Federal payments must resume

The report released Monday by the Governor's Task Force on Federal Forest Payments and County Services paints a grim picture for many Oregon counties. The report does a good job of analyzing possible solutions to a funding crisis that threatens to bankrupt the worst-off counties, but the bottom line is this: There is no single solution to this problem short of the federal government living up to its obligations.

Jackson and Douglas counties are in better shape than most formerly timber-dependent counties, thanks to the foresight of county leaders who have already made cuts in staff and services and socked money away for the inevitable rainy day. Others are much less well-prepared.

Josephine County in particular faces a potential economic disaster. If Congress does not reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, Josephine County stands to lose 67 percent of its discretionary budget — the money that pays for basic county services.

And it's not just rural, timber-dependent counties that are at risk. Some of the federal money is earmarked specifically for schools, and because Oregon school funding is equalized statewide, every district in the state would lose funding, about $58 per student if the reduction occurred next school year.

The task force's top recommendation is to press Congress to extend those safety net payments for four years, to allow the state and the counties time to work on replacing the money.

The task force recommends that counties ask their voters to approve local option property taxes to take up the slack, but that is far easier said than done. Josephine County, for example, would have to quadruple its present county tax rate just to break even. Realistically, the task force report estimates a combination of local tax increases and increased state support could generate 10 percent to 40 percent of the lost federal payments.

Increased timber harvests on federal land would help as well, but that is unlikely to happen for several more years. Depending on the final outcome of the Bureau of Land Management's Western Oregon Plan Revisions and other efforts to increase timber harvests and forest restoration projects, the tax force report says counties might see as little as 6 percent or as much as 38 percent of the safety net payments.

Any action by Congress before members head home to campaign for re-election appears unlikely at this point. But the money from this year's payments doesn't run out until the end of the year, so it would still be possible to reauthorize the payments after the new Congress convenes in January.

What gets lost in all of this gloom and doom is the nearly century-old commitment Congress made with 18 Western Oregon counties when it took back 2.2 million acres of land that earlier had been deeded to the Oregon & California Railroad. In 1937, Congress agreed that because it had removed all that land from the counties' tax rolls, it would share the proceeds of timber harvested from the now-federal land.

The original O&C Act gave the counties 75 percent of the proceeds. Since 1957, however, Congress has set the counties' share at 50 percent. The task force recommends asking Congress to restore the 75-25 split, among other partial solutions. But without substantial increases in timber harvest, that won't be much help either.

The federal payments, whether backed by timber sale revenue or not, are anything but "welfare," as some have characterized them. Half of Oregon is federal forest or other federal land; in some counties federal land takes up as much as 60 percent.

Lawmakers from parts of the country where this is not the case need to realize what it would mean if half of their states' tax bases suddenly evaporated.

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