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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Scott Hutsell: Congress comes through for federal lands counties

By Scott Hutsell Board of Commissioners

In March, Congress passed omnibus funding legislation that will keep the federal government open until the end of September. Within this legislation were provisions to extend key federal public lands programs that provide important revenue to county governments around our state: Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payments In-Lieu of Taxes (PILT).

Congress also reauthorized the SRS program for another two years in the omnibus. SRS was enacted in 2000 to compensate for steep reductions in revenues from timber harvests, which resulted from national policies that substantially diminished revenue-generating activities within federal forests. On May 8 the federal government announced that SRS payments would be released in short order.

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers played an important role in getting SRS reauthorized by sponsoring the initial legislation to continue the program, which garnered 57 bipartisan cosponsors. She kept the pressure on party leaders in public and private to include it in the final omnibus spending package.

Washington receives the fourth greatest amount of SRS nationwide. This year, counties and schools around the state can count on approximately $16 million to keep teachers in our classrooms, provide support for emergency services and conduct search and rescue operations on public lands. These much-needed streams of revenue will ensure we deliver services on-time in the months ahead.

The omnibus also fully funded Payments In-Lieu of Taxes (PILT) at $530 million, an historic funding level for the program, and $65 million more than last year. PILT was established for county governments with large tracts of untaxable federal land within their jurisdiction to make up some of the lost tax revenue.

Washington is a major recipient of PILT. Last year, counties in our state received over $21.3 million in PILT. Lincoln County alone received over $235,000 from this vital program. Our county, as well as many others around the state, relies on PILT to provide crucial government services such infrastructure and road maintenance, law enforcement, solid waste disposal and many other government services.

The omnibus bill also created new tools for active forest management and a comprehensive wildfire funding fix, reducing the threats we in the West face from catastrophic wildfires. These provisions are major victories for public lands counties, and will assist in creating healthy, resilient landscapes that are less susceptible to wildfire.

Our nation’s capital might seem far away. Actions there can feel distant or disconnected. But with renewed support for the PILT and SRS programs, and important forestry fixes, Congress has moved to keep Lincoln County healthy, vibrant and safe.

Scott Hutsell is commissioner of Lincoln County District 2.