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Counties get reprieve.

Byline: The Register-Guard

There's an old joke about a king who sentenced his court jester, an inveterate punster, to the gallows because of his inability to refrain from incessant and irritating word plays. At the last moment, the king relented and said the man could live as long as he never told another pun. The jester sighed with relief and remarked, "Well, no noose is good news."

Reprieves can be dicey and ridden with uncertainty. The Bush administration's last-minute agreement to spare Lane County and nearly 700 other rural U.S. counties from a looming federal budget cut is no exception.

The administration has committed to a one-year extension of the $401 million annual county allocation that brings $279 million to Oregon and $50 million to Lane County. But neither the White House nor Congress has figured out how to pay for the temporary fix, although the administration has agreed for the time being to abandon its misguided plan to finance the payments to counties by selling federal forest lands. Nor is there even the vaguest outline of an agreement on the larger question of what to do after the one-year extension expires.

This is no way to treat rural counties. Instead of frantically groveling for a one-year extension - and an uncertain one at that - they should have full confidence that the federal government will continue to fulfill its century-old obligation to counties in which federally managed timber lands are located.

The Bush administration put that long-standing obligation in jeopardy earlier this year when it proposed reducing federal payments to counties by 50 percent and eliminating them entirely after five years.

Never mind that Congress agreed in 1908, one year after the creation of the national forest system, that counties should receive one-fourth of the revenues from the sale of timber on public lands to compensate for their inability to tax or develop the federal lands.

Never mind that the decline of timber harvests in the late 1980s choked off the flow of school, road and public safety funding to Lane County and its rural counterparts across the nation. Never mind that Congress in 2000 approved the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act that honored the federal commitment to rural counties but severed the link between harvests and payments.

To be sure, the one-year extension, if it wins final approval and is fully funded by Congress, is welcome news. Without it, payments would have ended Sept. 30. Counties were already planning budget cuts and layoffs. In Lane County, commissioners were preparing to close the inmate work camp and dramatically scale back the public works department. As Lane County Board Chairman Bill Dwyer observed, "It would have really been ugly."

Even if just for a year, the administration has agreed to full funding of the county payments program - and, just as importantly, to the current formula that ensures that Lane, Douglas and other Oregon counties that have vast amounts of federally owned timber lands within their borders receive the substantial percentage of federal funding that they deserve.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith deserve primary credit for the agreement. Wyden shrewdly played his hand as a member of the Democratic minority by placing holds on Bush nominations to key posts at the Interior and Agriculture departments in protest of the administration's plans to cut payments to the counties. Wyden agreed to lift those holds in exchange for a pledge from Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey to continue the program for another year.

Meanwhile, Republican Smith finally succeeded in convincing the White House that some rural counties would be crippled by the federal budget cut - and that his own political future might be damaged, as well.

Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Lane County Commissioner Anna Morrison, who directed the county's lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., also played vital roles in building support in Congress.

Now, Northwest officials must begin the long, hard job of turning this one-year reprieve into a permanent extension of the federal government's century-old commitment to honoring its obligation to rural counties.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; But federal program's future remains uncertain
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 9, 2006
Words:675
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