U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held a press conference March 26 to brief reporters about restoration of a compensation program for rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks and other benefits in the $1.3 trillion funding package adopted last week.
“I think we got some great wins for Oregon and for the country,” he said.
He chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which offset the $436 million for a two-year revival of funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act by selling eight million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Wasco County is estimated to receive $674,000 for transportation, public safety and school needs through the program. Hood River County is estimated to get $537, 218.
The new omnibus spending bill included language that allows counties more flexibility in the portion of Secure Rural Schools funding that can be used for public safety needs, said Walden.
He said money can now be spent on training and equipment related to emergency response, instead of just actual missions.
The funding can be spent on schools, libraries and road maintenance.
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats representing Oregon, also championed the legislation, which has brought more than $3 billion to rural counties in the state since 2001.
Secure Rural Schools was intended to make up for a drastic decline in timber harvest levels on federal lands due to increased environmental regulations.
Oregon’s delegation has long fought for the government to keep its promise to counties that, in exchange for losing the ability to tax or develop lands set aside by Congress for public use, they would share in harvest receipts.
The original funding formula under Secure Rural Schools was based on three years of harvest revenue from the 1980s that each county had received.
The compensation was intended to provide counties with time to pursue other economic development opportunities. However, counties with large tracts of land in federal ownership were unable to make up for the lost revenue.
Walden and Wyden, joined later by Merkley, then went to bat for the original funding plus several extensions at a lesser amount before the program eventually lapsed.
Walden also told reporters March 26 that the omnibus created a wildfire disaster fund.
The bill sets aside more than $20 billion outside the regular budget over 10 years so the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies can end the practice of raiding non-fire-related accounts to cover wildfire costs, about $3 billion last year. Walden and other western lawmakers with more than 50 percent of their lands in federal ownership have been fighting for years to end “fire borrowing,” a practice they said was devastating federal budgets.
The budget deal also includes $100 million for fire prevention projects and recreation programs.
“We’ll begin to treat forest fires as the natural disasters they really are,” said Walden. “This is the biggest improvement in forest management that we’ve been able to pass in five years.”
Funding for the brownfields program to clean up and reuse contaminated properties, such as old industrial sites, more than doubled in the omnibus, to about $200 million for each fiscal year through 2023, plus an additional $50 million for state response program funding in each of those fiscal years.
Walden said that funding would aid rural communities in creating new job opportunities. He said the EPA estimates that 450,000 brownfields exist across the U.S. and each has the capability of being remediated.
More than 129,000 jobs have already been leveraged through the program and almost 70,000 acres cleaned up for reuse. Walden referred to the Old Mill District, a commercial area in Bend that once housed two mills, as one of Oregon’s most successful brownfields restorations.
“This is a federal investment in our economy,” Walden said of the program.
He said the omnibus sought to restore readiness levels in the military, which will receive nearly $700 billion in new funding, the most spending in 15 years. The troops are being given a 2.4 percent pay raise.
The Navy, which received drastic cuts under former President Barack Obama, gets 14 new ships, including a carrier. The Air Force will add 56 F-35 fighter jets to its fleet.
The Army gets seven Apache and 11 Lakota helicopters, and the Marine Corps will be provided with 24 vertical landing F35Bs. The Coast Guard receives funding for a new icebreaker.
The Air Force will also be given $103 million for the wing replacement program on the A-10 Thunderbolts as a start to keep the “Warthogs” flying at least to 2030.
Domestic programs were awarded nearly $600 billion in funding, which includes $2.3 billion for mental health services, said Walden.
He said the budget recognized that mental health is essential to the nation’s public health and to protect children in schools, families and veterans in crisis.
The omnibus bill focused on gun violence prevention in several ways, said Walden, including new authorizations at the Department of Justice for evidence-based school safety programs that train personnel and law enforcement about how to respond to children in crisis.
There will be improved reporting of domestic violence and felony convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Research on the causes of gun violence will now be conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Investments will be made through the Department of Education for community and school-based anti-bullying and violence prevention programs.
The newly launched National Training Center on Police-Based Responses to Individuals with Mental Illness and Developmental Disabilities will receive $2.5 million in funding.
The Mental Health Block Grant program receives $700 million, a $160 million increase from last year’s amount.
There will be $1.1 billion for states — a $700 million increase — to support a grant program for mental health services in schools, as well as expansions in technology and STEM education.
Thirty million dollars has been authorized for mental health courts and adult and juvenile collaboration program grants.
“Eighty percent of kids who enact violence tell someone,” said Walden of the need for more crisis prevention services. “Sixty-nine percent of teens considering suicide tell someone.”
In a stepped-up effort to prevent veteran suicide, the omnibus requires that all military personnel with other than honorable discharges be screened for mental health problems before they leave the service.
The Veterans Administration is to guarantee and pay for access to mental health care, with a time limit, for troops who have served at least 100 days and experienced sexual assault, trauma or worked as drone operators.
Walden said the opioid crisis was also given the largest investment to date in the omnibus bill at $4 billion.
That funding will be used to address prevention, treatment and enforcement issues.
Rural communities that have been hit hard by the opioid crisis will receive $130 million. In addition, $1 billion in new grants will be dispersed among the states and Native American tribes.
The CDC receives $8.3 billion — a $1 billion increase over 2017 — as well as $475 million for opioid prescription drug overdose prevention activities.
When asked by a reporter if he thought the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative and libertarian House members, had valid points in its opposition to the bill, Walden said government spending did need to be curbed in the near future.
The caucus objected not only to the “massive price tag,” but having the 2,232-age bill unveiled only 36 hours before it was voted on.
Walden said the bill had to be packaged as it was to get through the Senate.
President Donald Trump signed the spending bill that he termed “ridiculous” to avoid a government shutdown.