Crapo, Risch look to restore federal school payments

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have signed onto a bill to restore federal payments for schools and counties in timber country — in an attempt to plug about a $7 million hole in Idaho education budgets.

The Republicans have joined Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to introduce a bill that would renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, the federal law designed to offset declining federal timber revenues,

Wyden and former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, authored the 2000 law.

Congress failed to reauthorize the law last year — so Idaho’s payments under the program have dropped from $28.3 million to barely $2 million. In 2013-14, $7.2 million of that $28.3 million went to schools in communities such as Grangeville, Cottonwood and Salmon. (Click here for a closer look at the potential effects on Idaho schools.)

Here’s Thursday’s news release from Crapo:

Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today introduced a bipartisan bill to renew the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program, which supports schools, law enforcement and roads in more than 700 rural counties across the country. The legislation also addresses additional payments to counties under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. 

“While we continue to work on multiple ways to improve the economy of our rural counties that have been damaged by past federal actions, this bill will restore the rightful and traditional federal partnership to assist with funding schools, roads and other local services because federal lands do not contribute to property taxes,” Crapo said. “Our bill renews county payments under the SRS program.  Full, mandatory funding for PILT expired in 2013, and the program now relies on yearly appropriations, creating uncertainty for counties burdened with large federally managed, untaxable lands in their jurisdictions. This bill would keep the promise made to local governments in 1976 that the government would mitigate for the lost tax revenue by restoring mandatory funding status to PILT.”

“In many of our counties, the federal government is the majority landowner and because of that, the federal government should help shoulder the financial burdens facing these counties,” said Risch. “As always, I am committed to the reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools and PILT. I would prefer a longer term fix to provide more certainty to the counties that rely on this funding, but we need a solution very soon. I have always pushed for active forest management and will continue to do so, but until the timber revenues from our national forests increase and refill the 25 percent fund, the federal government must maintain this lifeline to our rural schools and counties.” 

“County payments are a lifeline for cash-strapped rural communities that are already facing shortfalls to pave roads, keep teachers in schools and firefighters on call,” Wyden said. “This bipartisan bill keeps up the commitment the government made to support rural counties in Oregon and across the country. I am glad to once again partner with Sen/ Crapo to get this vital legislation across the finish line.”

The bill would extend the program for three years at 2011 funding levels, rolling back years of declining payments. It would provide a total of roughly $360 million annually for more than 700 counties across the United States. It would also restore mandatory funding of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which compensates counties that contain federal lands.

The PILT program provides critical resources to nearly 1,900 counties in 49 states and 3 U.S. territories.  It was created in 1976 to help offset losses to local governments from the presence of non-taxable federal lands. Property taxes fund county governments allowing them to provide essential services such as law enforcement, public safety, infrastructure maintenance, education, and health services for local communities. A fully funded PILT program helps to ensure that counties that house federal lands can continue to provide these essential services. 

The SRS program reaches over 775 rural counties and 4,400 schools located near national forests throughout the country. SRS payments support public schools, public roads, forest health projects, and other county projects. Along with PILT, rural counties rely heavily on SRS to help provide essential services to residents.

“Resuming federal payments to counties in lieu of property taxes is a good first step,” said Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt. “Idaho counties need these programs and a strong, ongoing, and sustainable program to harvest timber on our public lands to reverse the economic issues created by federal regulations and overreach.”

The senators committed to extend this lifeline in a fiscally responsible way, including fully offsetting the bill’s cost to ensure it has no impact on the deficit.

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