Lobbyists tie funding for timber county schools and roads to war in Iraq
Schools and roads in Lassen County stand to lose at least $1.5 million each annually if the federal government doesn’t renew funding legislation designed to reimburse counties for the loss of timber receipts. Plumas County will lose $7 million.
“Just for the school district in Big Valley it’s $194,000 (a year),” Dahle said. “It’s four teachers out of 25 teachers. That’s a big impact to us.”
The loss amounts to 40 percent of the Lassen County road department’s $4 million annual operating budget.
County Public Works Director Larry Millar said in February the loss will force him to cut road crews, not plow some non-emergency routes after snowstorms and cut back asphalt patching, grading, crack sealing and weed cutting. Millar said he’s already planning not to hire new employees when there are vacancies and retirements.
Because counties don’t receive any property taxes for National Forest land, for more than 90 years the federal government gave 25 percent of timber sales and other receipts from each national forest to split evenly between county schools and road departments.
After timber sales began a dramatic decline in the 1980s, Congress passed PL 106-393, the "Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.” SRS gave Lassen County up to $4 million a year, based on what it historically received from timber sales and other forest receipts. It expired on Sept. 30, 2006.
Because payments come in a year after they are budgeted, Lassen County won’t suffer the major loss of funds until the 2007-2008 budget, which the Board of Supervisors will consider in September.
A number of groups, including National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition and the Regional Council of Rural Counties, are trying to get Congress to come up with new funding for schools and roads in timber counties. Dahle said NACo and WIR are trying to get a one-year funding bill passed.
“We’re trying to attach it to the emergency legislation that will fund the war,” Dahle said. “But the president has indicated that he will veto a bill that’s over $100 billion.”
As of 10 a.m. Friday, March 23, the House passed the $124,000 bill, HR 1591, on a 218-212 vote, with all Republicans voting no. The bill was headed to the Senate for consideration.
Dahle said about $88-billion of the bill was already earmarked to fund the war.
“So there’s all kinds of other people trying to get stuff attached to this legislation,” he said.
NACo members at the legislative conference debated what formula to propose for distributing any funding Congress approves.
“It’s $420 million that we’re asking for every year,” Dahle said. “Five states get the biggest majority of that money: California, Oregon, Washington, and I believe it’s Idaho and Montana.”
Because California gets $69 million and Oregon gets $220, Dahle said there’s not a lot of nationwide support for the legislation.
Oregon officials were not in favor of any change in the formula, he said. But other NACo members were willing to compromise.
“We did pass a resolution saying that at the final hour if NACo is back there lobbying for us and we have to take some sort of cut, we would take some cut because something is better than nothing.”
Another organization, on which Dahle serves as the second vice chair, the Regional Council of Rural Counties, was working last week to come up with a formula. RCRC plans to propose it to Bob Douglas, the head of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition and Tehama County’s superintendent of schools.
“So that we can maybe get a little more support for the eastern state senators,” Dahle said. “Let me give you an example of how it works out. Say you’re in Georgia; you get $5 per student a year out of the timber tax. Oregon gets $400 per student.”
Dahle said he didn’t know if the one-year funding will pass. He said NACo and WIR met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her staff “didn’t even understand what we were talking about. We had to educate them on the whole process.”
California Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer “said yes, they think we will get a one-year bill through.”
Counties that receive schools and road funding suffer a reduction in Payments in Lieu of Taxes. PILT is divided evenly nationwide to counties that have federally lands generating no property taxes.
“Some states that don’t receive the timber tax, their PILT went up because ours went down,” Dahle said. “So we tried to leverage those folks telling them yours will go down because ours will be going back up. But it’s so hard to explain all that to folks and make them understand it because it’s a complicated issue.”
All counties face a further reduction in PILT, Dahle said, because President Bush proposed reducing PILT from $227 million last year to $190 million this year.
Boxer, Feinstien, Nevada Senator Harry Reid and several others proposed a bill that would fully fund PILT at $360 million a year.
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