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Budget cuts timber payments

February 7, 2006 by ANGELA TORRETTA

The Bush administration's 2007 budget would cut timber payments to Klamath County by nearly 60 percent, local politicians say.

The budget proposal worries county officials, who have used the money to fund a variety of public programs and projects.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000, also called the “county payments program,” doled out money to counties in the West that were hard hit by the loss of logging on public lands.

The plan to cut timber funds was included in the budget released Monday by the Bush administration.

Klamath County has received between $12.9 and $13.2 million a year since 2000 to be used for roads, schools and forest projects and as a direct cash infusion to the general fund.

Oregon overall got $280 million, which was distributed to most counties in the state.

The act expires at the end of this year though, and county officials like commissioner John Elliott have been lobbying hard to get the act renewed and keep the money rolling in.

“The White House has no clue as to what's been done with those funds in counties that have been devastated by the Environmental Species Act,” Elliott said Monday.

“I believe the federal government has a duty, indeed, an obligation, to support those counties who have been devastated by its actions.”

The cuts would drain $880,00 from the county's $14-million general fund. That's enough to fund whole departments, Elliott said. It also would mean whopping cuts to the county's road fund.

Of the $13 million the county receives in federal payments, $10 million goes to roads, $3.3 million to schools and $2.2 million to the general fund.

How local school districts' are affected remains to be seen.

Klamath County School District superintendent Dave Davis said the schools never saw an increase in money when the act was approved because the state doled it out and reduced its own payments to local school districts accordingly.

“It's hard to get your arms around something like this ‘cause it's so complicated in the way it's distributed in the state,” he said.

The money also was divvied up among every school district in the state, not just those that had lost timber revenue, a move Davis thinks is unfair.

Representatives from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's office are still trying to puzzle out the exact amount President Bush is proposing to cut.

Early estimates were about 50 percent, but late in the day Monday Wyden officials thought the toll would be closer to 60 percent.

“Here's one thing that's safe to say: It is hard to see where Klamath County would retain even half of its funding under the current proposal,” said Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff.

Kardon said that rural counties in Oregon - those that supported George Bush - are those who are going to be the hardest hit by the cuts.

Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden issued a joint statement Monday praising the president for reauthorizing the program, but questioning the proposed funding levels. An exact distribution formula has not been set, but Oregon receives by far the most under the current program.

Oregon received nearly $147 million this year, followed by California ($64.6 million), Washington ($41.8 million) and Idaho ($21 million).

DeFazio, a Democrat, said he and Walden, a Republican, will make a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the law and fully fund it.

‘‘We have an obligation to support the rural Oregonians who for decades have been stewards of our federal lands. Ending the county payments program would abandon that century-long promise and economically devastate those communities,'' DeFazio said.

Walden called the budget proposal ‘‘a starting point, and a distant one from where we need to finish,'' a sentiment echoed by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

A Senate bill backed by Craig and Wyden, and a House bill by DeFazio and Walden, would each authorize up to $2.5 billion to nearly 700 counties in 40 states over seven years.




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