Obama Budget Has Room for County Payments

By Beacon Staff

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – President Barack Obama’s proposed 2012 budget released Monday would continue special funding for timber counties, but at lower levels, according to members of Oregon’s congressional delegation.

The White House budget proposal includes $328 million overall for the first of five years. That represents a 10 percent cut, with funding declining 20 percent a year in successive years.

The proposal does not include a funding source, raising the strong possibility it will not survive under new House Republican budget rules requiring new programs to be offset by cuts in other programs, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

“As of a month ago we weren’t in the budget,” despite Obama’s campaign promise to support special federal funding for timber counties, DeFazio said. “Somewhere in there he was persuaded to put it in the budget. It’s a good start. But only a start.”

Mike McArthur, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, said it was good news, but far from a guarantee that budget problems were over for timber counties such as Curry and Josephine, where taxes are very low and voters have turned down public safety tax increases.

“Always about the time they put it on the ballot, Congress comes through with something so now people are very cynical,” he said.

Counties can’t declare bankruptcy, so without some long-term solution, the worst off will be left with little more than a sheriff and a few jail cells, he added.

For a century, the U.S. Forest Service has shared logging revenues with rural counties, but increased protections for fish and wildlife led to a huge downturn in logging in the 1990s and some rural counties — particularly in Oregon — have been struggling ever since to pay for schools, roads, and sheriff’s patrols.

Temporary programs since 2000 have given money to rural counties in 41 states, but payments have been ramping down steadily. The last payments will come at the end of October this year.

The current program is handing out $3.3 billion over four years. Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho and Montana — which all have large amounts of national forests and other federal lands — have been the biggest recipients.

Full details of how the money would be distributed were not immediately available, but Oregon would get $101 million, a 10 percent reduction from the last year of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, DeFazio said. He did not have figures for other states.

Payments would stop for states falling below $10 million a year. Their shares would go back in the fund to be distributed to the other states.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said in a statement it would be a challenge to find a way to pay for the program.

Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley said they hoped Obama’s support for continued funding for rural counties would lead to enacting a permanent funding mechanism for the program.

“A sustainable level of funding is part of the federal government’s historic commitment to these communities and local governments need more than a short-term extension of they are ever going to get off the fiscal rollercoaster,” Wyden said in a statement.

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