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Rural schools legislation advances

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday that will bring more than $1 million to the Mother Lode for public schools and county roads. 

Senators unanimously approved the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which includes a $329 million, one-year extension of a federal subsidy for timber-dependent counties in 41 states.

The House of Representatives approved the measure Wednesday, also unanimously. 

“That’s huge,” said Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva, who has been in Washington, D.C., advocating for the legislation. “It made a big statement.”

The Helium Stewardship Act was approved in the Senate last week and the House in April, but amendments to the bill prompted another round of voting.

The bill will now go to President Barack Obama, who must sign it by Oct. 1 — the start of the next federal fiscal year — in order for it to pass.

“The helium bill is very popular on both sides of the aisle, so he’ll sign it,” Silva said.

The Secure Rural Schools program was first enacted in 2000 to help timber counties make up for revenue lost when national forests reduce logging to protect wildlife.

Since the program expired in 2006, it has been reauthorized several times.

In 2008, Congress enacted legislation to modify the formula for allocating the payments.

In addition to considering pre-2000 levels of timber harvesting activity on federal forest land, payments are also made based on economic needs and the amount of federal land in a county.

The extension passed in Congress on Thursday will offer funding at a 5 percent decrease from last year.

For the 2011-12 federal fiscal year, Tuolumne County school districts received $481,682 in timber payments. Additionally, Yosemite Community College District received $14,897 and the Tuolumne County Office of Education received $87,632.

Figures for money received by Tuolumne County for roads and other projects were not available Thursday.

Calaveras County also collects money from the Secure Rural Schools program, but receives much less than Tuolumne County because it has significantly less federal land.

“When times are tough, every penny counts,” said Shirley Ryan, the assistant Calaveras County administrative officer. “The roads rely on it and I know the schools rely on it. It helps offset the cost of search and rescue on national forest land.”

Last year, Calaveras County school districts received $58,375, Yosemite Community College District received $1,022, San Joaquin Delta received $576 and the Calaveras County Office of Education received $17,706.

County roads received $77,679, and another $27,416 supported Calaveras County Search and Rescue and Calaveras Foothill Fire Safe Council.

Silva said funding won’t arrive until January, but school districts and counties can move forward with road work and other projects knowing it has been approved.

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