Congress

The deadline is getting near for rural Idaho to get more federal dollars

More than 30 of Idaho’s rural forested counties face possible cuts in school budgets and road maintenance projects if Congress fails to approve soon millions of dollars in federal funding meant for counties with National Forest Service land.

Advocates for rural counties are hoping to urge key congressional members to support bills renewing the funding in early September after Congress returns from its five-week recess.

Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, has proposed a bill renewing the funding, which was last paid in April, and was optimistic that Congress will approve the road maintenance and rural school funding program which, in recent years, has annually delivered about $23 million in funding for the state.

Rural counties in Idaho, and other heavily forested states, have long relied on federal Secure Rural Schools funding to partially pay for their schools and road maintenance projects. The funding is paid to counties which have untaxable federal forest land. Over 30 heavily forested counties in Idaho annually each receive hundreds of thousands from Washington. Six counties receive more than $1 million.

The funding has to be periodically renewed by Congress, and is yet to be approved for fiscal year 2020, which begins Oct. 1. Crapo’s bill to renew the funding for two more years was introduced in February, but has since not moved out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Lindsay Nothern, a Crapo spokesperson, said he expects the bill to move out of committee after the recess, since Sen. Lisa Merkowski, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the committee, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, both support the bill.

“We’ve seen the deal with the (Secure Rural Schools) issue every year at the last minute, and at the last minute it gets solved,” Nothern said.

The same renewal bill was introduced in the House in May by Democratic Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse.

County officials from western states will be meeting with key congressional leaders and Trump administration officials in Washington at the beginning of September to advocate for Secure Rural Schools funding said Jonathan Shuffield, a National Association of Counties associate legislative director who lobbies Congress on public lands issues.

According to National Forest Service data, Idaho gets the second most Secure Rural Schools funding in the country. Oregon, which received $46.5 million last year, receives the most. Over the past five years, Idaho counties combined have typically received about $23 million annually, except in 2016, when Congress failed to renew the program, causing the state to receive $2 million.

In an instance where funding drops dramatically, a county may have to look to eliminate school programs or suspend road maintenance projects, said Seth Grigg, the executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties. In 2017, many counties had to make dramatic budget cuts because the Secure Rural Schools funding wasn’t available, he said.

“Potholes don’t get filled, roads don’t get paved and it can eat into your plowing budget in the winter,” Grigg said.

“You have projects that you hope you can do, and if the money doesn’t show up, you don’t do them,” said Alan Ward, a county commissioner in Boise County.

Ward said that in his county, losing the federal money for next year could result in higher property taxes for residents, and in a worst case scenario could mean that some classes at schools are cut and that winter-time snow plowing could be underfunded.

To avoid the uncertainty over congressional approval of the funding program, Crapo, along with Sens. James Risch, an Idaho Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced a separate bill that would provide long-term funding for the Secure Rural Schools program with an endowment fund, Nothern said.

The fund would need about $7 billion from Congress to begin, Shuffield said, but after the initial payment, the fund would be fueled in part by federal timber sales. Money in the fund would be doled out to forested counties by a congressionally appointed board of directors.

Nothern said there has been some interest in the bill from other members, but he said it would likely take time for that bill to be heavily considered.

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