By Valliant Corley
Wescom Wire Service
GOLD BEACH, Ore. Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has received assurances from Democratic leaders that a one-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act will be part of an Iraq funding bill that will come out of a House committee this week.
The breakthrough came in the U.S. House as Democratic leaders introduced an emergency spending bill to pay for the Iraq war and other critical programs, such as disaster relief. Included in that bill is $400 million to fund the Secure Rural Schools Act for one more year.
The six-year, $400 million-a-year program that affects 33 of Oregon's 36 counties expired last year.
"The essential thing is it's a must-pass bill," DeFazio said on March 8. "The president wants Iraq to have funding by April 18."
DeFazio said both the Speaker of the House and the committee chairman have assured him the $400 million measure will be one of many items in the bill for Iraq funding. He said the measure would be fully funded, including a bit extra for inflation.
"There will be a number of emergency items in the bill," DeFazio said. "It gets around is-sues and is not subject to objections. It is embedded in the bill."
"Today's news comes as a welcome victory in our fight to continue the successful and critical county payments program," DeFazio said. "For months, my sole focus has been finding a way to ensure these payments continue, to keep rural schools open, roads maintained and law enforcement patrolling.
Oregon members of Congress have made great forward progress in forcing the federal government to keep its promise to rural communities, said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
"This development shows that a bipartisan, constant team effort, the kind Oregon put together, can really pay off," Walden said. "The bad news is that the president has already threatened to veto the emergency supplemental over other issues, so there is still much work left to be done for this to become law."
Walden and DeFazio organized a letter signed by 92 of their colleagues that was sent to the House leadership urging that a one-year extension of county payments be included in the supplemental.
Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., called the news a "great development."
"I applaud the work of my Oregon colleagues in the House and thank them for their tireless efforts," Smith said. "Sen. (Ron) Wyden and I are working hard to ensure the one-year county payment extension is also included in the Senate's Emergency Spending bill for Iraq, which is expected to be considered in a few weeks. This assistance is desperately needed, as rural counties face dire consequences."
DeFazio said he will continue to fight to keep the funding in the bill.
"We still have hurdles to overcome before this short-term reauthorization is a reality," DeFazio said. "Once we get this funding passed, we will begin to work on a longer-term solution, which will need to be initiated on the Senate side."
Last year, the county payments program provided nearly $280 million to 33 Oregon counties for services such as schools, roads and law enforcement.
Curry County's portion included about $4 million for the county's general fund, about $3.5 for roads, and additional funds that went to schools through the state.
Counties receiving funding under the program have a high proportion of federally owned lands.
Prior to the enactment of the county payments program, they had received a percentage of receipts from timber harvests, which fluctuated from year to year. However, harvest levels were greatly cut in the late 1990s due to changes in federal forest policy.
In 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act to help stabilize these payments and ensure proper funding for vital county services.
The bill includes $400 million, which will be paid out for the counties' 2007 fiscal year, which begins in July. The last payments to the counties were made in December for fiscal year 2006.
DeFazio and Walden have also introduced a bill that would reauthorize the county payments program for an additional seven years, HR 17.
"The bill will go through the committee next week and the full House the week after and through the Senate by the end of the month," DeFazio said.
He said some restrictions may be placed on the bill that the president has threatened to veto, but "There is going to be a bill by April 15 one way or another. They have to have funding by mid-April."
DeFazio said he was not aware of any opposition to the county funding in the House.
"The senators who are threatening, I would hope they wouldn't try to block this. All of the states do get some funding," DeFazio said. "I would expect they would let this go with full funding."
DeFazio said the Senate would be working on funding for the full seven years.
He said that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. and the two senators from New Mexico (Democrat Jeff Bingaman and Republican Pete Domenici) want to change the formula because they want more for their states.
"Sen. Wyden is involved in negotiating with them over this issue," DeFazio said.
Curry County Commission Chair Marlyn Schafer said she had heard from Commissioner C.W. Smith of Jackson County that that there would be a one-year authorization.
She said an agreement had been made with Sens. Craig and Bingaman for a one-year, full authorization if Sens. Wyden and Smith would agree to a reduction in payments to Oregon of 15 to 40 percent when they work on a permanent solution.