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Federal government should pay fair share for local services.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Peter Sorenson For The Register-Guard

Historically, because of the U.S. Constitution'sSupremacy Clause, state and local government efforts to levy property taxes on Oregon's biggest landowner, the federal government, have failed.

So although the federal government owns better than halfof the land in Oregon, it doesn't pay property taxes. That's no property taxes to schools, community colleges or counties.

Throughthe years, in different ways, Congress has tried to offset fiscal harm to such local governments as Lane County, which are affected by these policies.

One way is the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000, the program that returns a portion of taxpayers' money to county governments that are fiscally limited by federal ownership of forest land. I testified on this bill when it was in Congress and got to watch President Clinton sign it at the White House in October2000. Congress and President Bush have extended the law until September2008, and then it ends.

The Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act of 1976 simply provided that the federal government pay counties $1 per acre of federal land, which wasn't much for a countysuch asLane.

The O&C Act of 1937 required federal timber harvest revenue paid by logging companies be shared with 18 county governments in Oregon, including Lane. Why? Because the federal government took back land planned for the Oregon&California Railroad, a railroad that was never built.

To varying degrees, all three pieces of legislation still carry the force of law and are funded, at least for the moment. So that pile of money is quite a bit of green. But we can't see the forest because of the trees.

Perhaps at least a few timber industry folks have unrealistic expectations about increasing timber cut levels. Perhaps a few environmentalists have a zero-cut attitude. And everyone else is caught in the fray. Then somehow we happen to forget amid all the squabbles that schools need more money and children need our help. Roads need to be maintained, and we need county sheriff's deputies looking out for our families. They all need our support.

And while most of the special interest groups squabble, the community is hung out to dry. But stormy weather always comes, so we need to prepare. We need to keep our families and our forests safe.

Now, the issue is really joined for those of us who live in the 18 western Oregon counties called the O&C counties.

In the 1970s, the timber cutting was unsustainable and counties were getting paid pretty well. Then the federal government, under pressure from environmental advocates, severely reduced the timber harvest after the discovery that the overcutting was imperiling fish and wildlife habitat. Yes, that's when most of us learned about something called the northern spotted owl.

To keep federal forest county governments alive, the "guarantee" concept arose. And federal legislation such asthe Secure Rural Schools Act, which paid Lane County $47 million this year, became law.

That guarantee is about to run out, but U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden have been working for an extension of the guarantee in one form or another. I've worked on this issue for many years, and I think the federal-land counties need a guarantee. A phase down in revenue will only mean that there will be resource exploitation on these federal lands. These lands belong to all of us, and part of the obligation of ownership is to pay local taxes. It's fair that the feds pay their fair share of taxes for local services, just like any other landowner.

But now, the timber industry's work with the Bush administration is starting to show results. The Bureau of Land Management announced earlier this month a proposal to significantly increase the cutting on the O&C lands it manages. Public comment can be submitted to the BLM during the 60-day comment period.

What will it be? A guarantee to America's federal-forest counties, or overcutting our federal forest lands for county services?

Peter Sorenson ( represents south Eugene on the Lane County Board of Commissioners. Sorenson will participate in a town hall meeting to discuss timber harvest levels and federal revenues at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Harris Hall on the Lane County Courthouse square. Former KOPT morning host Brian Shaw will act as moderator, and the event will be broadcast live on KOPT 1600 AM.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 29, 2007
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