The Association of O&C Counties (AOCC) today expressed strong support for the long-term county funding bill reintroduced this week by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID). Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Jim Risch (R-ID) are also cosponsors. The bi-partisan bill was initially introduced in 2018 but the last session of Congress expired before action could be taken, so the bill has been reintroduced in the current Congress.
“We are grateful to Senator Wyden for his continuing leadership with this important measure” said Tim Freeman, Douglas County Commissioner and President of AOCC. The bill if passed would guarantee funding for nearly 700 counties in 42 states at no less than the amount received under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) for FY 2017, adjusted upward to account for inflation each year into the future. Oregon Counties as a group are the largest recipient of SRS funding.
SRS has been a roller coaster ride since 2000, with multiple ending dates and last-minute reauthorizations over the last 19 years. SRS payments have also been shrinking, getting smaller and smaller with each short-term reauthorization. The uncertainty created by almost constant congressional haggling over SRS renewals has been particularly hard on county budgeting processes. “The payment levels under this bill would not nearly equal levels historically received from shared timber receipts, but the predictability and certainty this bill would produce would really help counties facing hard budget choices,” said Commissioner Craig Pope of Polk County, AOCC’s Secretary/Treasurer. “Helping stabilize county funding is critical.”
“Our communities need three things” added Commissioner Freeman, “stabilized funding to support adequate county services, improved forest management for the health of the forest and the environment, and a vibrant timber industry to provide jobs and the wood products we all use. Senator Wyden’s bill would secure the first of the legs under this three-legged stool.”
Along with a very large initial appropriation from the US Treasury, the bill would direct the counties’ share of timber harvest receipts into an endowment fund that would be invested for growth and income by financial professionals. Counties would receive payments from the fund’s earnings, and the payments would grow as timber receipts deposits increased.
Commissioner Bob Main of Coos County, Vice-President of AOCC, is particularly supportive of the bill’s continued linkage between timber receipts and future endowment fund payments. “Senators Wyden and Crapo and their staffs have worked for many months on this bill and the results have been worth the effort–this bill would help solve one of the problems we have struggled with for over 20 years. At the same time, it maintains important ties between counties and the federal forests within county borders. Maintaining the connection between counties and forest management is an essential element of this bill,” said Commissioner Main.
Passage of the bill introduced by Senators Wyden and Crapo will not be easy, due primarily to the up-front cost. The initial appropriation to the endowment fund the bill would create is not stated in the bill but would likely be between $7.0 and $8.0 billion. Commissioner Freeman acknowledged the work ahead but expressed optimism regarding the outcome: “Passage will be an uphill battle, but so long as the bill stays in its current form, Senator Wyden can count on our support to help get it through the legislative process.”