Cantwell Hails Senate Passage of Amendment to Support Washington’s Rural Schools, Roads

Cantwell: ‘Today, the Senate Came Together for America’s Rural Communities’ 27 Forest-Dependent Counties in Washington Rely on SRS, 38 on PILT

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) hailed the Senate’s  bipartisan passage of an amendment to extend for one year the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act (SRS) and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. The amendment (S.Amdt.1825), introduced by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), was approved as part of the surface transportation bill (S. 1813),the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. The Senate passed the surface transportation bill today, but the House of Representatives has yet to act on a similar surface transportation reauthorization.

Washington state is typically the fourth highest beneficiary of SRS payments in the nation. During fiscal year 2011, 27 counties in Washington state received about $24 million in SRS program funding to help fund schools, roads, search and rescue, and other important county programs. These are the last payments counties will receive unless the program is reauthorized. SRS program funding helps compensate for revenue lost from declining U.S. Forest Service timber harvests on federal lands near forest communities.

PILT compensates counties for federal land that cannot be a source of property taxes. During fiscal year 2011, 38 counties in Washington state received roughly $13.8 million in PILT payments. The last PILT payments will go out in March 2012. With these funds, rural counties are able to invest in construction projects, roads, education, and forest conservation to make up for their inability to collect taxes on large swaths of public lands.

“Today, the Senate came together for America’s rural counties,” Cantwell said. “Many communitiesin Washington state rely on this programto keep schools running and roads from falling into disrepair. These are critical investments that support jobs in Washington state. We are now one step closer to preserving this crucial lifeline for Washington’s rural communities.”

Cantwell is a cosponsor of the bipartisan County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 1692), which would extend SRS for five years as well as fully fund PILT for five additional years. The Secure Rural Schools program expired September 30th. Cantwell and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) announced last October that this bipartisan deal had been struck. The legislation was introduced one week later.

Cantwell is urging Congress to enact the County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011 so counties will continue to receive the support. Washington state would receive as much as $103 million over the next five years under the plan.

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, search and rescue, and other essential services. As timber harvests declined during the 1990s, hundreds of counties experienced a severe revenue loss. Since 2001, the SRS and PILT programs have helped areas hit hardest by declining timber sales, providing funding for schools and roads in communities nationwide.

Senator Cantwell has long been a supporter of the SRS and PILT 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 of both SRS and PILT, 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 ended September 30, 2011. The 2008 reauthorization provided more than $1.75 billion to counties across the country, including more than $250 million for collaborative forest and watershed restoration, wildfire risk reduction and other community forestry programs. The 2008 reauthorization also extended the SRS program through September 30, 2011, providing $500 million each year from 2008 to 2011 to rural school districts.

In 2008, Cantwell helped negotiate the final legislation that prevented steeper cuts to the program for Washington state counties. 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 County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011, the annual reduction would ease to 5 percent each year.