U.S. Senate Passes Bill Extending County Payments

By Beacon Staff

A one-year renewal of county timber payments passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday as part of the major transportation bill.

The Senate voted 74-22 in favor of the bill, sending it to the House, where prospects for renewal of county timber payments remain uncertain.

Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden said restoration of the payments is urgently needed as struggling rural counties try to make ends meet, because it would take years for comparable money to be generated by House proposals to replace the subsidies with mandates to increase logging on federal lands.

“What I want everybody to understand is the battle we are facing is about the here and now, and an awful lot of Oregonians are going to get hurt if we don’t get the Senate measure through the House,” Wyden said from Washington, D.C.

The amendment that Wyden and others attached to the transportation bill last week would distribute $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states. It represents a 5 percent reduction in the 2011 payments under the Secure Rural Schools Act and the Payment In Lieu of Taxes program. The estimate distribution to the top five states is: Oregon, $106,387,221; California, $35,464,419; Idaho, $29,212,742; Washington, $24,011,030 and Montana, $22,385,208.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the way the Senate made room in the budget for timber payments, by closing a tax loophole, cannot be approved in the House under the Republican leadership’s rules.

“House rules are really strict — no new revenues for any purpose,” he said from Springfield. “If you close a tax loophole, you must open a new loophole.

Alternatively, if the House were to come up with its own transportation bill, the timber counties issue could be resolved in conference committee between the two bodies. However, House Republicans were struggling to put together their own five-year transportation bill without concessions to Democrats.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said he had commitments from the House leadership to fund a fund a short-term extension of county payments.

“Whether it’s in this transportation bill or some other vehicle, we intend to get it done,” he said in a statement.

The federal payments to counties with national forests and other federal timberlands started in 2000 to make up for cuts in logging prompted by protections for fish and wildlife. Counties get a share of revenues collected on federal lands.

Renewal of the county payments would still leave many rural counties struggling to plug a funding gap left by voters refusing to increase property taxes.

RELATED: Millions in the Balance as Timber Program Expires