WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department cut the first checks Thursday to significantly boost payments to timber-dependent communities since Congress approved a new aid formula last year.
The department said the new system will provide a 98 percent increase in federal funding over last year to pay for roads, schools and other projects in counties that have national forests within their boundaries. The U.S. Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department.
About $384 million will be sent out, and the department expects to provide an additional $1.1 billion over the next six years.
Because national forest lands aren’t subject to property taxes, counties have historically received 25 percent of the proceeds from federal timber sales in lieu of the missing taxes. However, since logging has declined sharply in the last decade, many counties have found themselves in a pinch.
At a press conference complete with a giant check, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and a handful of lawmakers applauded the new money as a way to help stabilize the income of rural counties.
“When timber sales began to decline, these dependent communities and school districts really became isolated, revenue-lost islands that had very little capacity to generate revenue on their own,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who helped craft the legislation.
Under the new formula, counties can ask for the average of their three highest federal payments between 1986 and 1999, or they can choose to continue receiving 25 percent of revenues from timber sales and a few other sources.
About 75 percent of more than 700 eligible counties decided to use the new formula and received more money.
Checks will go to 41 states and Puerto Rico. Among the largest are Oregon, which will receive $154 million; California, $65 million; Washington, about $44 million; and Idaho, nearly $23 million.
In Oregon, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden is unhappy with the Legislature and governor for deciding not to direct the federal education dollars to rural counties, choosing instead to spread the money around the entire state. Wyden is pushing for language in a spending bill that would require Oregon — and any other state that follows its lead — to use federal money for rural schools as he said Congress intended.
Wyden’s chief of staff, Josh Kardon, said the bill clearly stated the money was to supplement, not replace, existing rural school dollars. He said the state got it wrong.
“You hijack the money, dole it out, and then cry foul when Congress tries to return it to its rightful owner,” Kardon said.
Linda Ames, an Oregon state budget analyst, said by law each student in the state has consistently received the same amount of money, even as revenues dropped in rural counties from decreases in logging.
Ames said the legislature engaged in lengthy discussions about how to use the money created under the new formula and decided to continue to spend the same amount on each student.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., supports Wyden’s legislation, though Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he is reluctant to back the measure because it will create winners and losers, even in his district.
And “I am hesitant to judge the state legislature,” he added.
Wyden’s measure was attached to a spending bill in the Senate, but not the House. Negotiators are now working out the differences between the bills to submit for final congressional and White House approval.
On the Net:
U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/