Our schools, roads suffer another funding blow

December 25, 2007 11:00 pm

It was the Christmas present that didn't arrive.

Under our tree was supposed to be a $1.2 billion measure to fund schools and roads in counties with large amounts of non-taxable national forest lands within their boundaries. Had it passed, the four-year Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act would have given Tuolumne County almost $2.5 million annually for education and roads. Calaveras County, with less forest acreage, would have received about $350,000.

But our gift was held hostage in the smoke-and-mirrors world of partisan politics that is Washington, D.C.

That it makes a lot of sense and had won bipartisan support in an earlier Senate tally didn't matter. It was stripped from a massive federal spending bill before lawmakers passed it last Thursday.

So funding that forest counties have relied on since a now-expired version of the bill passed in 2000 will disappear.

Here's the most aggravating thing about the defeat: The merits of the proposal had absolutely nothing to do with its rejection. In fact, a fair number of lawmakers voting on the huge, $516 billion spending bill may not have known the forest measure was part of it.

Those lobbying for the plan's passage had a daunting task.

The forest funding provision became part of a massive omnibus energy spending bill packed with highly controversial sections on car mileage standards and tax breaks for big oil. In addition, it was larded with more than 9,000 "earmarks" — pork-barrel pet projects added by individual representatives.

"Our part of it was a fly on a watermelon," admitted Tuolumne County Schools Superintendent Joe Silva, in Washington last week for another round of lobbying.

He's right: The forest funding measure accounted for .0037 percent of the 3,565-page spending bill's $516 billion total and was largely invisible to those voting.

Silva, for example, convinced staff members of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. that the forest plan was a good idea. "But why did you put it in an energy bill?" an aide to Kyl asked.

"I have no idea," Silva admitted. "Ask Nancy Pelosi, D-8th District."

Although such kitchen-sink bill packaging may be the way Washington works, it makes little sense. It's hard to vote on the merits of one proposal when it's mixed with dozens of completely unrelated and sometimes conflicting measures.

Consider Sen. Kyl. As much as he may have liked the forest funding proposal, he toed the the party line and voted against its inclusion in the spending bill.

The reason? Forest funding was packaged with a Democrat-supported plan to roll back tax incentives for oil companies. The word from on high was that Republicans must stand united against those rollbacks.

So out went our forest-funding baby with the big-oil bathwater.

The episode made for some strange political bedfellows: U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., whose names have frequently been taken in vain in foothill barrooms and boardrooms, were in our corner this week. Even Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., voted with us.

Meanwhile, our rock-ribbed Republican congressmen abandoned us: Both George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Dan Lungren, R-Fair Oaks, voted no on the bill's amendments, including forest funding.

When the dust had settled and it was clear the GOP's oil company tax exemptions would survive, the forest funding measure could have been tacked back onto the spending bill's final version. But, with Christmas recess looming, no one had the will or energy to do so.

"We must conclude that there was a lack of commitment to the needs of rural children and families," said Bob Douglas, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, the funding measure's lobbying group.

Maybe. But as lobbying continues next year for a renewal or extension of the forest funding measure, backers should not forget the lessons learned in the halls of the Capitol this fall. As difficult as it will be, they should resist any attempts to package the bill with other proposals.

As strange as this might sound in Washington, the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act stands the best chance of passage if judged on its own merits.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.