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‘County payments’ are a lifeline, not a benefit

The Craig-Wyden bill was supposed to be something of a soup kitchen for regions clobbered by a sharp fall-off in federal timber sales in the 1990s. In less than a decade, Congress has turned it into an open hospitality bar that quenches all thirsts.

As the Associated Press reported Monday, even states with scant historic connections to timber are now reaping millions from the program enacted in 2000 under the leadership of Sens. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

Residents of the Pacific Northwest have two significant reasons to be alarmed by this development.

First, the federal government has no extra money to throw around, and so the expansion of so-called county payments into a broad entitlement depletes the pool of funds available to address the original need.

Second, if the exposure of abuse produces a backlash, the potential response could be to eliminate the entire program, including the justified part.

Millions of acres of the Northwest are owned by the federal government, land – such as forests – on which local governments are unable to collect property taxes to help pay for schools and roads. To compensate them, the federal government traditionally gave those communities “in-lieu” funds.

Prior to 2000, certain counties in areas like North Idaho and Eastern Washington received 25 percent of the gross proceeds from federal timber harvests within their boundaries. That was fine until environmental pressures and a wave of lawsuits radically slowed timber harvests.

Craig and Wyden came up with a more stable revenue flow to help the counties remain afloat: county payments. Periodic requirements to renew the program gave congressional colleagues an opportunity to spread the wealth around. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s home state of Nevada has enjoyed a 1,132 percent increase in its payments following the four-year renewal approved last year.

A lobbyist on behalf of Oregon counties quipped that last year’s renewal amounted to a compromise in which “everybody gets more.”

As those of us outside the Beltway know, that doesn’t work. The original spirit behind the Craig-Wyden plan was reasonable and bipartisan, and it needs to be restored. It’s up to the Pacific Northwest delegation to provide the leadership.

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