The federal government is responsible for the impact of federal land ownership on local communities, and it must meet this responsibility within its budget. A bipartisan group of 33 fellow senators, including Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), recently joined me in calling for the reauthorization of critical payments to rural counties that help ensure this responsibility is met.
In the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), we pushed for the reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act (SRS) payments. These payments, along with Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), have been instrumental in ensuring that Idaho counties with limited revenue due to large amounts of neighboring federally managed land are able to provide for schools, road maintenance, law enforcement, emergency response and other needs.
Property taxes fund county governments, allowing them to provide basic public safety services and infrastructure maintenance for local communities. However, lands managed by the federal government cannot be taxed by local or state governments. To help offset losses to local governments from the presence of non-taxable lands, laws have been enacted that provide payments to mitigate the impact of the presence of non-taxable lands. PILT payments are received for lands managed by the U.S. Department of Interior. The U.S. Forest Service compensates counties through SRS payments, but SRS expired last September and requires congressional reauthorization.
SRS payments, commonly called county payments, were designed to offset the loss of the local share of timber sales revenue due to a drastic decline in timber harvests. Nearly 80 percent of Idaho’s counties receive county payments because of the large amount of national forest system land in Idaho. A lack of an extension of SRS payments puts many Idaho counties in a very tough spot, in which they have to make difficult choices about what critical services to cut. As we noted in the letter, “The SRS program provides crucial support to forest counties, local schools, transportation infrastructure, law enforcement and other county services in more than 720 counties and 4,000 school districts, impacting nine million students across 41 states.”
The federal government has a serious overspending problem, resulting in a more than $19 trillion and growing national debt. This negligent budgeting makes it increasingly difficult to ensure that the federal government meets its responsibilities, including SRS payments. Ultimately, we must enact a long-term solution that provides a consistent mechanism for the federal government to meet its responsibilities while controlling federal overspending. In the letter, we urge bipartisan work to reauthorize the SRS program and stress our commitment to ensuring this responsibility to rural communities is met. As we work on reforms to strengthen revenue sharing with local governments by increasing timber harvests and restoration work on federally managed lands, the SRS program remains an important backstop to protect counties from losses during low-harvest years.