Senate OKs extension for programs that aid Montana counties, schools

2012-03-08T20:00:00Z 2012-03-08T20:35:35Z Senate OKs extension for programs that aid Montana counties, schoolsBy ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
March 08, 2012 8:00 pm  • 

A bipartisan U.S. Senate vote Thursday passed an extension of two programs that support counties and schools surrounded by federal land.

The Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes accounts brought more than $50 million to Montana local governments in past years. The new version passed 82-16 in the Senate.

“For counties like Lincoln, Beaverhead and Ravalli, these investments are the lifeline that keeps teachers in the classroom, lights on at the road department and emergency crews on the job,” Sen. Max Baucus said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “I’m glad the Senate stood up with me today to keep that lifeline intact in a responsible way, without adding a dime to the federal deficit.”

Baucus amended the federal highway bill to include the funding. The programs had expired in 2011. The highway bill is expected to get a full Senate vote early next week before going to the House of Representatives.

“It really has helped us not have to raise taxes or cut services,” Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said after hearing the news. “Missoula County doesn’t have as much public land as adjoining counties, like Mineral, but for our budget, it makes a big difference.”

The Secure Rural Schools program gets split between county public works departments and school districts. In Missoula County, it contributed about $491,000 a year that has paid for new road graders and other maintenance equipment.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds are calculated based on the number of public land acres in a county that might have been contributing property taxes if they were in private hands. For Missoula, that produced about $1.4 million, which went into the county’s general fund of roughly $40 million.

The Senate also approved nearly double the amount of Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars with a bipartisan vote of 76-22 on Thursday.

The fund, which gathers royalty payments from offshore oil and gas production, goes to acquire wildlife habitat, pay for conservation easements and help other programs that support hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. While it is authorized to receive up to $900 million, it has rarely been allowed to take in that much.

Last year, the fund was capped at about $400 million. This year, the Senate approved a ceiling of $700 million for both 2013 and 2014.

The legislation also includes an amendment by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont. and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, to spend 1.5 percent of Land and Water Conservation Fund money on programs that improve access to public lands. That includes support for block management hunting programs, road easements and other maintenance work to help reach about 35 million acres nationwide that have poor public access.

President Barack Obama last week issued a lengthy wish list of projects he wanted to complete with LWCF funds, including purchasing in-holdings in Glacier National Park, recreation corridor land along the Blackfoot River, and conservation easements in the Blackfoot, Swan and Rocky Mountain Front regions.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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