Montana Counties Could Lose in Spending Bill

The Secure Rural Schools Program was left out of a $1 trillion spending bill

By Dillon Tabish

BILLINGS — Montana counties could lose $20 million in federal funding for schools and roads under a spending bill moving through Congress.

The Secure Rural Schools Program was left out of a $1 trillion spending bill designed to fund government operations through September 2015.

The program provides money to counties with U.S. Forest Service land that is untaxable because it is federally owned and often goes unlogged because of government policy and a sluggish timber market.

In Montana, 33 counties receive the funding. Two-thirds of it helps fund roads, and the rest helps pay down countywide school bonds.

Some northwestern Montana counties receive more than $4 million annually from the program, while others get around $134,000.

“One of these days, we’ll have to stand our own feet, I guess,” said Bob Fawn, commissioner in Sweet Grass County, which receives about $340,000 a year from the program, according to Forest Service data.

Nationally, the program costs $330 million a year.

The payments date to the decline of the U.S. logging industry 30 years ago and were intended to help local governments move to other sources of revenue as timber sales and profits declined. Congress has renewed the program by short-term and multiyear extensions.

Secure Rural Schools payments are similar to federal payments in lieu of taxes. That program subsidizes counties with large tracts of federal land that cannot be taxed but still require county roads and other local services.

Some lawmakers wanted to cut the tax program, but it survived.

Montana counties split $26 million in those payments last year.

Montana’s senators, Republican Steve Dines and Democrat Jon Tester, said they supported both programs.

Tester said that under congressional rules, if the schools and roads money is restored, cuts would have to be made elsewhere to cover the difference.

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