No breath-holding in Eugene

No one needs to advise Lane County officials against getting too excited over Sen. Ron Wyden's announcement that he hopes to attach a multiyear county timber payments plan to an energy bill pending in the Senate.

There have been far too many similar announcements by Oregon's delegation in Congress and far too many disappointments for county officials to get their hopes up.

As Lane County Commissioner Bill Dwyer used to quip, "I'll believe it when I see the check and, believe me, I ain't seen one yet." Now there are no more jokes. Not since commissioners laid off 8 percent of the county's work force in June after the county lost its $47 million in annual federal payments.

There is good reason for skepticism about the latest development in the long, sorry saga of timber payments for rural counties. As a Wyden aide cautioned, the county payments provision still must travel an uncertain path to congressional approval.

Even if the energy tax bill, which includes the timber payments plan, is approved by the Senate, it still must pass in the House, where an attempt to renew county payments died in June. That occurred after Republican lawmakers, including Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, blocked a move to offset the $1.9 billion cost of renewing payments by closing a loophole on royalties charged for offshore oil and gas leases.

The prospect for renewing county payments is sufficiently bleak that one might reasonably ask why even bother trying, especially since Oregon's timber counties, including Lane, already have made drastic budget cuts in anticipation of the elimination of federal payments.

One might also question whether it wouldn't be wiser for Wyden and other members of Oregon's delegation to wait until next year, when the country might have a president more sympathetic to rural counties' plight. During Oregon's presidential primary campaign, Democrat Barack Obama made clear that he understands the need for the federal government to find a way to honor its century-old commitment to compensate Oregon counties in lieu of taxes on the vast tracts of federal forest land that comprise more than half this state.

Yet Wyden is right to make one more attempt to renew county timber payments this session. Waiting until next year could allow congressional opponents to question the need for extending payments when rural counties already would be well into a new budget cycle. "Why back up the county payments truck when counties already have adjusted to living without them?" critics might ask.

The legislative vehicle that Wyden has chosen for his latest attempt is the energy tax bill prepared by the Senate Finance Committee. The measure includes a $40 billion package of tax credits for investors in solar, wind and other renewable energy sources that would be offset by new taxes on the oil and natural gas industry. There is bipartisan support for the renewable incentives, but Republicans oppose paying for them by taxing energy companies which raises a serious question about prospects for passage in both the Senate and House.

If the legislation does pass and President Bush signs it into law — another major hurdle — it would continue payments through 2011, giving counties time they dearly need to adjust to the loss of federal payments.

After having their hopes raised and dashed so many times, most Lane County residents probably concur with Commissioner Dwyer in saying they will believe it when they "finally see the check."

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