Senate panel OKs timber payments through 2011

A four-year extension of a timber payments program that helps maintain law enforcement, roads and libraries in Jackson County cleared the U.S. Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.

Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith said he's encouraged by the Senate action, which placed the extension in a proposed energy tax bill. He said if it comes to pass, he foresees restoring additional county services, though with caution.

"We'll have the same long-term issue of funding," he said. "But I'm encouraged that we are trying to make the right decisions for the future."

President Bush in May approved a one-year extension of the county payments program, which will provide Jackson County with about $23 million.

Under the Senate plan, an additional four years of money would be given to 700 timber-dependent counties in 39 states that were part of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.

The one-year extension came after Jackson County closed its library system, prepared for cuts to the road system and reduced the number of jail beds.

The plan, originally authored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would ratchet down the amount of money received by Oregon counties by 10 percent each year until 2011. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also supported the legislation.

Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, said the Bush administration supports a plan that would help timber-dependent counties. "We remain committed to a multi-year extension. This appears to be a step in the right direction."

Rey stopped short of fully endorsing Wyden's specific proposal until his offices get a chance to review the details of the proposal.

The four-year extension will require approval by the full Senate, then the House of Representatives and finally require President Bush's signature.

Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff, said the chances of getting the county payments passed are better than when the program was included in the Iraqi war funding legislation.

"Currently, there is no veto threat hanging over this bill," he said.

The prospects of passage by the full Senate look good, and Kardon said the Bush administration is making the most positive comments to date about the payments program.

Kardon said more of an effort is being made to reach out to members of the House to address any concerns they might have about the legislation.

The bill is also being supported by Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the finance committee, and by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"We're starting off this effort in a significantly better position than the previous effort," said Kardon.

The county payments will provide counties with $3.66 billion over the life of the program.

Without the money, many counties in Oregon have planned to make drastic cuts in public safety, roads and health services.

Kardon said, "Sen. Wyden promised that he would come back again and again and again until the federal government lived up to its promise to rural counties."

The county payments began after sharp reductions on timber harvests on federal land.

Commissioner Smith said it's too early to predict what services the county might reinstate if the bill gets President Bush's signature. In particular, he said it is too premature to discuss whether libraries would reopen after all 15 branches closed on April 6.

He said County Administrator Danny Jordan is exploring options to deal with the counties' fiscal problems in a process that could take several months to complete.

Smith said he wants the county to be better prepared for the loss of federal money, whether it occurs one year from now or four years.

"When the federal government goes away we'll be ready," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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