Schools face cut in federal timber payments

Automatic and across-the-board federal spending cuts could carve hundreds of thousands of dollars from public school budgets in Idaho timber country.

The federal government wants $17.9 million back from timber communities — money the feds distributed to help communities finance schools, roads and other local services.

The biggest chunk of money in question, $15.6 million, falls under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. This 2000 law — once known as Craig-Wyden, for original Senate sponsors Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. — is designed to replace revenue from timber receipts.

In January, Uncle Sam distributed $323 million under this law. This included a $26.6 million payment for Idaho, of which $7.6 million went to Idaho schools.

So what happened? The automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts commonly known in political circles as the “sequester.” The federal government says the timber payments are subject to the automatic cuts.

Now, let’s crunch the numbers a bit. If this sequester cut is applied across the board, at the 5.1 percent rate prescribed under sequestration, Idaho schools could be looking at a Secure Rural Schools cut of nearly $400,000.

Not surprisingly, Secure Rural Schools payments are largest, and most critical, to school districts surrounded by timber country. The Mountain View School District — a sprawling, 8,300-square-mile district, Grangeville, Elk City and Kooskia — received more than $1.23 million from the program in 2012-13. Using that 5.1 percent figure as a baseline, this district could face close to $63,000 in cuts.

According to the state Department of Education, the other top five Secure Rural Schools funding recipients are Salmon ($533,000), McCall-Donnelly ($506,000), Cottonwood ($428,000) and Kellogg ($412,000).

Mike Simpson

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson

The feds’ refund demand has drawn fire on Capitol Hill. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and 30 other House members sent a letter to the Obama administration last week, saying local governments should be allowed to keep the money.

“For the administration to announce three months after the disbursement of these payments that they are subject to the sequester, and that states will receive a bill for repayment of funds already distributed to counties, appears to be an obvious attempt by President Obama’s administration to make the sequester as painful as possible.”

Second Congressional District Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was among the co-signers. First District Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, was not a co-signer, but he blasted the administration for using the sequester to try to score “political points.”

Raul Labrador

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador

“I support the efforts of Chairman Hastings and his request in the letter,” Labrador said in a statement late Tuesday. “Unfortunately, my staff was out of the office when this letter was circulated and it wasn’t brought to my attention until after it was sent.”