Secure Rural Schools funds up for reauthorization

Oregon and Idaho senators are leading a push in the United States Senate to reauthorized the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program through September 2022, after the program expired in September 2020.

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have been joined by Idaho Senators. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch in introducing legislation in the 117th Congress to reauthorize the SRS program.

The Senators introduced similar legislation last year, though it was not voted on by the full Senate after it was refereed to out of the committee. Since it was not passed during the 116th Congress the legislation died. Wyden has described the passage of SRS funding as a political football and being that way since the legislation was initially passed in 2000.

SRS provides additional funding to rural counties across mostly the western United States. The counties that generally receive SRS funding are those that have large tracks of public, tax-exempt forestland. In the latter part of the 1990s timber receipts from the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management began to fall, impacting many rural counties that received a portion of those dollars from timber harvests to fund services. The SRS program is designed to bridge that funding gap by providing funding for schools, road maintenance and other county services.

Last year the County received approximately $2 million in SRS funding. Out of that $1. 5 million was allocated to the Lake County Road Department, $72,000 to Title III funding, and school districts $512,000.

In the 116th Congress Wyden introduced legislation that would have created a permanent endowment fund, that would support the SRS payments without the need from Congressional reauthorization. Wyden has said he has been disappointed by recent Congresses that have lowered the SRS funding. Wyden’s proposal would have created a stable and constant cash flow to counties, where they would know how much they would receive in SRS funds. Instead, counties generally do not know the amount they will receive until Congress approves the amount. Wyden’s measure for a permanent SRS endowment was not voted on in the 116th Congress, though he has indicated in a statement to the Examiner he plans to reintroduce the measure again.

Support for the SRS program comes from the senators and Congress members from the western portion of the United States, which has the largest amount of land owned by the Federal government. Wyden said in an interview that colleagues from eastern states are often reluctant to support the measure.

As the current program has expired, counties and school districts will receive one more payment in April 2021, if the 117th Congress does not reauthorize the program for two more years then rural counties and school districts will no longer receive SRS funds.

“Oregonians living and working in rural counties that have absorbed body blows from COVID and wildfires are counting on these resources now for their schools, roads and other essential services,” Wyden said. “This two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools is an urgently needed must-do while the work continues on a permanent SRS endowment that gets rural counties once and for all off this roller coaster of uncertainty.”

“Our rural communities have been among the hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the ongoing COVID crisis,” Merkley said. “Those consequences have only been made worse by the fact that many of these towns and counties are losing critical revenue they need to pay their first responders, teachers, and other essential workers at a time when they are needed most. We must fully fund the SRS program, so these communities can access the lifelines they need to get through this pandemic and thrive on the other side.”