Partisanship threatens county payments

I was saddened by the failure of Congress to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which would have compensated Western Oregon counties for lost timber revenues on O&C lands.

The loss of revenues will have a profound impact on our counties. Public health will be affected by the lack of maintenance and dust abatement on rural roads. Public safety will be affected by the loss of sheriff patrols in rural areas.

In Curry County, county government may literally cease to exist. Should that county default, the bond rating of our entire state may be in jeopardy, increasing the cost of money borrowed to build our schools, bridges, and roads.

The failure to pass the timberm payments measure was partly because of the political acrimony that now paralyzes Congress and has split our own delegation down party lines. Rep. Greg Walden, who for several years has worked closely with Rep. Peter DeFazio to renew the bill, sided with fellow Republicans to vote against county payments.

The anger in their statements revealed a rift that may very well doom any efforts to pass an extension of county payments this year. Walden cited a "trail of broken promises and broken process." DeFazio accused Walden of caving in to outside pressures.

The DeFazio bill would have been funded by requiring those who acquired leases from the federal government to drill for offshore oil and gas to actually pay royalties for the leases. (An error in the writing of the lease agreement during the Clinton administration conveniently exempted leaseholders from paying billions of dollars in royalties.)

Walden, citing a report from the Congressional Research Service, felt that changing the terms of the leases was "illegal", since such changes might constitute a breach of contract. DeFazio countered that "the Congressional Research Service — which does employ lawyers — has written several reports confirming that the offset is perfectly legal."

We may never know what transpired behind closed doors or why communication between Walden and DeFazio has become so disjointed and so acrimonious. What we do know is that the culture of collegiality that used to get things done in Congress has become very frayed during the past couple of decades, and has degenerated into two warring camps during the past year.

A little over a year ago, during a National Association of Counties legislative conference in Washington, a number of us lobbied Congress for an extension of the Secure Rural Schools act. Walden's office had arranged a meeting for me with Steve Kagen, a Democratic representative from Wisconsin. When I arrived at Kagen's office, I was told that the congressman was still tied up with a late vote. Out of deference to Walden, he instructed his aide to bring me through security to the cloak room that lies across the hall from the House chamber.

The room was packed with clusters of lobbyists in $1,000 suits, waiting to meet with individual congressmen and women who were brought across the hallway to discuss specific bills. With my blue shirt, red tie and no jacket, I stood out like a sore thumb.

His aide brought Kagen to me. We had a brief discussion about the importance of the Secure Rural Schools extension to Jackson County and he agreed to become a co-sponsor.

I doubt that such a meeting would be possible today.

If partisan vitriol prevents our Oregon delegation from working together for a common goal, how can we expect sympathetic votes from colleagues from districts that are not impacted by timber payments? How can citizens from Oregon's 2nd District who lobby Congress for an extension offederal funding for vital county services be credible when their own congressman opposed a similar bill?

The prospects for future extension of county timber payments look very bleak indeed.

Dave Gilmour is a Jackson County commissioner.

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