US Senate to vote on timber payments for schools

March 13, 2012 1:43:46 PM PDT
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote as early as Tuesday on continuing a decade-old program that compensates rural counties and schools for declining timber revenue.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act has been a safety net for more than 700 counties nationwide that have cut back logging in federal forests. The program, which expired last year, would be renewed for one year under an amendment to a larger transportation bill.

If passed, 32 California counties would receive $37.4 million of the program's $346 million -- a 5 percent reduction from last year's payment. The bulk of that funding, $31.7 million, would be shared among schools and county roads departments.

"We're feeling like we've been pulled away from the cliff, hopefully," said Jim French, president of the Partnership for Rural America, a group that's lobbied for reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools. Still, he said, "it ain't over until it's over."

Lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives previously proposed legislation to extend the program for five years, but those bills have failed to gain traction. The one-year extension, on the other hand, is part of a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill. The current transportation act expires at the end of the month, adding urgency to the bill's passage.

School officials in California face another deadline before then: to send preliminary layoff notices by Thursday.

French, who is also superintendent of schools in Trinity County, the state's second-largest recipient of Secure Rural Schools funding, said he's still writing pink slips for eight or nine positions, including an arts coordinator, a music instructor and a counselor.

The largest district in the county, the Trinity Alps Unified School District, has notified six of its 46 teachers that they might lose their jobs. It's sent notices to about the same number of classified employees, said Superintendent Ed Traverso. Three positions could be spared from layoff if Secure Rural Schools is renewed.

"I can't take the chance on gambling that we're going to get that money," Traverso said of the Secure Rural Schools program's renewal.

The program, which was passed in 2000 and reauthorized in 2008, has become a recurring source of anxiety for rural counties and schools that say it's a temporary solution to a long-term problem.

Counties used to receive a share of revenue generated through timber harvests in national forests in their borders. But environmental protection of the spotted owl and other species has closed millions of acres to logging and stripped rural communities of their primary economy.

Secure Rural Schools was supposed to help timber-dependent counties become more self-sufficient, Traverso said.

"That hasn't happened," he said. "We've become slaves to it."

The Partnership for Rural America and others support legislation by the House Natural Resources Committee that would end Secure Rural Schools payments and instead require increased timber sales in national forests to generate local revenue. But unlike the renewal of Secure Rural Schools, that proposal lacks bipartisan support.

"If Congress and the American people and the president value Secure Rural Schools ... why do we have to beg every two to four years?" French said. "We've suffered double-digit deficits from the state. You compound this on top -- it doesn't make for secure rural schools. It makes for schools in a state of flux."

French said that if the transportation bill passes, and along with it Secure Rural Schools, "we celebrate for 20 minutes, and then we're back in (Washington), D.C."

"They'll go, 'Weren't you just here?' Yeah, but you only funded us for a year, and we start planning right away," he said. "When are they going to get sick enough of seeing us that they'll fund us in a more long-term fashion?"

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)


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