KAMIAH – The uncertainty of funding and even reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools (SRS) has become an annual drama put on by federal legislators, one that is watched anxiously by officials in rural counties – including here in Idaho County — whose budgets either balance or break upon this Congressional appropriation.
Speaking during his whirlwind town hall meetings tour during the Easter state work period last week, Senator Mike Crapo updated his efforts to resolve both issues of funding and uncertainty.
“A two-year extension is our goal in the short term,” said Senator Crapo, adding the long-term effort is a funding fix that provides rural counties stable funding that allows them to fund programs and move forward. Establishing a permanent solution, “that’s what our goal is,” he said.
Currently, a House bill is before the Senate that would provide SRS a two-year extension at last year’s levels, explained Sen. Crapo. Attached to this bill is a SGR (sustainable growth-rate) Medicaid reform regarding physician compensation. Crapo said SGR is “needed reform,” but the roughly $200 billion associated with it is as yet undetermined where these costs will be offset from.
Meanwhile, Crapo, along with Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, are moving forward on a bipartisan bill to renew SRS for three years at 2011 levels. This measure that would also restore mandatory funding of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which compensates counties containing federal lands, and its cost would be fully offset, he said to ensure it would have no impact on the national deficit.
For background, SRS grew out of the 2000 Craig-Wyden Bill to compensate rural counties for declines in timber harvest revenues off adjacent national forests. SRS provides more than 775 rural counties and 4,400 schools with funds to support public services that include roads and forest health. PILT compensates local governments for non-taxable federal lands in their jurisdictions to provide essential services benefitting roads and public safety services.
Idaho County last year received $1,964,087.77 from SRS, of which $1,430,132.61 funded the county road and bridge department. Last year’s PILT payment to Idaho County was $1,644,514.
Crapo spoke to approximately 24 people in Kamiah last Thursday, April 2, one of five communities he visited that day and the 57th town hall meeting he held up to that point during the Easter break. The senator led discussion with the national deficit and national debt, ongoing points of concern for Crapo, that he emphatically labeled a crisis with such outlooks as net interest payments – starting by 2023 — to exceed expenditures on both defense and non-defense spending, and an economic collapse of not just a few years but potentially multi-decades in duration. A problem is not recognizing there is a problem, according to Crapo, a matter which seems obvious but that is under debate in Washington, D.C.
For example, deficit reduction from when President Obama took office in 2009 to 2014 reduced from $14.4 trillion to around $450 billion, but failure to address this continuing to be a problem will reverse those gains.
“If we do nothing, not only will it not continue down but it will go back up to a trillion dollars,” he said.
Crapo outlined another example, an effort created by the president in 2010, the Bowles-Simpson Commission, a nonpartisan group tasked with national debt reduction and long-term fiscal sustainability: “It put everything on the table; no sacred cows,” he said, that included simplification and bringing equity into the tax code, reform of Medicare and Medicaid without a loss in benefits, and acknowledgement that current public spending is too high and “not that taxes are too low.” But the recommendations were fought by special interests, by both Republicans and Democrats, and then “the president washed his hands of it. So we haven’t done anything.”
“Then the debt was $11 trillion. Now it’s $18.5 trillion,” he continued.
Crapo addressed several constituent questions last Thursday morning ranging from immigration reform, committing military to legitimate national defense situations to the Equal Access to Justice Act, reserve currency situation and policies that unfairly support big business over small.
“I’m as frustrated as I sense you are,” Crapo said, but spoke that change can happen: “This is going to take some time to change the power structure in Washington,” and that it takes people – such as witnessed with the Tea Party — to stay engaged and informed, as well as committed and participating in elections. Politicians do listen, he said, but it is to those who are engaged in the process.
“I don’t want you to be discouraged. I want you to be energized,” Crapo said.