Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch today joined a large, bipartisan group of Senate colleagues to introduce legislation extending payments under the Secure Rural Schools program to rural counties with large tracts of tax-exempt federal lands in Idaho and other states. Crapo and Risch had asked the Office of Management and Budget to include the payments in the White House budget proposal. When that effort failed, the senators formed a large, bipartisan group to introduce stand-alone legislation to continue the payments. The legislation was introduced with 15 co-sponsors.
The new legislation, S. 1027, has support from two key Senate committees: Finance and Energy and Natural Resources. Crapo and Risch have worked with Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Finance Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) on the legislation. Co-sponsors include Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), Steve Daines (R-Montana), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Jon Tester (D-Montana), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon).
The Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program, managed in Idaho by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, managed by the Department of the Interior, provide funding to Idaho’s counties to make up for lost revenues from declines in timber production on Forest Service lands and federal ownership of lands in general. While PILT payments will continue and will increase, the SRS payments were not included in the President’s budget proposal.
“The federal government pays no taxes on millions of acres of federal lands in many counties in the West,” Crapo said. “Without SRS, existing revenue sharing payments are not sufficient to support the services these counties must provide, leaving them to choose between critical services like roads and schools. This is an obligation to rural residents that the federal government must deliver on.”
“Until we see a significant increase in active forest management on our national forests, the federal government must uphold its commitment to support our rural counties and schools who rely on the SRS program. This is a bipartisan issue and must be addressed now on a bipartisan basis.” said Risch.
According to the Forest Service, Idaho counties received in total about $22 million in SRS payments last year. This year, that number has dropped to $2 million, because it is based on the backup formula of a 25% share of receipts of timber harvested on federal lands. The new legislation extends authorization for SRS payments for two years and offers retroactive payments for 2016. Crapo and Risch say Congress needs to have a serious discussion about alternatives to SRS so that Idaho’s counties can plan for the future without having to rely on the federal government to help them provide critical services to their communities.