Federal payments to county go from $44M in 2000 to zero next year

Federal payments to county go from $44M in 2000 to zero next year

EUGENE, Ore. - Counties in Oregon and elsewhere have historically received a percentage of the revenues from timber harvested on federal lands to help pay for schools, law enforcement and other programs.

But when the timber harvest took a dive, that source of revenue dried up.

Congress took action took action to compensate counties for timber revenues lost due to a decreased timber harvest: the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act won passage in 2000.

The act was widely referred to at the time as the "Craig-Wyden Bill" for its chief sponsors, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho.

In 2000, the program paid Lane County alone $44 million.

That payment has dwindled to $15 million this year - and flatlines at zero next year unless Congress takes action to renew the act.

The result has been reductions in county services, like sheriff's deputy patrols and jail beds.

And the view from inside the Beltway suggests renewal of the timber payments faces long odds in Congress.

"It's going to be tough," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, told KVAL News. "It's going to be tough getting it done."

DeFazio said he expects a four or five year extension to emerge from the Senate.

And if Congress doesn't renew the funds?

"Then obviously the county is faced with more cuts than we experienced this year," said Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken. "What those cuts will be it's hard to comment on."

More than half the land in Lane County belongs to the federal government. That is land the county can't put on the property tax rolls, the original impetus behind sharing federal timber revenues with counties to support vital services.

"It's not acceptable that the government should break its compact, that Obama should break yet another promise he made as a candidate," DeFazio said. "He promised a long term solution to this."

Commissioner Leiken said a higher timber cut is the answer to create forest industry jobs and increase timber revenue. 

But for now, he said, the focus is on the federal funding.

"We're hoping that we're going to get a good solid yes for some sort of short term funding for the next foreseeable years," Leiken said.

DeFazio told KVAL News that representatives of timber-dependent states will first try to get approval in the Senate on renewing the funding before bringing the legislation to the House.

He said the program could be paid for by closing tax loopholes.

KVAL News wanted to know when Congress would take action.

DeFazio laughed.

"If you're watching Congress right now," he said, "it's pretty pathetic."