Senators win fight for funding

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would restore full Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program payments for counties and schools.

Curry County Commissioner Chris Paasch said the county had been notified the SRS money for this year had been released as well, and he estimated Curry County’s portion at $928,000.

“That money was from the two-year deal made in 2017,” Paasch said. “And it is the last payment unless Senator Wyden can push through the bill he is currently working on. It is imperative to keep this county going.”

Commissioner Sue Gold offered her support for Merkley and Wyden and thanked them for giving the county a more stable source of income.

“A big note of thanks to Rocky McVay, executive director of the Association of O and C Counties,” Commissioner Court Boice said, in thanking the group for lobbying in support of SRS funding and for supporting the continued management of federal O and C forests. “This is why we pay our $2,000 per year in Curry Association dues – for the work and super results.”

O and C is Oregon and California Railroad lands, although all of the land currently managed as such is in Oregon.

Wyden and Merkley had called for the agency to release more than $14 million in payments after finding the agency had wrongly withheld 6.2 percent of the money intended for distribution under SRS to Oregon and other states.

The SRS program provides assistance to rural counties and school districts affected by the decline in revenue from timber harvests on federal lands. Historically, rural communities and schools have relied on a share of receipts from timber harvests to supplement local funding for education services and roads, according to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“When it comes to making sure our roads and bridges are safe and that our teachers and law enforcement officers have the support they need, every dollar counts,” said Wyden in a May 16 press release. “The agency was right to reverse course and fully meet its obligations to Oregonians living and working in rural counties.”

According to Merkley’s State Communications Director Sara Hottman, Curry County received about $1.7 million last year from SRS and would be due an additional 6.2 percent or about $105,000 now that the sequestered money has been released.

“One of Oregon’s many treasures is our vast swaths of public lands. And to make sure that counties that contain those lands have the revenue they need for basic necessities like law enforcement and infrastructure, the federal government must pay its fair share,” Merkley said. “We didn’t let the administration shortchange Oregon counties this time, and we need to permanently authorize and fund SRS payments to make sure they can’t in the future.”

Wyden and Merkley asked the U.S. Agriculture Department on May 7 to restore payments the agency had wrongly reduced for schools and counties under SRS by more than $14 million. In their letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, they cited reports stating the agency had withheld 6.2 percent of the resources intended for distribution to Oregon and other states.

“The loss to schools and counties nationwide exceeds $14 million, with a substantial portion of that injury inflicted on our home state of Oregon,” Wyden and Merkley wrote. “Absent a compelling legal justification, the sequestered funds should be immediately released and distributed as required by SRS.”

Wyden and Merkley said in their letter that the federal Office of Management and Budget had offered clear guidance to the USDA that the recent SRS payments are not subject to sequestration.

According to the USDA Forest Service website the Forest Service initiated additional payments on May 10 for the previously sequestered amount of 6.2 percent and anticipated the first payments would arrive in states as early as the week of May 13.