WASHINGTON – Idaho and Oregon congressional leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic is one more reason that payments to counties under the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) programs should be prioritized in a year-ending appropriations bill.
“In order to assist these rural counties’ response to the current public health crisis, as well as to invest in infrastructure, schools, and law enforcement, Congress must include a reauthorization of SRS,” the bipartisan group of 25 senators wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) have led the effort to ensure federal payments for counties by reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools program through S. 430, which has received approval in committee but not yet passed the full Congress.
“Idaho’s rural counties need certainty. This year, the annual fight to secure county payments for communities with federal lands is even more significant given the extraordinary challenges posed by this pandemic,” Risch said. “The federal government has a moral obligation to these communities, and Congress must fund PILT and SRS.”
“Nearly two-thirds of Idaho’s lands are federally owned, which severely limits the tax base for counties to pay for essential services such as roads, law enforcement and schools,” Crapo said. “Both PILT and SRS serve as a lifeline to Idaho’s counties, and the ongoing global pandemic has stretched our local budgets even thinner. While I continue to work on a long-term solution for the SRS program, it is crucial that Congress reauthorize SRS and continue to fully fund PILT to ensure a predictable funding source for Idaho counties and school districts encompassed by federal land.”
“The time is now for Congress to help rural Oregon communities facing the unprecedented economic and public health challenges of the coronavirus crisis as well as the aftermath of this year’s devastating fires,” Wyden said. “Our bipartisan request is a must to help these communities in our state and nationwide continue to provide essential services such as roads, schools and public health programs while Congress develops a long-term permanent solution to support a strong quality-of-life for rural America.”
“Our rural towns and counties are already suffering from lost revenue due to the coronavirus crisis. Failing to fully fund SRS and PILT could mean first responders and teachers losing their jobs, which would be terrible for everyone,” Merkley said. “For communities with large tracts of public lands, these funds are a lifeline for critical services ranging from schools to roads to public safety. It is critically important for Congress to reauthorize the federal support that counties need so urgently right now.”
Co-signers on the letter include Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), Jon Tester (D-Montana), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada), Steve Daines (R-Montana), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), John Boozman (R-Arkansas), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), Kristen Sinema (D-Arizona) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire).
The full letter can be found below or here.
Dear Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer and Leader McCarthy:
We write to share our steadfast support for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. Specifically, we urge you to reauthorize SRS and maintain robust PILT funding as part of the appropriations process.
SRS and PILT serve as a lifeline to rural America’s local governments and now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the budgets of these rural counties have taken a hit. These two programs fund roads, schools, law enforcement, and essential county services, such as public health programs. With additional demands on their resources as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, rural communities and counties are stretched thinner than ever.
Despite being small, rural, and generally relatively remote, county governments that rely on SRS and PILT are responding to the same national health crisis facing larger cities and urban areas. Extending and funding these two programs has wide, bipartisan support, which was on display as recently as 2019, when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing on PILT and SRS.
As Congress works to establish a permanent solution for counties, diversify rural economies, improve forest management and forest health, strengthen historic forest revenue sharing with local governments, and ensure that public lands provide a range of values such as clean water, jobs, grazing opportunities, and wood fiber for local economies, a short-term reauthorization is critical for counties across the country.
In order to assist these rural counties’ response to the current public health crisis, as well as to invest in infrastructure, schools, and law enforcement, Congress must include a reauthorization of SRS, including the programmatic amendments to S. 430 passed on a broad bipartisan basis in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Further, we urge you to maintain robust funding for PILT as you continue funding negotiations for the remainder of the fiscal year.
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