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U.S. National Debt:

Taking County Funds Is Not The Solution

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

The Budget Control Act of 2011, a concept first proposed by the Obama administration, requires across-the-board spending reductions in federal government programs.  For Fiscal Year 2013, the estimated sequester is $85 billion and would apply to federal agencies and programs unless otherwise exempted by law.  The administration has been implementing sequestration based on its priorities.  The administration's decision to cut Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act (SRS) payments is one that is baseless and can have significant impacts on local communities.  

Federal lands cannot be taxed by local or state governments, and local communities have little control over management of these lands within their jurisdiction.  Laws have been enacted that provide payments to offset the impact of the presence of federal 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, commonly called county payments. 

Due to the large amount of National Forest System land in Idaho, nearly 80 percent of Idaho's counties receive county payments.  These payments, along with PILT, have been instrumental in ensuring that Idaho communities, with limited revenue due to large amounts of neighboring federal land, are able to provide for schools, road maintenance, law enforcement, emergency response and other needs.  

Despite payments being made based on formulas related to revenue and impacts to counties, the administration has proposed reductions in these payments.  It is incongruous that the administration is targeting its obligations to counties rather than cuts within its discretionary spending.  To add insult to injury, the administration has requested states return part of the SRS payments made months ago.  The sequester did not sneak up overnight.  Requiring repayment of already-allocated assistance can be more detrimental than not providing it in the first place.  There has to be a more responsible way to handle this issue. 

Since 1908, the U.S. Forest Service has been required to return 25 percent of its receipts to the states for use in the counties where national forests are located.  Unfortunately, federal policies have decreased timber receipts to the point where the federal obligation is not met through the receipts alone.  SRS was enacted in 2000 to provide a more stable payment to communities where Forest Service receipt-sharing payments have declined significantly.  Congress acted a number of times to extend SRS and fully fund PILT, but these extensions have been short-term.  The most recent extension expired, leaving rural communities across the nation wondering if they will be able to maintain needed services. 

We need a long-term solution that provides a consistent mechanism for the federal government to meet its obligation to rural communities accommodating federal lands.  We should not be tapping into these payments to meet sequestration targets; we should not be proposing reductions to timber sales on Forest Service lands, as President Obama has called for in his 2014 budget; and we should not be asking our rural communities to exhaust their resources and plan under the cloud of uncertainty because they house our federal lands.  Leaving rural communities in limbo is not the answer. 

Our current debt and projected future debt are unacceptable.  Overspending is the primary reason for this debt.  We must develop a comprehensive strategy to address this overspending that is sustainable while also meeting federal responsibilities.  When the federal government took over these lands, it also took on the responsibility for the impact of federal ownership on local communities.  I will continue to press for a resolution that ensures the federal government meets its responsibility and removes theuncertainty currently facing many rural communities. 

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