Lobbying for rural county timber payments pay off

April 04, 2007 12:00 am

They listened after all.

When a Tuolumne County delegation flew to Washington last year to plead for renewal of legislation providing financial relief for counties within national forests, it sounded like a futile mission. After all, skeptics asked with some logic, how could a $4.7 billion program to aid vote-poor rural counties hope to pass during a time of record deficits, partisan politics and an expensive, unpopular war?

Yet legislation to do just that, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators in January, last week cleared the Senate on a 79-22 vote.

The bill's centerpiece is a $2.9 billion, five-year renewal of the Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act, which since 2000 has given schools and roads in Tuolumne County about $2.5 million annually and those in Calaveras County, which has less forest land, about $340,000 a year. If it passes, affected counties will not miss a year of payments.

Also part of the bill is a $1.9 billion, five year extension of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which compensates state for lost revenues due to tax-exempt federal lands with their borders.

The bad news is that the renewal is part of an Iraq military spending bill, which President Bush has threatened to veto because of a built-in withdrawal timetable. But the legislation's sponsors have promised to repackage the legislation and try again if this happens.

The bill's passage would be a major victory for not only Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, but for more than 700 forest counties and 4,400 school districts in 39 states.

Tuolumne County Schools Superintendent Joe Silva, Supervisor Dick Pland, Sonora High School Superintendent Rob Gaskill and Columbia School Superintendent John Pendley, who went to Washington in September, did their part. But so did scores more local officials with the 5,000-member National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, formed expressly to lobby for renewal of payments.

"Representatives have been in Washington on almost a weekly basis," said Steve Boyack, a deputy Tuolumne County administrator who made his own trip east in January.

Forest payments to counties were established in 2000 to make up for lost timber-sale revenues, which for nearly a century had been a steady source of income for forested communities. Based on the notion that counties should be compensated for the impacts of tax-exempt national forest land,1908 legislation provided that schools and roads split 25 percent of revenues from sales within their boundaries

But by the late 1990s, timber sales had decreased markedly and revenue to counties dwindled. The Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act was aimed at filling that gap, but it expired last September.

Which left forested counties throughout the nation facing significant funding shortfalls.

The Tuolumne County delegation flew to Washington last fall, knocked on office doors in the Capitol and handed out DVDs showing how the cash benefited schools and roads back home.

The message hit home. A bipartisan group of senators headed by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Larry Craig of Idaho are key sponsors of the bill, which drew more than 75 percent support in last week's vote.

The basics of the Senate's proposed $4.7 billion program:

• County payments, including $526 million in emergency funding for the 2007 program, will total $2.9 billion over five years.

• Payments, in line with the 2000 bill's original intent, will drop 10 percent annually through 2011.

• "Loophole closures" identified by the Senate Finance Committee will fund the program from 2008 through 2011.

• Payments in Lieu of Taxes through 2011 will total $1.9 billion, most covered by other budget savings.

"The federal government has an obligation to these counties," said California Senator Dianne Feinstein of the bill, which she co-sponsored. "This proposal takes a major step toward fulfilling that obligation."

A San Francisco Democrat, Feinstein hasn't always been a legislative friend of Tuolumne County. That she's joined in backing the county payments is evidence that the proposal's common-sense logic crosses county lines and that the hard work of lobbying has paid off.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.