April 2, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Rural roads and schools need more protection

 

Didn’t think the brainless budget sequester Congress foisted upon itself could get any dumber? Read on.

The U.S. Department of Interior is asking states to pay back millions of dollars already allocated to rural counties for schools, roads and other services. Plus, it plans to subject funding to the across-the-board cuts called for under sequestration.

The Safe Rural Schools Act was adopted in 2000 to compensate counties for revenue they used to get before wildlife protections were enacted, causing timber sales to decline. Now, the feds want counties to return the $15.6 million in SRS funds, some of which has been spent.

The feds also plan to cut $20 million from the Payment In Lieu of Taxes program (known as PILT), which compensates rural counties for having large tracts of untaxable federal land within their boundaries. The PILT reduction is part of the 5.1 percent across-the-board cuts called for under the sequester for 2013.

Did the feds warn the states of this impending hit to county budgets? Not that anyone noticed. According to a letter sent to the Obama administration by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and signed by 30 representatives from both parties, the Forest Service dropped the bombshell on March 20 despite knowing about it for months.

We note the irony of members of Congress complaining about cuts brought about by the inaction of Congress, but they are right about the importance of these particular funds.

According to the Department of the Interior’s accounting, the checks went out in fiscal year 2013, so the money falls under sequestration. But, as the letter notes, the money was appropriated in 2012. The sequester took effect on March 1.

The feds and states have shared timber sales revenue for a century, and the money makes up significant portions of rural county budgets in the Northwest. Nontaxable federal lands comprise more than one-fifth of Washington state. For fiscal year 2012, Pend Oreille County received about $1.7 million in SRS and PILT funds. Bonner County in Idaho got about $1.4 million. The Gifford Pinchot Forest makes up 80 percent of Skamania County in southwest Washington, so revenue sharing is critical for schools and roads.

Rural counties were already grappling with the steady funding cutbacks that have been written into the annual reauthorizations of the Secure Rural Schools Act. Because the money is so vital, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has called on Congress to protect such programs from the budgetary brinksmanship that produced the sequester in the first place.

These counties have no place to turn if Congress fails to act.

At times, the effects of sequestration have been exaggerated, but that won’t be the case in rural counties if these cuts are allowed to stand. The problem all along with this witless budget-cutting tool is that it doesn’t allow government to discern the smart cuts from the stupid ones.

This one is stupid, and it must be stopped.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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