GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Sen. Ron Wyden is pledging to renew and expand the federal subsidies to timber counties known as Secure Rural Schools.
The Oregon Democrat says that for the next year or two, he wants to renew the payments that brought $105 million to Oregon in 2012 as part of $346 million that went to 729 counties nationwide. As a permanent solution, he wants to go beyond timber country and extend similar payments to rural counties with federal lands and waters being tapped for mining and energy.
"If we are serious about reducing the risk that rural America becomes a ghost town, we've got to find a way to get those communities off the fiscal roller coaster," Wyden said in an interview.
Secure Rural Schools was first enacted in 2000, and has now expired, with final payments going out this year. The idea was to make up for timber revenues lost when national forests cut back logging to protect fish, wildlife and clean water.
As budgets got tighter, Wyden managed to win renewals by expanding the area receiving funds. This latest renewal would expand the subsidies more than ever.
Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare, for one, is not happy with the idea. He says Wyden's pledge to renew the payments makes it likely voters will turn down a tax increase on the May ballot to restore deep cuts to law enforcement. Hare adds he would rather have Congress focus on producing more timber from federal lands, such as the plan to increase logging on what are known as the O&C lands in Western Oregon.
"The senator is, frankly, out of touch with what is going on here on the ground and with what we need," said Hare.
For more than a century, counties have received a quarter of the revenue from timber sold on national forests. The money goes to roads and schools. In Oregon, 18 counties get even more money from the so-called O&C lands, which reverted to the federal government after the Oregon & California Railroad went bankrupt. Since the 1930s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has shared half the revenues from timber cut on O&C lands with 18 Oregon counties. That money goes to county general funds.
After a year of struggling with deep cuts to law enforcement and other county services, Josephine, Curry and Lane counties have all put tax measures on the May 21 ballot to fill the gap left by the loss of the timber payments.
Wyden said the bill is his top priority and he would use his chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to push it. He has teamed up with Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
"These investments are the lifeline that keeps teachers in the classroom, lights on at the road department and emergency crews on the job in Montana counties," Baucus said in a statement. "And they are rightfully due to rural counties that are home to large areas of federal lands. Now is not the time to pull the rug out from under them."
Just how it will fare in the House remains in doubt. Any new spending must pay its own way by raising new revenue, or cutting somewhere else. The federal budget already faces tough budget cuts through the automatic process known as sequestration. And three members of the Oregon delegation are pressing an alternative plan calling for increased logging on the O&C lands.
Rep Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said as long as Wyden's plan leads to more exploitation of natural resources on federal lands, it would have a chance in the House.
"That's the only way it would have a chance in the House of Representatives," Schrader said. "I think the senator understands that."
Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, who has opposed his county's tax increase proposal, favored Wyden's proposal.
"I think this is a step in the right direction to involve a much broader group of people throughout the country to right this wrong," he said.
Curry County Commissioner Dave Itzen echoed Hare's reservations, saying any money would be welcome, but Wyden's pledge would make it harder to persuade voters to support a tax increase, with no certainty it would provide enough money to restore services. A permanent solution would be more logging on federal lands that produces revenue for the counties, he said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.