Representative Derek Kilmer today sent a letter in support of rural communities potentially impacted by the across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration." The letter, led by Representative Kilmer and signed by 18 other Members of Congress, raises concerns about cuts to vital resources that help rural communities and rural schools.
Many communities, including communities within Washington's 6th Congressional District, rely on funds known as "Secure Rural School" payments to fund education, roads, and wildfire mitigation projects. The Forest Service has requested that 42 states including Washington retroactively refund $17.5 million in payments that were made in January of this year. The agency claims that these payments, which many communities have already dedicated for important projects, are subject to the mandatory across-the-board cuts.
However, there are questions as to the legal authority to request this refund. Representative Kilmer's letter, sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Jeffrey Zients, asks for a justification of this refund request and expresses concern about the administration's course of action to ask for a refund from payments that have already been made to local governments.
"We need to support our rural communities. I have serious concerns with this request for a refund -- both from a legal perspective and because it's just bad policy," said Representative Derek Kilmer. "Folks in our region who rely on these payments for rural schools, emergency services, infrastructure, and wildfire mitigation deserve a clear answer from their government about why they must return funds already allocated for important projects."
"Sequestration isn't working," said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations, which oversees the Forest Service. "We're not saving money, and we're certainly not making things easier for schools or local governments. All over the country we're seeing services disrupted, public sector payrolls coming in short, local airports closing, and now government agencies fighting each other for a few dollars in the wealthiest nation on Earth. Rural schools have relied on these funds for years, and they should continue receiving them. We can cancel the sequester and end this tomorrow if Republicans would just stop playing politics with children's education."
The letter to Secretary Vilsack and Acting Director Zients is below:
Dear Secretary Vilsack and Director Zients,
We write concerning the recent letters sent by Forest Service Chief Tidwell informing governors of the sequester's impact on Secure Rural Schools (SRS) payments. In January of 2013, the Forest Service distributed $291 million to 42 states representing their Secure Rural Schools payments for Fiscal Year 2012. Despite the fact that the payment represents Fiscal Year 2012 funding, the agency is claiming that the payments are subject to mandatory cuts under sequestration. As such, the agency is asking for governors to retroactively refund $17.5 million to ensure that the agency is in compliance with the Anti-deficiency Act.
The most recent authorization of the Secure Rural Schools payment program was extended by one year as part of the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act," that was signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012.
While the Administration has offered the states some flexibility in how they can repay the funds, we are deeply troubled by the legal basis for the retroactive refund request as well as the impact of this request on students in these states and counties. Many of our communities had already dedicated this funding for rural schools, emergency services, infrastructure, and wildfire mitigation. We respectfully request that you provide our offices with an explanation of the legal rationale to request these refunds from states and counties. We also request that you meet with our offices to explain how the Administration will proceed before sending any collection notices to local governments.
It is imperative that the Administration better engage impacted communities and their elected Representatives in Congress before moving ahead on this ill-advised path.
Thank you, in advance, for your attention to our concerns and request.