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County budgets face uncertainty under changing federal programs

    Idaho’s two U.S. senators are trying to secure congressional approval to fully fund two programs that funnel federal money to rural counties, including Blaine County, that contain lots of federal land, which isn’t subject to property taxes.

    Since 1976, Congress has been paying counties for federally held lands under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, and since 2000 under the Secure Rural Schools Act.

    In recent years, the PILT program has been a source of nearly $2 million for Blaine County and the Secure Rural Schools program has supplied about $100,000.

    Full, mandatory funding for PILT expired in 2013, and the program now relies on yearly appropriations.

    Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said that makes budgeting difficult, as counties don’t know if they’re actually going to get the funding.

    “There was a period when we had a five-year guarantee for PILT, so we could budget with a bit more confidence,” he said. “The goal would be a permanent authorization of PILT.”

    While counties want permanent authorization, the state’s senators are setting the bar a bit lower. Though they co-sponsored bipartisan legislation last year seeking permanent funding for PILT, Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both R-Idaho, along with 35 other senators, signed a bipartisan letter Sept. 23 asking for the program’s allocation for fiscal 2017.

    Idaho’s senators signed another letter to congressional leadership to fight for the Secure Rural Schools program.

    The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act recognizes that the government’s payments to counties for public-land timber sales had slacked off and that county schools and infrastructure were suffering because of it.

    “In recent years, the principal source of these revenues, federal timber sales, has been sharply curtailed and, as the volume of timber sold annually from most of the federal lands has decreased precipitously, so too have the revenues shared with the affected counties,” the act states.

    The program expired Sept. 30 last year and stopped paying out in March of this year. This led a group of 29 senators, including both Idaho senators, to send a call-to-action letter to congressional leadership earlier this month.

    Most funding from the program in Idaho goes farther north into areas that depended on the timber industry. In fiscal year 2014, the last of full funding, Blaine County received two SRS payments for a total of $103,457. Chief Deputy County Clerk Leslie Londos said about $31,000 went to the Blaine County School District while just over $53,000 went to the County Road and Bridge Department.

    However, Schoen said the loss of the SRS program could have indirect consequences for the county. He said if counties get less money from the SRS program, they are eligible for more PILT money.

    “There’s only a finite amount of money available.” he said. “All the public lands counties, we’re all in it together.”

    The areas that would be eligible for more PILT funds include 720 counties in 41 states that were involved in the SRS program.

    The senators who drafted the letter to Congress calling for the SRS reauthorization also called for SRS funds to be retroactively paid to counties and want the reauthorization to be done soon.

    “As the 114th Congress comes to an end, counties and school districts across the United States are reducing their budgets and facing significant shortfalls because of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act has not been authorized,” the senators wrote. “Accordingly, it is critical that a retroactive extension of this important program be included in an appropriate legislative vehicle likely to be signed into law before the end of the year.”