U.S. lawmakers push for county payments

Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith hopes a bipartisan letter presented to the House Budget Committee on Tuesday, signed by the entire Oregon U.S. House delegation along with 49 other members of Congress, will convince the committee to reauthorize county forest payments for fiscal year 2012.

"Those funds account for almost half of our discretionary funding source for essential services — for Sheriff Department, Juvenile Department, public safety, the District Attorney's office," he said, noting the county received roughly $12 million in forest payments during the current federal fiscal year.

"I'm sure hoping for the best," added Smith, who was among several local government officials from Western Oregon who lobbied for the funding in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. "We talked at length with legislators. They seemed to understand that Western states are hit hard by job losses and how reliant we are on natural resources."

The letter cited the same concerns that Smith raised. Funding county payments would ensure rural counties have the resources to provide essential services like emergency services, health care and schools, it stated, although stressing that Congress needed to find long-term funding solutions for timber-dependent communities.

"This is an important issue impacting jobs and the funding of schools and emergency services in our rural counties," it reads. "We understand well the current budgetary climate and the need to reduce deficit spending, and support offsetting a long-term reauthorization of SRS. Furthermore, we appreciate your willingness to work with us and the authorizing committees in the coming months to help identify legitimate offsets that sustainably fund this important rural priority without adding to the growing federal deficit."

The request to extend and fund the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 was signed by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River; Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield; Kurt Schrader, D-Canby; Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland; and David Wu, D-Hillsdale. The next federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

"County timber payments represent an important lifeline for rural forested communities in Oregon," Walden said in a prepared statement. "While many challenges lie ahead in identifying a solution that can be signed into law, building a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives is an important step. We appreciate the relevant House committees working with us as we identify ways to sustainably fund our rural forested counties without adding to the federal deficit."

"Without a meaningful, long-term solution for our timber-dependent communities, counties in Southwest Oregon will again be forced to start handing out pink slips in a bad economy," DeFazio said. "We will lose sheriff patrols, jail beds, teachers and other vital public services. Rural communities can't afford higher unemployment or further erosion of essential services.

"We need language in the House Budget Resolution in order to keep communities afloat and avoid these disastrous cuts while we continue to work towards a long-term solution that will sustain these counties long into the future," he added.

After passing the initial bill, Congress reauthorized it in October 2008 for four years. The reauthorization provided rural counties with four years of payments on a declining scale for fiscal years 2008-2011.

President Obama's budget included $328 million to fund the first of a multi-year extension of the program, the result of a bipartisan effort by the Oregon delegation, according to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

"We won the first battle of getting it on the president's budget," he said during a town hall meeting in Phoenix on Monday. "In this particular year, that was a significant step."

The bipartisan House coalition hopes to have it in the House budget resolution scheduled to be released early next month, according to the letter.

However, the solution should ultimately be a long-term one that doesn't require annual lobbying, Smith said, noting he hopes pilot projects now under way on federal land in southwest Oregon will provide the answer. He was referring to two projects on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forest lands aimed at providing timber for jobs while protecting forest health.

"We're hoping to move past the constant dole and handout," he said. "There has to be some changes in our federal forest policies. Right now, they've got all our natural resource issues tied up in a Gordian knot."

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