Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch today announced that they are introducing compromise legislation with a bipartisan group of senators that would enable the federal government to meet its obligations to states, counties and communities that host federal lands. The Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program, managed in Idaho by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, provide funding to Idaho's counties to make up for lost revenues from declines in timber production on Forest Service lands and federal ownership of lands in general. The legislation will provide funding for both programs for five years each.
"For years, our counties have been impacted by losses in timber and tax revenues on federal lands," said Crapo. "The federal government has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to these counties -- they have already lost substantial funding for schools, roads and other essential services -- and that is why I have joined with Senator Risch and several of my Senate colleagues to introduce this bipartisan, compromise legislation."
"In many of our counties, the federal government is the majority landowner. When these large tracts of land are locked up by changing policies, a greater portion of education and transportation costs are pushed on to private property owners. As a landowner, the federal government has a responsibility to help shoulder that burden," said Risch.
The senators note that while this funding must be reauthorized in order for the federal government to meet its obligations, budgetary and management priorities dictate that a simple extension of both programs is not a long-term solution. Rather, this legislation represents a first step in resolving the long-standing challenges associated with county payments. Specifically, the senators noted that Congress needs to have a serious discussion about alternatives to SRS so that Idaho's counties can plan for the future without having to rely on the federal government to help them provide critical services to their communities. The senators also made clear that while this funding is a top priority, it must also be paid for by finding bipartisan, responsible offsets without raising taxes.
"Continued full funding of PILT is a priority for Idaho counties," said Gordon Cruickshank, Valley County Commissioner. "Natural resource payments have not adequately replaced local taxes on federally owned tax-exempt lands. Loss of PILT funding would cause extreme hardships for counties and drastically reduce needed county services in rural communities. Idaho counties are also committed to short-term reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program while continuing to work toward a long-term and permanent solution to sustain Idaho's and the nation's forest communities. Reauthorization of these programs will reinforce counties' trust in the compact made by the federal government with counties that our nation's public lands and natural resource based economy are important to rural counties with large tracts of public land throughout the United States."
Among the other original co-sponsors of this legislation are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D--Nevada); Senators Jeff Bingaman (D--New Mexico) and Lisa Murkowski (R--Alaska), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR); and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Public Lands Subcommittee of the ENR Committee.
PILT was established in 1976 to compensate counties for foregone tax revenues resulting from the presence of federal lands in their communities. SRS was created in 2000, in response to major declines in timber production on federal forests in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. PILT is currently authorized for one more year, but SRS funding has expired and the last payments to counties will be made over the next few months.