Updated: Senators introduce legislation to bar county officials using SRS money for lobbying

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced legislation Thursday that would bar county officials from using timber safety net money for lobbying trips.

The decision followed controversy over Douglas County commissioners’ longstanding tradition of using Title III Secure Rural Schools funds to pay for lobbying trips to Washington, D.C.

During those trips, county commissioners sought to convince federal officials to increase harvests on federal timberlands. The money from harvests had traditionally been shared with the counties. But as timber dollars dried up with changed federal practices, the SRS payments were instituted to make up part of the shortfall to county budgets.

Douglas County has budgeted $30,000 per year for at least the past 10 years for lobbying trips but has usually not spent the entire amount. Commissioner Tim Freeman has taken multiple trips to Washington, D.C. since taking office in 2015, and has said the trips he and other commissioners took during those years resulted in policies that brought $53 million to the county budget.

In a written statement, the senators said they wanted to ensure that SRS funds are used for the purposes they intended — such as funding schools, roads, bridges and law enforcement.

“The importance of SRS for rural communities demands that every dollar stays on track for their intended destinations of classrooms, roadways and police stations,” Wyden said. “This legislation ensures that path happens to help students and teachers, motorists and police officers by clearly spelling out that this economic lifeline can’t be tapped for lobbying.”

Merkley said SRS payments provide a much-needed lifeline for critical services.

“This bill will help ensure that these funds go to fundamental public services that Oregonians rely on,” Merkley said.

Freeman said the senators’ decision to push for a change in the law indicates that the county was correct in its belief that current law allows for the use of Title III funds for lobbying. But he said he has no problem with the senators changing the rules.

“We’re committed to following congressional intent, regardless of what it is,” Freeman said. “If Congress decides to change their mind and not allow this funding to be used in that way of course we won’t use it in that way.”

He also noted that the uses the senators mentioned in their statement, such as schools, roads and police, are not things that Title III dollars can currently be used for. Instead, SRS legislation has listed a very small number of specific things that money can be spent on, ranging from three items to six in different versions of the SRS approved over the years.

Freeman also said he’s proposed simpler rules to regulate those Title III monies that he hopes the senators will consider.

Regardless of what happens with the new bill, Freeman said the county will continue to lobby in Washington, D.C. It will just use a different pot of money to pay for it.

Every time he’s visited the senators in Washington, D.C., Freeman said, he’s been with a group of commissioners from around Oregon and around the country.

“Thousands of counties around the country use public dollars to send their commissioners to do this work,” Freeman said.

He sees it as part of the job.

“It’s a best practice for county commissioners to be engaged on these federal issues,” he said.

The new bill the senators are proposing would also mandate that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management write regulations clearly spelling out how the SRS funds may be used. The Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, had previously criticized the agencies for failing to do that.

The legislation would also require all counties across the country receiving SRS funds to submit an annual report to the USDA and the BLM summarizing how the money is being spent. The USDA and BLM would be required to put the reports online.

The senators have also introduced legislation to reauthorize SRS payments.