Critical timber payments hit roadblock


A few weeks ago, the effort to extend congressional payments to timber-dependent counties in Oregon and Washington appeared promising. The U.S. Senate passed an extension of the timber payments, and all that was needed was approval in the House.

Now getting an extension of the payments is looking more fraught. The House has refused to vote on a transportation bill that includes a one-year extension of the timber payments, and it’s unclear when it will do so. Even if the extension eventually passes, the timber payments would be at a much lower level than in previous years.

In the meantime, the timber-dependent counties need the money more than ever. The timber payments, which we last wrote about here, are a critical source of funding for many rural counties in Oregon and Washington. Skamania County in Southwest Washington, for instance, could see its $13 million operating budget cut nearly in half.

The situation is getting so desperate that one Oregon county is considering a sales tax in a state that has no sales tax, as Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, pointed out in an op-ed this week.

Oregonians loathe a sales tax about as much as Washingtonians detest an income tax. Knowing that, why would Curry County commissioners put a 3 percent sales tax on the ballot later this year?

The answer: Money.

Curry, Oregon’s southwesternmost county, is one of a network of economically distressed rural counties throughout the West with double-digit unemployment and facing the potential loss of federal subsidies.

The Register-Guard in Eugene printed a memo from Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner describing budget problems so severe that his office will no longer be able to review the vast majority of the county’s roughly 1,100 unattended deaths each year. Instead, “the non-homicide portion of our death volume, about 99 percent, will have to be managed by whatever volunteer team we can help (the medical examiner) assemble and train, in whatever facility we can borrow to conduct autopsies.”

The Oregonian editorial board said the problem has reached a critical point that requires congressional action.

The county payments program is far from congressional charity. It is a recognition of an obligation to areas where large federally-owned stretches are off the tax rolls, and where the timber industry once produced by the land has largely vanished. Counties should not carry all the costs of a national resource.

Congress needs to find a way around its own obstructions and deal with the counties’ crisis. The collapse of the transportation package process should not turn Oregon counties into roadkill.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, has helped propose a long-term plan that would address the loss of the timber payments by increasing the timber harvest.

DeFazio did not have a positive outlook for the timber counties after the House’s failure to act.

Even if a House bill passes before the extension runs out, it is expected to be starkly different from the Senate bill and require what could be a lengthy reconciliation process. That means counties almost certainly will have to prepare budgets for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins July 1, with the assumption that they will not have this federal support next year.

“That takes the counties up to the edge of the next fiscal year, which means at the moment they cannot plan on having any of that money, which means there will be worse layoffs,” DeFazio said. “It’s a disaster.”

This is why it’s so important to tell your U.S. representatives that the timber payments must be extended. And just as critical, the problem must be addressed in more than a piecemeal fashion — with DeFazio’s plan or a similar proposal by Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington.