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Talks continue over region's timber payments

By Keith Chu

WesCom Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – The wrangling continues in Washington over how to extend the timber payments program that channels millions of dollars to Oregon counties.

Senate Democrats pushed Friday for a $5 billion, five-year plan to give money to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.

And Western lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, pressed President Bush on Thursday about the timber payments during a meeting at the White House. The pair were among about two dozen lawmakers from both parties invited to the White House for a courtesy visit Thursday night.

Yet all the effort may not benefit Northern California and Central Oregon counties this year, as they are finalizing new budgets that kick in July 1.

It's too late for Oregon counties to budget for federal money, even if an extension is eventually passed, said Eric Schmidt, a spokesman for the Association of Oregon Counties.

"What we're afraid of is that we've run out of time," Schmidt said. "Our budgets are due on June 30. We cannot now reasonably expect any kind of reauthorization in time to help us, so we're going to have to make budgets without federal funding."

The House voted 302-120 on May 10 in favor of an emergency spending bill that included a one-year extension of the $425 million program that helps fund schools and county governments in hundreds of rural counties. The bill was then tied to a separate measure to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush has threatened to veto both the Iraq funding bill and the spending bill that contained the timber payments extension. In a news conference Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Demo-crats offered to remove nonmilitary spending measures from the Iraq funding bill as part of a compromise, but President Bush rejected the deal because it kept a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.

"Because the president made it an issue that (other spending measures) were not appropriate on the war funding bill, we said, ‘OK, take those off. And then accept the bill that we sent that includes everything you have asked for our troops and more,'" Pelosi said, according to a transcript of the news conference.

In Central Oregon, Deschutes County received $2.8 million under the timber payments program, which was created in 2000 to offset declining timber revenues that funded local schools and governments. Crook County received $2.4 million and Jefferson County got $521,551, according to an Association of Oregon Counties report issued in January.

Crook County already has approved a budget that assumes the timber payments won't be approved, said County Judge Scott Cooper.

"They fooled around with this thing to the point where we made our decisions," Cooper said. "I don't hold it against the Oregon delegation that they didn't get the job done yet, but I'm pessimistic about our chances given all the other priorities in the country right now."

Wyden said he and other Western senators would work over the weekend to push for the five-year solution in a Senate bill to be voted on next week.

"We've got to have a long-term appropriation," Wyden said, calling potential rejection of the timber money "a death sentence for the rural West, rural children and rural public safety."

Reach Keith Chu at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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