U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Jim Risch, (R-Idaho) have announced that a two-year authorization of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program is included in the end-of-year funding package that will be considered by Congress this week.
The senators said it was a significant win for rural communities in the Northwest and nationwide follows calls from the senators to reauthorize the lapsed program and provide financial certainty for counties containing federally-owned lands.
“Congress took one big step closer to making sure people living and working in rural communities have the resources they need for their schools, roads and other essential services,” Wyden said. “A two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program means counties can breathe a little easier now as Congress works toward a long-overdue permanent solution that gets rural counties off the roller coaster of uncertainty.”
“Secure Rural Schools payments provide a much-needed lifeline for critical services ranging from schools to roads to public safety,” said Merkley. “Our rural communities shouldn’t be left in the dark about whether the federal government will meet its obligation to help pay for those vital services. I am grateful to my colleagues for joining us in our mission to make these payments reliable and am pleased that together we were able to secure this program extension.”
Earlier this year, the senators led 27 of their colleagues in sending a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer requesting at least a two-year reauthorization of the SRS program as Congress “works to establish a permanent county payments solution.” They introduced their proposed solution—the Forest Management for Rural Stability Act—legislation that makes the program permanent by creating an endowment fund to provide stable, increasing and reliable funding for county services.
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act—originally co-authored by Wyden—was enacted in 2000 to financially assist counties with public, tax-exempt forestlands. Since then, Wyden, Crapo, Merkley and Risch say they have worked to give SRS a more permanent role in assisting rural counties with large tracts of federal lands.
Critical services at the county level have historically been funded in part with a 25-percent share of timber receipts from federal U.S. Forest Service lands and a 50-percent share of timber receipts from federal Oregon and California Grant Lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
As those revenues have fallen or fluctuated due to reduced timber harvest and market forces, SRS payments helped bridge the gap to keep rural schools open, provide road maintenance, support search and rescue efforts and other essential county services. Since enacted in 2000, SRS has provided a total of $7 billion in payments to more than 700 counties and 4,400 school districts in more than 40 states to fund schools and essential services like roads and public safety.
In recent years, however, Congress has allowed SRS funding to lapse and decrease, creating massive uncertainty for counties as they budget for basic county services.