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County payments law in doubt.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

Lane County has 15 months to secure critical funding from Congress and the White House at a time when the federal deficit is cause for hand-wringing among lawmakers.

In other words, it's getting close to crunch time.

"We're sweating bullets now," said Tony Bieda, the county's intergovernmental relations manager. "We're behind."

Bieda is concerned about the Secure Rural School and Community Self-Determination Act. The federal law compensates counties across the country for the revenue that they historically had received from federal timber sales, but which has dropped substantially over the years.

Congress created the act in 2000 and gave it a six-year life. If the act isn't reauthorized, 40 states will lose money, but none will lose more than Oregon, the leading beneficiary, which received $273 million last year alone, Bieda said.

Lane and Douglas counties are the two largest recipients of any county in the country. Lane County receives $50 million annually under the act.

Federal lawmakers have every reason to renew an act that they established to compensate counties for lands that are in federal ownership, and thus deprive counties of revenue from taxes and commercial development, Bieda said.

But the federal government is running a $300 billion deficit and adding to it daily with the Iraq war and the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

In addition, President Bush has promised to cut last year's projected record federal deficit - $521 billion - in half by the time he leaves office in 2009.

Given the budget picture, the message from the White House has been less than a ringing endorsement of the renewal bill, and that concerns some Oregon lawmakers.

The renewal would cost the federal government $3.5 billion over seven years.

Lane and Douglas counties are represented by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Springfield. His spokeswoman, Kristine Greco, said Friday that while the act has broad backing in Congress, White House officials "have stopped short of full support of the legislation."

"They're supportive, but they've referenced the tight budget," Greco said.

Before passage of the so-called "county payments" law in 2000, Oregon counties received payments as the result of laws passed in 1908 and 1937 that directed the federal government to share 25 percent of U.S. Forest Service logging receipts and 50 percent of U.S. Bureau of Land Management logging receipts with counties in any state that hosts federal land from which timber is cut. The payments were used to help finance rural schools and roads.

Toward the mid- to late-1990s, however, the principal source of those revenues - federal timber sales - declined by more than 70 percent nationwide. The drop in Lane County was equal to that or greater, Bieda said.

Consequently, the corresponding revenues shared with rural counties across the country declined precipitously, hurting schools and road work.

Congress enacted the county payments law in 2000. Of Oregon's 36 counties, 32 have received payments under the law; last year, the payments to the state totalled more than $273 million.

"Oregon communities lost 35,000 jobs in the forests during the last decade with the decline of timber harvests, and their education and transportation budgets have been increasingly strained," Sen. Gordon Smith said in a press statement. "Providing these payments is the very least we can do."

Without the act, Lane County's discretionary general fund - the spending that is not already legally bound to go to specific programs - would suffer a 20 percent cut, Bieda said.

Supporters of the act want Bush to include it in the budget that he will propose next February. If he doesn't, Congress faces "a real uphill" battle to win passage by the deadline at the end of 2006, Greco said.

There's been no consideration yet of reducing the package, which means Oregon and the other states that benefit currently face an all-or-none outcome - with possibly dire effects if the act isn't reauth- orized.

"If we don't reauthorize county payments, it will be catastrophic for many rural areas in the country," Greco said.
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Title Annotation:Government; The federal law compensates counties to replace previously sizable revenue that came from federal timber sales
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 11, 2005
Words:667
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