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Smith's disturbing advice.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Sen. Gordon Smith wants Oregonians to know he's battling to renew the federal county payments program that has provided $1.6 billion to rural counties and schools in this state and elsewhere across the nation since 2000.

That deserves three cheers and maybe even a couple of "pip pips" for the junior senator from Oregon. Those are exactly the kind of fighting words we've been waiting to hear from Smith, whose party controls both chambers of Congress and a White House that's determined to cut federal payments to counties by 50 percent and eliminate them altogether after five years.

Unfortunately, Smith didn't stop there. He went on to counsel counties and school districts against depending on federal subsidies indefinitely. "I have a duty to my colleagues in county government to remind them this was a temporary program," he said. "This was never meant to be a permanent thing."

Smith explained he was speaking out because many counties, including some in Oregon, are relying on the federal payments for their basic operating budgets, a practice the senator warned "just isn't wise." Instead of relying on the federal money to pay for public safety, roads and schools, he said the counties should move forward with multiple uses of national forests, including increased timber production. And, oh yes, while they're at it, they should diversify their economies.

Someone should inform Smith that rural counties - such as Lane County, which receives half of its discretionary general fund budget from the federal program - have no choice but to use this money to pay for essential services. If Lane County relied on its pathetically small tax base, it would not even have enough money to pay for the county jail and other core public safety operations.

As for the federal program being "temporary," Smith should take a refresher course in Oregon history. He'd learn that Congress agreed in 1908, a year after the creation of the national forest system, that counties should receive 25 percent of the revenue from the sale of timber on public lands to compensate for the fact that no property tax could be collected from federally owned lands. When timber harvests declined in the late 1980s because of concern over endangered species, Congress approved a safety net that guaranteed counties a percentage of their previous income from federal timber harvests. In 2000, federal lawmakers approved the current program, which severed the link between harvests and payments to counties.

Now, the Bush administration wants to cut payments by 50 percent, even though the historical underpinnings of this federal obligation have not changed. The White House and Smith apparently believe that counties' budgets should rely, as they once did, on the logging of public lands, ignoring the fact that environmental restrictions and decades of overlogging make that a Beltway pipe dream. As for diversifying economies, Smith should know how hard rural counties have worked to achieve that goal and how incremental the gains have been.

These are not the words that Oregonians want and need to hear from Smith. They want to hear him recognize the immense stakes for rural counties. They want to hear him side with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to renew the county payments program at 100 percent of its previous funding level. They want to hear Smith acknowledge that federal payments to Lane and other counties aren't temporary handouts, but the latest incarnation of the federal government's long-standing obligation.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; County payments program 'temporary,' he warns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 18, 2006
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