of the $15 million, 65 percent goes to the road department and the rest is divided among the two school districts and the county’s general fund.
“This deal gets these counties off of the fiscal roller coaster and back to stable funding so that they can focus on the real work of planning for the future,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a press release.
Progress being made
Other lawmakers from Oregon said they haven’t fully reviewed the proposed leg islation, and have questions and concerns about its chances, but are glad to see progress being made.
“While I’m pleased with the agreement, I am concerned that the prospects of passage are caught up in partisan bickering,” said U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., in a press release.
Since May, federal lawmakers have attempted to get a more permanent, multi-year reauthorization of the payments through Congress. The current extension expired in September, and final checks will be sent to counties before January.
The recent agreement between the two chambers is in energy tax legislation and includes a four-year phase out of the payments introduced earlier this year by Wyden and several other Senate Democrats.
As planned, the payments would decrease by about 15 percent a year from the previous year’s amount.
O r e g o n , Wa s h i n g - ton and California, the states that receive the bulk of the money, would have payments decrease at different levels based on 2006 levels of funding. The government also would pay counties $350 million in 2009 to compensate for tax-exempt federal lands within their boundaries.
L a w m a k e r s a r e approaching the plan with cautious optimism.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, ROre., said full details about how the money would be distributed and where the funding would come from still need to be confirmed.
S t a f f w it h Wa ld e n’s and Smith’s off ices also expressed concern about what the legislation has to go through before any checks can be sent to counties.
Both chambers still have to approve the bill, opening the possibility of bipartisan sparring. President Bush also could veto the bill if he disapproves of any portion of the legislation.
But, they said, announcement of an agreement is encouraging.
“This is a vehicle that’s moving,” said Andrew Whelan, Walden’s spokesman.
Federal timber payments to rural counties are part of the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act. They serve as compensation to counties for lost timber revenue resulting from enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental concerns.
The payments expired last year. Eighteen Oregon counties received about $280 million from the payments. Klamath County annually received about $15 million.
Congress approved and President Bush signed a one-year extension of the payments in late May. Many Oregon counties had already made severe budget cuts in public safety and libraries to accommodate the loss in funding.