Guest Opinion

Nearly two-thirds of Idaho is federally owned, which severely limits the tax base for roads, law enforcement and schools because federal lands contribute no property taxes.  The Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program provides critical funding streams for rural Idahoans. The two-year extension of SRS funding, included in the end-of-year funding package approved by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, helps provide a more predictable source of funding for rural communities and school districts home to federal land.

The enactment of the SRS program extension followed efforts by local Idaho community leaders and others in making the case for the importance of meeting this federal obligation given the enormous amount of tax-exempt federal land in many rural Idaho counties. In October, I joined a bipartisan group of 31 senators in sending a letter, led by Senators James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), to Senate Leadership urging the inclusion of this assistance in any end-of-year legislation. We wrote, “As we work to establish a permanent county payments solution, diversify rural economies, improve forest management and forest health, strengthen historic forest revenue sharing with local governments, and ensure that our public lands provide a range of values such as clean water, jobs, grazing opportunities, and wood fiber for local economies, a short-term reauthorization of at least two years is critical to provide fiscal certainty for counties containing federally-owned lands.”   

This was one in addition to the many other related actions that include my February introduction of S. 430, which would extend SRS funding through Fiscal Year 2020.  Senators Risch, Wyden and 19 other senators joined me in backing this bipartisan legislation that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee amended and approved by a bipartisan vote in December. In May, Senators Wyden, Risch and I also reintroduced the bipartisan S. 1643, the Forest Management for Rural Stability Act, that would establish a growing endowment to provide funding needed for schools, road maintenance, law enforcement and other essential services. I provided written testimony in support of both pieces of legislation for a November hearing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held to consider the bills.

SRS payments are a lifeline to rural communities that depend on them for vital functions like law enforcement, emergency response, public health and critical transportation infrastructure. Lands managed by the federal government cannot be taxed by local or state governments. Critical services in federal forested counties have historically been funded in part with a 25 percent share of timber receipts from federal U.S. Forest Service Land. As those revenues fell due to reduced timber harvest, SRS was enacted in 2000 to help bridge the gap to keep rural schools open, provide road maintenance, support search and rescue efforts and other essential county services. According to U.S. Forest Service data, Idaho counties received nearly $22.4 million in SRS payments in Fiscal Year 2018 based on 20.4 million federal forest acres. Without the recent two-year extension of the program, SRS program counties would have been subject to payments based on the outdated 25 percent receipt formula. 

Our economy is booming, and Congress must continue working diligently with the administration to support vital domestic and national security priorities. I continue to maintain that the federal obligation to rural counties that house federal land must be maintained as we work on major federal budgeting challenges. This extension will provide much-needed stability to these counties so they can provide essential services while bipartisan work continues to end the financial uncertainty thousands of rural counties face nationwide.

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