All six members of the Oregon Congressional delegation -- U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden -- and Governor John Kitzhaber expressed unified support today for a county payments agreement they called "essential to ensuring a lifeline for Oregon's rural communities."
For months, Oregon's Congressional delegation has been working with Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman on a way to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act -- commonly known as the county payments law -- and put rural communities back to work in the woods.
Today, they announced that an agreement has been reached and that next week Chairman Bingaman will be introducing bipartisan legislation to extend the program for an additional five years at a level of funding necessary to support essential county services.
The governor and members of the Oregon delegation issued the following joint statement on the agreed upon legislation:
"In the current budget environment, renewing even essential programs is an uphill battle. But without the financial certainty offered by the county payments program, there is no future for Oregon's rural counties.
"The bipartisan legislation that Chairman Bingaman will introduce next week proposes to give Oregon communities the level of assistance they need to maintain critical county services -- like schools, sheriffs and search and rescue efforts -- while we work for longer-term solutions on the O&C lands and other federal forests. The process has already begun in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"While passage of this legislation is not guaranteed, gaining Chairman Bingaman's support is an important step in our effort to get the job done. Part of that effort includes educating our colleagues in Congress on the unique challenges facing a state where the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land -- as well as the historic commitment the federal government made to those communities.
"Our unified effort underscores how essential it is for Congress and the administration to honor that commitment and Oregonians can count on us to continue to work together to get the job done."
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000, originally authored by Wyden and U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) in 1999, established a six-year payment formula for counties that receive revenue-sharing payments from the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Based in part on historic timber receipts, the formula established a stable source of revenue to be used for education, roads and various other county services in rural areas. Over 700 counties in 41 states have received funding under the original county payments law, which was allowed to expire in September 2006. The law was extended in 2008 after a protracted effort by the Oregon delegation to renew the program, but that extension ended last Friday and Oregon counties are slated to receive their last checks early next year. Without renewed funding, counties will have to consider drastic budget cuts that have in the past included: four-day school weeks, releasing prisoners from county jails and laying off county sheriffs.