Spending Bill Ends Rural School Fund

Since 2000 the federal government has helped counties that relied on the timber industry to make up some of their local education funding. But that program received no money in the end-of-year spending package Congress just approved.

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The trillion dollar spending package that Congress passed Saturday night doesn’t include funding for rural schools that have struggled to make up shortfalls because of declines in the timber industry.

The Secure Rural Schools program provided about $270 million to 729 counties this year, according to a press release from the National Association of Counties. But funds for the program aren’t included in the new spending package that Congress just negotiated.

Secure Rural Schools was launched in 2000, primarily to help schools defray the loss of public revenue that came from the struggling timber industry. Funds may also be used for road maintenance. Because the program primarily serves areas that had timbering, it skews toward helping rural counties.

(The map above shows the 2013 projected funding for the program. Red and dark red areas received the most funding in raw dollars. You can see how the payments tend to be higher in Western U.S., where timber harvests were generally greater. Click on any colored county to see the amount of SRS funding that county was projected to receive in 2013.)

Counties that relied on income from the Secure Rural Schools program are scrambling, according to press reports.

“It's really important money.  Losing it is very disheartening,” said Supervisor Liz Archuleta of Coconino County, Arizona, according to the Arizona Republic. While Coconino is in the Flagstaff metro area, the massive county (second largest in land area in the lower 48 states) has significant rural areas.

A western Montana county commissioner went further, in comments published by Montana Public Radio last week before the cuts were approved.

“If we lose [Safe Rural Schools funding], we’re screwed,” said Laurie Johnston of Mineral County, which has about 4,200 residents and contains portions of the Lolo National Forest. “We wouldn't be able to run our county if we didn't have that money. We're going to have to lay people off. We're gonna have to run on a shoestring budget.”

The Oregonian reported on several counties in the timber-reliant state that will face tough times because of the funding cuts.

In Josephine County, which has already cut most sheriff's patrols, officials say the loss of federal money will complicate their struggles to keep the jail open.

In Lane County, commissioners are moving toward asking voters to approve a $35-a-year vehicle registration fee, in part to fill a gap left by the lack of federal funding.

And in Douglas County, officials have to ponder some combination of depleting their reserves or cutting into their public safety and road programs.

The loss of Secure Rural Schools funding will also affect the distribution of another federal program that is popular with local governments – Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILT. This program provides federal support to counties that contain large swaths of untaxed federal lands.

Continued funding for PILT was included in the congressional spending package. But counties with National Forests are entitled to more PILT funding if the Secure Rural Schools funding isn't forthcoming, according to a press release from the National Association of Counties. 

That means the rest of the counties that receive PILT will draw from a diminished funding pool.

PILT serves more counties than the Secure Rural Schools program. PILT will have $442 million available for distribution, with some of those funds coming from the National Defense Authorization Act, according to the National Association of Counties.

 

 

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