Rural counties and school districts in the Inland Northwest won’t have to slash budgets as once feared after President Bush signed a Wall Street rescue plan Friday that includes the extension of payments to counties hurt by federal logging cutbacks.
Senators inserted the timber provision as one of several sweeteners to attract more votes for the bailout bill.
Lawmakers in the region had been trying for years to renew the law, officially titled the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, while officials who depend on the money braced for budget cuts.
The struggle has “been good for Tums and antacid companies, but it hasn’t been good for county commissioners or anyone involved in the school system,” said Robin Stanley, superintendent of the Mullan School District in Idaho’s Shoshone County. “It’s too bad the school districts have to benefit from the collapse of Wall Street, but I’ll take it any way we get it.”
The four-year, $3.3 billion extension will pump money into 700 counties in 39 states that once depended on federal timber sales to pay for schools, libraries and other services. While Kootenai and Spokane counties will get some funding, the bulk of the money goes to rural counties, including Stevens, Ferry, Shoshone and Benewah.
“For us, every $10,000 or $20,000 can mean the difference between being able to maintain an employee and figuring out another way to do the job,” said Stevens County Commissioner Merrill Ott. He criticized the bailout bill, which was packed with extras, but said the $450,000 the county will continue to receive annually will help maintain roads and prevent cuts.
Federal land in the counties makes the tax base small, and the extra funding is crucial, officials said.
“It’s just absolutely crucial to us to have the extra help,” Stanley said. “We’ve been sweating bullets. … Everyone’s gotta be just grinning ear to ear.”
Stanley had already prepared for the loss of $70,000 the program provides his district annually. He probably wouldn’t have replaced a retiring teacher, he said, which would have eliminated a program in his tiny district. He declined to identify the program. In the past, the funding paid for textbooks, science lab updates and a new roof on the elementary school, among other things.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who co-sponsored the original timber payments law in 2000 with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, hailed the program’s extension, which came after a series of votes in the House and Senate that alternately passed and rejected it.
“Oregon communities can finally breathe a sigh of relief,” Wyden said.
Wyden voted against the bailout bill but asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include the timber provision, which also was backed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and a host of Western lawmakers.
Under a formula approved Friday, Oregon will continue to receive the largest share of payments – about $254 million in the current budget year – followed by California ($63 million) Washington ($43 million), Idaho ($43 million) and Montana ($32 million).