Neither party got the job done

Following the latest setback for the county payments program, members of Congress seemed most concerned about doling out blame to the other party. Republicans blamed Democrats and Democrats blamed Republicans and both were right because both are at fault.

At the very time Congress was debating whether to provide a $700 billion bailout to plug the gaping financial holes created largely by the very people who would most benefit from the bailout, it was unable to come up with $2 billion to assist counties and schools across the land that have been hard hit by the loss of timber revenues. As far as we can tell, the people in those counties had nothing to do with the timber revenue losses.

The federal payments to rural counties has had more lives — and deaths — than a long-tailed cat. It has been pulled back from the brink of extinction for several years, but appears now to have hit the end of the line, at least in this Congress.

The program was intended to provide a safety net for counties and schools that had long counted on taxes from timber harvests, but now found their revenue source dried up. For Jackson County, the federal money amounted to $23 million a year and went into the county's general fund, which supports everything from sheriff's deputies to health-care workers and librarians.

Unlike the federal bailout proposal — which was rejected Monday, but is likely to be reintroduced soon — the federal government is not offering an easy out for counties. In Oregon, it is living up to the obligation it took on when it took back 2.4 million acres of private land given to the Oregon & California Railroad as part of the development of areas along the rail lines in Oregon. The railroad failed to live up to its end of the deal and deserved to lose the land, but the fact remained that more than 2 million acres went off the taxpayer rolls.

To offset that tax loss, the feds in 1937 agreed to pay out to the counties and schools a significant portion of the timber harvest receipts. More than a half-century later, when environmental concerns shut down much of the logging in Western Oregon, the counties found themselves with neither the taxable private property nor the timber receipts. And now they have no subsidy either.

Politicians from both parties were quick to point fingers: Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon's 2nd District said Democratic leadership was "pushing rural counties off a cliff." Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio of the 4th District said President Bush was "turning his back on schools, law enforcement and other vital public services in rural communities."

The truth is, neither party has been able to get the job done. The Bush administration has been hostile to the idea, but when it finally indicated it would sign a bill, the Democratic leadership removed it from play, saying the looming fiscal crisis made it unwise to set aside that kind of money. (How's this for a headline? "Pelosi to rural counties: Drop dead.")

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Walden sided with the Bush administration and against a county payment proposal that would have tapped a windfall tax break mistakenly given to oil companies years ago. (Our balancing headline: "Walden: Billions to Chevron, empty promises to rural counties.")

Assessing blame is part of the political game, especially in the months before a major election. In the days when Oregon's and the nation's elected officials were leaders first and politicians second, that game was put aside for the good of the country. That hasn't happened in the timber payments debacle and Oregon is sure to be the worse for it.

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