Cantwell Announces Bipartisan Bill to Keep Forest Communities from Losing Critical Funds for Schools, Roads, Basic Services

Cantwell: ‘Many rural WA counties rely on this support to maintain jobs in our schools, other critical county programs’ Skamania County Commissioner: Program helps prevent ‘painful job losses’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) announced a bipartisan deal struck to extend the County Payments program and fully fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program to prevent dozens of communities across Washington state from losing millions of dollars for schools, roads and emergency services.

The plan would extend for five years the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act – a program that supports counties that rely economically on national forest lands. The Secure Rural Schools program expired September 30th.

Washington state is typically the third highest beneficiary of Secure Rural Schools payments in the nation. Last year, 27 Washington state counties received about $30 million in Secure Rural Schools program funding to help compensate for revenue lost from declining Forest Service timber harvests on federal lands near forest communities. Washington state would receive as much as $103 million over the next five years under the plan.

The proposal also would fully-fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program for an additional five years. PILT compensates counties for federal land that cannot be a source of property taxes. Last year, 38 counties in Washington state received roughly $12.8 million in PILT payments.

We cannot let this lifeline to rural forest communities disappear,” said Cantwell. “Many rural counties are facing dire financial circumstances and rely on this federal support to maintain jobs in our schools and other critical county programs. These programs enjoy broad bipartisan support and I look forward to working in the Senate along with Senator Murray to continue them.”

“As the representative for the Washington Timber Counties, we appreciate Senator Cantwell’s hard work on the Secure Rural Schools and County Payments reauthorization,” said Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce. “Without Senator Cantwell’s hard work, timber counties would have faced steeper cuts in critical programs and painful job losses. Senator Cantwell has been an ardent supporter of our rural counties and schools, which have been doubly impacted by loss of industry and the recession.”

Under federal law, national forest land cannot be taxed by counties or other state and local jurisdictions. In place of taxes, a 100-year-old U.S. Forest Service policy shares revenue generated by timber harvests on federal lands near forest communities. Funds can be used for schools, roads and other essential services. As timber harvests declined during the 1990s due to changing Forest Service policies, hundreds of counties experienced a severe revenue loss. Since 2001, the County Payments program – along with PILT – has helped areas hit hardest by declining timber sales, providing funding for schools and roads in communities nationwide.

The plan announced today would extend the County Payments program for five years and also ensure that PILT does not have to be subjected to the annual appropriations process – a process that for years underfunded the program and shortchanged Washington state counties. As part of the 2008 effort, PILT was guaranteed full-funding through the current fiscal year. Under the new plan, PILT would remain automatically fully-funded until 2017. 

The bipartisan group leading the effort has agreed to work to find offsets to ensure that the plan will not increase the federal deficit. Next week, Senators will officially introduce this proposal in the form of legislation. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) is leading the effort, which is backed by Senators Cantwell and Murray, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Mike Crapo (R-ID), James Risch (R-ID), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Tom Udall (D-NM), Max Baucus (D-MT), Harry Reid (D-NV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Senator Cantwell has long been a supporter of the Payment In Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools programs. In 2007, she worked with her Senate colleagues to negotiate legislation to provide a one-year extension for PILT. She continued to work to negotiate a multi-year extension, which ultimately passed the Senate in October 2008. The 2008 law provided full funding for PILT for the first time and funded the program through fiscal year 2011, which expired last month. The 2008 reauthorization provided more than $1.75 billion to counties across the country, including more than $250 million in collaborative forest and watershed restoration, wildfire risk reduction and other community forestry programs. Cantwell also helped pass the Secure Rural Schools Act in 2007, which provided $500 million each year from 2008 to 2011 to rural school districts. Without this support, many rural communities would struggle to meet their basic needs such as adequate roads and good schools.

Under the 2008 law, payments to Washington state counties were initially increased dramatically and then – like all other counties under the program – were moderately decreased at a rate of 10 percent each year. Under the new plan announced today, the annual reduction would be eased to 5 percent each year.