U.S Representative Martin Heinrich (NM-1), joined by cosponsors Reps. Ben Ray Luján (NM-3), Jim Matheson (UT-2), and Shelley Berkley (NV-1), introduced a plan to extend the life of two initiatives that direct millions of dollars in revenue to New Mexico counties to support local employment in schools, county maintenance programs, forest management, and other critical county programs. The plan is a House companion bill to U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman's County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011.
"Maintaining the economic strength of our rural communities means safer roads, better schools, and thousands of local jobs," said Rep. Heinrich. "Secure Rural Schools and PILT are successful programs that ensure that counties have the resources they need to provide critical services New Mexicans rely on."
Taos County Commissioner and President of the New Mexico Association of Counties Andrew Chavez praised the plan, "Representative Heinrich is recognized for his efforts to secure funding for New Mexico's rural communities. Both the Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes programs provide critical financial resources to support high quality schools and infrastructure in rural counties. I applaud Rep. Heinrich for leading the fight to keep these programs authorized and funded."
The plan would:
Extend for five years the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act -- a program that supports counties that rely economically on national forest lands. New Mexico counties would receive as much as $58 million over the next five years under the plan.
Fully-fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program for an additional five years. PILT compensates counties for federal land that cannot be a source of property taxes. On average, New Mexico counties share about $35 million in PILT payments annually.
"Quality schools and reliable infrastructure are the cornerstone of any successful community," said Rep. Luján. "With rural communities often facing unique challenges, it is critical to continue PILT and the Secure Rural Schools program to provide them with vital resources that strengthen our schools and invest in roads and maintenance projects."
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act supports local public schools, funds county road improvement and maintenance projects, creates jobs conducting forest restoration and improvement projects in and around National Forests, and supports local initiatives to reduce the risk from wildfires. The Act was designed to provide more predictable levels of funding than what would be provided under a 1908 law that gives 25 percent of revenues from National Forest lands to local counties to support their schools and roads.
Senator Bingaman led a successful bipartisan effort in 2008 to fund the program through fiscal year 2011, and now leads the effort in the Senate to once again reauthorize the program. The 2008 reauthorization, which expired in September, provided more than $1.75 billion to counties across the country, including more than $250 million in collaborative forest and watershed restoration, wildfire risk reduction, and other community forestry programs.
Under the 2008 law, payments to New Mexico counties were initially increased dramatically and then--like all other counties under the program--were moderately decreased at a rate of 10 percent each year. Under the new plan introduced in the Senate and the House, the annual reduction would be eased to 5 percent each year.
The plan would also ensure that PILT does not have to be subjected to the annual appropriations process -- a process that for years underfunded the program and shortchanged New Mexico counties. As part of the 2008 effort, PILT was guaranteed full-funding through the current fiscal year. Under the new plan, PILT would remain automatically fully-funded until 2017. New Mexico is typically the number one or number two beneficiary of PILT payments.