Federal funding cut leaves Idaho communities in annual limbo

I joined fellow Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and a large, bipartisan group of Senate colleagues in introducing legislation that would extend payments under the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program, commonly called county payments, to rural counties with large tracts of tax-exempt federal lands in Idaho and other states. Without the SRS program, existing revenue sharing payments are not sufficient to support the services many Idaho counties must provide. This federal obligation to rural residents must be met.

The SRS program, managed in Idaho by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, provide funding to Idaho’s counties to make up for lost revenues from declines in timber production on Forest Service lands and federal ownership of lands in general. PILT payments will continue and will increase. However, the SRS program expired in the fall of 2015 and requires congressional reauthorization.

The lapse in this federal obligation makes many Idaho counties face considerable challenges meeting local needs. Schools, roads, emergency services, forest health projects and other important services are supported through the SRS program.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho counties received in total about $22 million in SRS payments last year. This year, that number has dropped to $2 million, because it is based on the backup formula of a 25 percent share of receipts of timber harvested on federal lands.

The new legislation, S. 1027, would extend authorization for SRS payments for two years and offer retroactive payments for 2016. S. 1027 was introduced with 15 co-sponsors and has support from two key Senate committees: Finance; and Energy and Natural Resources. Sen. Risch and I have worked with Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Finance ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on the legislation. Co-sponsors include Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

In March, I joined Senator Risch and 78 of our congressional colleagues in sending a bipartisan, bicameral letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) calling for the inclusion of funding for the SRS program in the President’s budget request to Congress. Unfortunately, SRS payments have not been included in the President’s budget proposals.

Congress needs to permanently address SRS to ensure that Idaho counties are not left in annual limbo. We must look for supplemental support, such as strengthening revenue sharing with local governments by increasing timber harvests and restoration work on federally managed lands. These reforms must be considered while Congress also enacts comprehensive economic reforms to control the irresponsible overspending that resulted in the enormous national debt that has made it increasingly difficult to ensure that the federal government meets its responsibilities to rural counties.