GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A federal law that has sent billions of dollars to schools and counties in timber country is expiring, and there is no clear picture of what lies ahead.
The Secure Rural Schools Act formally expires Friday and the final payments are expected to go out to schools and counties in 41 states this December and January.
The idea of giving a safety net to counties that historically depended on a share of national forest timber revenues dates to the spotted owl battles of the 1990s, when counties in Oregon, Washington and Northern California saw their share plummet from logging cutbacks to protect fish and wildlife.
Secure Rural Schools expanded the program to 41 states in 2000 and was renewed in 2008, but the amount has steadily ramped down, while rural counties have been unable to boost tax revenues or move their economies in a new direction to make up the difference. Oregon has been the top recipient, getting $2.6 billion.
Fiscal year 2010 alone saw $390 million going to counties nationwide. Oregon was the biggest recipient, with $108 million going to 33 of its 36 counties. California got $48 million, Washington $31 million, and Idaho $31 million.
Sheriff's and district attorney's offices are particularly hard hit, because public safety is the biggest chunk of discretionary spending in many county budgets.
Lane County, which got $36 million, has seen the number of sheriff's deputies drop precipitously over the past 30 years as timber money declined and tax limitation measures and voter refusal to approve tax increases combined to squeeze the budget, District Attorney Alex Gardner said.
"It doesn't seem like it is asking a lot for a community that is in decent shape when compared with so many that are in trouble," he said. "But there appears to be a fair amount of distrust for government."
Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, who has been struggling to keep jail beds open and deputies on the road, said voters have gotten used to being rescued at the last minute by Congress and are loathe to tax themselves.
"It appears (the federal funding) is going to end and the car alarm is really going off," he said. "Somebody actually broke into the vehicle this time."
Curry County in Oregon is projecting a $3 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2013, and sent a letter to the governor Sept. 7 warning it could go broke.
"If the voters do not approve a tax increase and Curry County cannot find another solution to its economic situation, we will have no choice but to seek a declaration of a public safety emergency and eliminate most state mandated services," County Commissioner George Rhodes wrote.
Four different proposals are floating in Congress, ranging from renewing the payments at a lower level, to allowing more logging on national forests to fill the revenue gap, but there is no clear front-runner.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has said renewing Secure Rural Schools is his top priority, but getting House approval remains doubtful due to rules requiring any new spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere.
House Republicans proposed a measure, still short on specifics, that offers some bridge funding while national forests ramp up logging under relaxed environmental protections. But approval appears difficult in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and lumber markets are weak since the housing crash.
Rep. Peter DeFazio has proposed a solution targeted at Western Oregon that would split 2 million acres of former Oregon & California Railroad lands into two trusts, one managed for fish and wildlife habitat, and the other leased to a timber company, with revenues going to counties.
The Association of O&C Counties has proposed putting the lands under control of a board of trustees that would manage them under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which allows much more logging than federal rules.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.