Montana counties have lost $20 million in the bipartisan spending bill to avoid another government shutdown.
Lawmakers working on a $1 trillion "cromnibus" spending bill to keep the government operating through September 2015, have left out the $330 million Secure Rural Schools program. That program provides funding to counties with U.S. Forest Service lands that are untaxable and, because of government policy and a sluggish timber economy, are often unlogged.
The "cromnibus" is a bill combining the continuing resolution and omnibus legislation necessary to keep the federal government operational through the end of the fiscal year in September 2015.
In Montana, 33 counties receive SRS funding. Two-thirds of the money helps pay for roads. The remaining third helps pay down countywide school bonds. Without the funds, local taxpayers may have to chip in more for roads and school taxes.
“One of these days, we’ll have to stand on our own feet, I guess,” said Bob Faw, Sweet Grass County commissioner.
Faw’s county receives about $340,000 a year in SRS funding, according to U.S. Forest Service data. To the west of Sweet Grass, Park County receives $648,000. To the east, Stillwater County receives $134,000. The biggest Secure Rural Schools checks are written to northwest Montana counties, where heavily forested communities like Lincoln County receive more than $4 million a year.
Secure Rural Schools payments date back to the decline of the American logging industry 30 years ago. The payments were meant to replace community profits from timber sales on federal lands on a transitional basis. Congress has renewed the payments since then through short-term and multiyear extensions.
Lately, congressional approval of SRS hasn’t come easily. The program’s struggle for votes is similar to federal Payments In Lieu of Taxes. PILT funds are paid to counties with large expanses of federal lands, which can’t be taxed but still have to be serviced with local infrastructure, like county roads. Montana counties split $26 million in PILT funds last year. The PILT program was targeted for cuts but was ultimately added to the spending bill unchanged.
“While I am pleased that the appropriations package contains significant regulatory reforms and fully supports PILT funding, I am disappointed that agreement was not found on the Secure Rural Schools program, which is of critical importance to rural Montana communities,” said Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “I will work tirelessly to ensure this program is extended and Montana counties receive the certainty they deserve.”
Daines said the long-term solution for Montana counties with SRS funding was revitalization of the timber industry. He said he would work on comprehensive forest management reform with revitalization in mind.
SRS funding is expected to extend into next quarter Daines said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also confirmed support for SRS and PILT funding. Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks, said SRS and PILT are considered mandatory spending under House and Senate rules, which require that money be cut elsewhere to fund them. If SRS remained unfunded, counties would receive a much smaller payment through federal timber receipts.