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Tester, Daines Rally Bipartisan Support for Rural County Funding Program

Lincoln County and other forested areas have depended on funding from Secure Rural Schools program

By Justin Franz

Montana’s two U.S. Senators have joined a bipartisan coalition pushing to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools program, which aids counties where most of the land is owned by the federal government and therefore does not create any tax revenue.

The program, which in 2014 doled out more than $300 million, expired in late 2015 and the last authorized payments were sent to rural counties earlier this spring. The program is especially critical in places like Lincoln County, where the U.S. Forest Service holds a vast majority of the land.

On April 29, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines wrote a letter with 30 other lawmakers to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid encouraging them to reauthorize the SRS program.

“If this program doesn’t get reauthorized it will impact everything from roadwork to school maintenance,” Tester told the Beacon.

For nearly a century, the federal government shared timber revenues with rural counties, but as production declined the Forest Service looked for another way to help wooded communities. The SRS program was enacted in 2000.

The SRS payments are used to maintain schools, infrastructure and other government services in 720 counties and 4,200 school districts in 41 states. In recent years, Lincoln County has received upwards of $2.7 million annually and in past interviews county commissioners have said the payments have helped keep the local government’s budget in the black.

“The Secure Rural Schools program remains vital to ensuring that necessary funding is available for our rural schools and communities in Montana’s forested counties, and I will continue to fight to reauthorize it,” Daines said in a press release last week.

Montana’s senators are not alone in their support and Tester told the Beacon that will be key to getting it reauthorized. He said the SRS program has support of both liberal and conservative members.

“The likelihood of it getting reauthorized is high because we’ve seen the positive impact of it,” Tester said.

But the current election could throw a wrench in the effort, Tester said, noting that the Senate will work only 100 days during 2016. He said it is possible the SRS program will be reauthorized via an amendment to another bill or have to wait until the lame duck session after the November election.

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