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The Oregonian - Economic Bill Throws Rural Oregon Counties a Lifeline

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The Oregonian - Economic Bill Throws Rural Oregon Counties a Lifeline
by Harry Esteve

Passage of the massive bailout bill Friday brought cheers of relief in Oregon, from the governor's office in Salem to county boardrooms in the southern end of the state.

Tucked inside the massive rescue plan is $3 billion in federal relief to rural counties that once relied on logging money to pay for roads, schools, jails and sheriff patrols.

Of that, about $740 million is headed to 33 Oregon counties during the next four years, staving off a looming financial crisis in the state.

"What Oregon got is a lifeline for the next four years," Gov. Ted Kulongoski said.

Kulongoski was getting ready to give a speech to a meeting of the League of Oregon Cities when someone slipped him a note that the U.S. House had passed the bailout bill, including the federal timber payments.

When he announced what he'd learned, "everyone started clapping," the governor said.

"For a politician, that's great. All I was doing was delivering the news."

The euphoria spread quickly. In Jackson County, county commissioners and staff gathered around a TV, watching C-SPAN's coverage of the House floor vote. When the gavel came down, they erupted in cheers, a county receptionist said.

Josephine County commissioners also glued themselves to C-SPAN early Friday. But after seeing the payment plan rise and fall so many times in Congress, they were wary about celebrating.

"You go up and down this roller coaster so much that you're just kind of numb," said Commissioner Dave Toler. Josephine County has been forced to close its libraries, and was looking at shutting down jails, cutting out all but the most serious criminal prosecutions and all but ending sheriff patrols.

"Obviously, this relieves a tremendous amount of pressure," Toler said. The county is asking voters to approve two public safety levies in November. If they pass, the tax increases will be phased in now, instead of coming all at once, he said.

Including timber payments in the federal bailout bill was the work of several members of Oregon's congressional delegation, led by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. Ironically, Wyden voted against the bill, saying it was too expensive and didn't contain enough protections for taxpayers.

Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, however, voted for it. And at a news conference Friday in Salem, he used his vote as a bludgeon against his re-election opponent, Democrat Jeff Merkley, who said he would have opposed the bill.

"This is a moment of great definition in my campaign," Smith said, portraying Merkley as a partisan willing to sacrifice the state's timber counties. Smith said voting for the bill took courage.

"What I didn't do, with calls running 10-1 against, was what Mr. Merkley did, which was to stick his finger in the air and see which way the wind was blowing."

Merkley said he has been a fierce advocate for the timber payments, but the overall bill is aimed at protecting millionaires on Wall Street, not regular Oregonians.

"I care passionately about rural Oregon," Merkley said. "Is Smith saying that Ron Wyden and (Rep.)Peter DeFazio don't care about Oregon? It's one of the cheapest political attacks we've ever heard out of Gordon Smith."

DeFazio, a Democrat whose district includes a number of financially strapped counties, voted against the bill despite the timber payments inclusion.

"Ron and I said at the beginning of Congress we would look for any and every moving vehicle to attach it to," a discouraged DeFazio said after President Bush signed the rescue bill. "Unfortunately it ended up, in my opinion, on a destructive and expensive vehicle."

Kulongoski, meanwhile, warned that counties affected by the payments must start working now to reorganize their budgets and find new sources of cash, because the payments won't be extended again. But he said people are motivated.

"People have looked down the throat of the dragon," Kulongoski said. "We've all felt its hot breath."

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