Idaho’s senators hope help for some of Idaho’s rural counties will be added to any upcoming hurricane aid bills.
U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, along with another Republican and nine Democrats from Oregon, California, Montana, New Mexico and Washington, sent a letter to President Donald Trump and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday, asking a reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools funding be included in any emergency disaster funding legislation.
“We have seen firsthand the hardships rural counties face as a result of SRS authorization lapsing,” the letter said. “Without the certainty of SRS payments, schools, libraries and jails will close, as they have in Oregon. Roads go unpaved and become unsafe. Mental and physical health services are scaled back or even ended. Fewer and fewer law enforcement officers are forced to patrol larger and larger areas.”
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, passed in 2000, replaced an old formula where counties containing federal lands got a quarter of the revenue from timber sales on national forests with one where they got a guaranteed amount.
The bill has been renewed several times since then but lapsed in late 2015. The last time any counties got Secure Rural Schools payments was in March 2016, said Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern. Since the program wasn’t extended, the counties reverted to the old formula where they shared in timber sales revenue, but in Idaho’s case this has equaled about a tenth of what counties were getting under the SRS formula.
Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year didn’t include funding for Secure Rural Schools. Two dozen senators from both parties, including Crapo and Risch, introduced a bill in May to extend SRS but it hasn’t gone anywhere.
“In the past we’ve been trying to run a standalone bill, and it’s been tough to get support from some of the eastern states that are not as affected by the counties’ payment issue,” Nothern said. “We’re trying to get it included in the next disaster supplemental bill, the hurricane support bill.”
The bulk of Secure Rural Schools money, called Title I money, goes to counties, which are required by state law to split it with 70 percent going to roads and 30 percent to schools. Smaller amounts go to projects on federal lands and to search and rescue and local community wildfire protection.
Lemhi County was the fourth-biggest beneficiary of Title I money in the state, getting $1.53 million in January 2016. Their payment under the timber-sharing payments has plummeted — they got $39,545.13 in February 2017. Custer County saw a drop from $1.1 million to $84,542.13, Clark County from $670,304.37 to $30,733.87 and Fremont County from $514,364.46 to $45,298.36.
So far Lemhi County, which has a yearly budget of about $9 million, has been able to avoid any major hits, said Ken Miner, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. He credited previous commissioners and county Clerk Terri Morton for this, saying they did a good job with budgeting and with saving money for a rainy day.
“If it doesn’t get funded in the next year or two, then yeah, it’s going to hit us pretty hard, but right now we’re holding fast,” he said.