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Democrats propose extending schools act

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WASHINGTON - Sen. Max Baucus and other Senate Democrats announced a plan Tuesday that would extend a rural schools and counties program for five years without selling off public lands to pay for it, as the Bush administration proposes.

The Democratic proposal would extend until 2011 the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which expired at the end of last year.

Their plan would also revamp the funding formula so that states get more equal shares. Montana would get $150 million over the next five years under the reworked plan, an increase of $65 million over the current formula, Baucus' office said.

"It means that smaller communities are going to have funds to pay for schools, for roads, law enforcement, for thinning of forests, just all the things that help make a community a better place to live and to work," Baucus said in a conference call with reporters.

The program provides transitional assistance to rural counties affected by declining revenue from timber harvests on federal lands.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it appears that money for the program for 2007 will be included in an emergency spending bill coming before the Senate soon. Reid said Democrats would offer an amendment to the bill next week that would change the formula and provide for the other four years.

The supplemental spending bill would fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide hurricane and drought relief.

Baucus said the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs, has found ways to pay for the schools and counties program by closing loopholes in the tax code. He said he didn't want to divulge specifics at this point because other senators would try to use the ideas to fund their own projects. But the changes would be noncontroversial, such as eliminating tax havens, he added.

Reid said it was important for the Western states to "flex their muscle" on this issue and on Payments in Lieu of Taxes, which is money that goes to local governments in lieu of tax revenue for federal lands in their areas.

President Bush's budget had reduced funding for PILT and proposed to sell off $800 million worth of U.S. Forest Service lands. He proposed to use half that money for the Secure Rural Schools program and the other half for conservation education, habitat improvement and other land needs.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, "Without these payments rural Oregon and the rural West would just be hit by a wrecking ball."

Baucus said the payments would gradually be phased down to "a very sustainable level," but that the program would be reauthorized in another five years. "This is not going to end in five years," he said.

Currently three states - California, Oregon and Washington - get

75 percent of the funding, according to Baucus' office.

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