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Weekly Column: Supporting Rural Communities

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

As Congress works with the Administration to consider the next phases of federal support to address the impacts of the pandemic, I am advocating for getting resources to smaller communities to ease recovery.  Enacting a long-term solution for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act (SRS) and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) programs is a priority to provide much-needed certainty to rural communities.

In April, I co-led a bipartisan letter with Senators James E. Risch (R-Idaho), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) to Senate Leadership stressing that enactment of long-term SRS and PILT programs legislation provides an opportunity to further stabilize local government funding in rural counties throughout America.  In the letter signed by 26 senators, we wrote, “The stop and start authorizations and payments under SRS and PILT have wreaked havoc on rural America for decades, and now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the budgets of these rural counties are decimated.  These two programs fund roads, schools, law enforcement, and essential county services, such as public health programs.  With inadequate funding and now additional demands on their resources, rural communities and counties are at the breaking point.”

A similar effort is underway in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Fellow Idaho Congressional Delegation Members Representatives Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher sent a letter with 61 of their colleagues to House Leadership urging the inclusion of long-term funding certainty for SRS and PILT programs in the next round of COVID-19 relief.

In December, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law a two-year extension of SRS funding.  Idaho counties will receive a total of $23.9 million in payments this year under the SRS program.  Without the extension, SRS program counties would have been subject to payments based on the outdated 25 percent receipt formula. 

The extension enables counties to provide essential services while work continues to enact a long-term solution.  To end short-term or retroactive reauthorizations of the SRS program, Senators Wyden, Risch and I 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.  We also introduced and co-sponsored legislation to extend SRS payments, and reauthorize and improve the PILT program. 

Lands managed by the federal government cannot be taxed by local or state governments.  Laws have been enacted providing 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.  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 and support search and rescue efforts and other essential county services. 

In the 20 years since the establishment of the Secure Rural Schools program, Congress has reauthorized and adjusted the program multiple times.  Too often, the program has lapsed and left counties in limbo as fellow senators, representatives and I have pressed for program funding to meet the federal government’s responsibility to rural communities housing our federal lands.  Lapses and short-term reauthorizations have created massive uncertainty for counties as they budget for basic county services.  As I advocate for the needs of Idaho communities, I will continue to press for enactment of this much-needed legislation that will help meet the federal government’s responsibility to rural counties housing federal lands.     

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