Tucked into the federal highway bill approved by Congress last week was a provision to extend two programs that annually bring millions of dollars to Montana’s schools and local governments: Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes.
The Secure Rural Schools program is commonly referred to as a federal timber payment.
On June 29, the Senate and House agreed on a highway bill that authorizes about $100 billion for transportation and mass transit programs over the next two years, while shielding students from an interest rate increase on their college loans.
In an amendment championed by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the legislation also included one-year extensions for both Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT).
The two programs combined to bring in roughly $45 million to Montana between June 2011 and January 2012 and both expired this year. They are crucial for areas of the state with large amounts of federal land like Lincoln County, which received over $4 million from its last Secure Rural Schools payment.
“We’re extremely grateful and pleased and excited,” Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose said, noting that the payment is less than last year.
“Now we have to start working on a long-term plan,” she added.
In her reference to a long-term plan, Roose is expressing the often-repeated hope of timber county leaders that Congress will provide a more stable funding mechanism for Secure Rural Schools and PILT, rather than a short-term extension.
The Secure Rural Schools Act – officially called the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act – was authorized in 2000 to help states and counties transition into an era of reduced federal revenues. Congress extended the program in 2008 for four more years.
Payments go to support schools, roads and, to a lesser degree, wildfire preparedness and emergency services reimbursements.
The Payments in Lieu of Taxes program was established in 1976 and provides funds to local governments to offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal lands within the governments’ jurisdictions.
Dave Prunty, Flathead County’s public works director, said in an earlier interview that Secure Rural Schools and PILT provide roughly 20 percent of the county road department’s budget.
Baucus, who led bipartisan negotiations on the Highway Bill Conference Committee, released a statement praising the bill’s positive impact on Montana, referring to the legislation as a whole and specifically mentioning Secure Rural Schools and PILT, among other programs.
Baucus’ office says the legislation will bring the state nearly $400 million and support about 13,500 jobs annually. He said it provides longer-term certainty for communities and contractors trying to plan out construction projects.
“This is a big win for Montana jobs because highways are our lifeblood,” Baucus said. “I worked hard to make sure Montana had a seat at the table and I’m proud that we were able to get the job done for Montana families.”
Tester also praised the one-year extension of the payments.
“Montana’s rural communities depend on good roads and schools,” Tester said. “Extending Secure Rural Schools and PILT will help those rural economies survive and I’m proud to continue my support for these successful initiatives.”
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