By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
January 31, 2007
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden is refusing to vote for a stopgap spending bill unless funding is restored to counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.
He believes it would be a “breach of faith” with rural communities for federal officials to drop the program. Walden said the bill to continue government operations — known as a Continuing Resolution — should not be approved without passage of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.
“If the federal government does not fulfill its obligation to the county payments program in the CR, I will express my opposition loudly and vote against it,” said Walden. “I’m doing everything that I know how to do to focus attention on the problem and I think it’s having some level of impact.”
The CR was passed at the end of the 109th Congress and expires on Feb. 15. Another CR must be approved on that date to fund essential services.
Walden said that Congress should not be allowed to simply abandon its long-standing financial commitment to counties with national forests that reduce their tax base. He said the 18 counties within his Second Congressional District stand to lose $101 million if federal officials don’t act soon.
According to Walden, Hood River County is already reducing its work force by attrition and a hiring freeze. And Jackson County is preparing to close its libraries.
He said Oregon received the majority of county payments at $250-$280 million. So there will be no way to make up that level of lost funding without severe cutbacks in essential services. And it is time for federal officials to provide local governments with some certainty as they prepare the 2007-08 fiscal year budgets.
“The federal government faces an extreme funding crisis if another CR is not approved next month by Congress,” said Walden. “However, Oregon’s county government and rural schools are already experiencing a funding emergency since Congress has not reauthorized and funded the essential county payments program.
“The federal government made a pact with forested communities nearly a century ago, and it’s high time this pact be upheld.”
On Saturday, Walden met with Hood River County Commission Chair Ron Rivers to brief him about the protest vote. That move follows a series of one-minute speeches that Walden is delivering over an 18-day stretch.
He has become a familiar sight standing before the full House to outline the loss of individual counties. On Tuesday, Walden will highlight that 61 percent of Hood River County’s land base is comprised of national forest. So, if the government doesn’t extend funding, $2.9 million will be lost to maintain roads and operate schools.
“He’s been on the floor every day pounding out the importance of these payments. And we certainly all need to support his efforts on our behalf,” said Rivers.
Walden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who filed a seven-year reauthorization bill in early January are now appealing for their peers to move it forward. In December, the six-year program lapsed for the federal government to compensate timber-dependent counties.
A bipartisan coalition of West Coast senators joins Walden and DeFazio in the belief that government needs to resume its obligation to rural communities.
“The county payments safety net was pulled from underneath rural counties,” said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.
“Now these counties are dangling from an economic tightrope. Oregon already lives with devastating federal restrictions on our forests, but we cannot live without public services and without funding for schools. That must not be the rural legacy of this Congress.”
He and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have introduced a sister bill to Walden and DeFazio’s in the Senate.
Wyden said 700 counties in 39 states are facing severe financial problems if the monies are not forthcoming.
“Without county payments funding, there is a real question as to whether or not these communities can survive,” he said.
“With the U.S. Government owning the majority of land in some of these counties, the federal government must meet its commitment to these communities.”
Federal laws of 1908 and 1937 specified that the government share harvest receipts from national forests with counties. The purpose was to offset the loss of taxes with a land base that included federal property.
However, harvest levels dropped dramatically in the mid- to late-1990s, due to a series of environmental regulations. And payments to counties were slashed by more than 70 percent nationwide.
In 2000, Northwest officials pursued the first county payments law to correct the imbalance. The payment to each county was established on harvest levels during three high years in the late 1908s and early 1990s.
That money was dedicated primarily to road upkeep and school programs. However, the legislation also provided limited funding for ecosystem restoration and equipment for search and rescue operations in national forests.