WASHINGTON – The financial rescue plan signed by President Bush on Friday extends a program that pays rural counties hurt by federal logging cutbacks.
Senators inserted the timber provision as one of several sweeteners to attract more votes for the bailout bill, which the House approved on Friday, two days after the Senate.
The timber provision was especially welcome in the West. Lawmakers from both parties have been trying for years to renew it.
The law, officially titled the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, is commonly known as “county payments.” It provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon, Idaho and other states, mostly in the West, that once depended on federal timber sales to pay for schools, libraries and other services in rural areas. In all, payments go to 700 counties in 39 states.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who co-sponsored the original timber payments law in 2000 and played a key role in its renewal, hailed the program’s extension, which came after a series of votes in the House and Senate that alternately passed and rejected the program.
“Oregon communities can finally breathe a sigh of relief,” Wyden said.
Wyden voted against the bailout bill but asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include the timber provision, which also was backed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a host of Western lawmakers.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the program’s extension a significant victory for rural America. Many rural areas in his state and across the nation are “struggling under the weight of economic hardship and have been on the brink of slashing essential services such as schools, law enforcement and other critical local infrastructure,” said Rahall, whose state gets about $2 million a year under the program.
Under a new formula approved Friday, Oregon will continue to receive the largest share of timber payments — about $254 million in the current budget year — followed by California ($63 million) Washington ($43 million), Idaho ($43 million) and Montana ($32 million).
Eric Schmidt, a spokesman for the Oregon Association of Counties, called extension of the timber law “a day of great elation,” but added: “It’s a bridge, not a bailout.”
Thirty-three of Oregon’s 36 counties get some timber money, Schmidt said, and many have taken drastic steps — including firing sheriff’s deputies and releasing prisoners — to meet budget shortfalls caused by the delay in timber payments.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski called passage of the bill “a lifeline that Congress has thrown to Oregon. It was badly needed.”
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