Federal timber funding restored for counties
The U.S. Senate voted to extend Secure Rural Schools funding for two years on April 15 as part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015.
The federal funding program will provide about $1.4 million to Flathead County for roads and schools. The county should receive its payment within 45 days after the bill has been signed into law.
The Senate passed legislation to extend SRS funding for an additional year in September 2013, but Congress failed to reauthorize the act and it expired in September 2014.
The Senate’s latest action will restore SRS funding retroactively for fiscal year 2014 and assures funding through fiscal year 2015.
While the federal payments have steadily decreased through the years, the SRS program remains a vital revenue source for Northwest Montana counties.
In fiscal year 2013, Flathead County received a little more than $1.6 million in SRS funding. Of that, $532,857 went to local schools and $1,067,315 was used to improve county roads.
Flathead’s allocation will be a little less in this funding cycle – the county road department will get $958,452 and schools will get $479,226.
“This is very good news for both the county roads and schools,” Flathead County administrator Mike Pence said. “If SRS was cut in perpetuity, we’d be talking about fairly drastic measures in road maintenance and probably a reduction in personnel.”
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was enacted in 2000 as a way to compensate timber communities for revenue lost because of reduced timber harvests on federal lands.
The measure authorizes $500 million to support more than 720 counties and 4,000 school districts across 41 states with transportation infrastructure, emergency response and other critical services.
Lincoln County relies heavily on the federal money – it got about $4.8 million in 2013, the largest single-county allocation in the state. Sanders County got $2.2 million.
Sen. Jon Tester emphasized how SRS directly impacts the economy through public schools and roads.
“While we work to get folks in our forested counties back to work in the woods, SRS helps keep county budgets from falling into the red and forcing cuts to services that affect our kids and grandkids,” Tester said.
Sen. Steve Daines called on the federal government “to fulfill its long-standing promise to our forested counties.”
“It’s unacceptable that Washington’s inaction has led to such great uncertainty in these already struggling communities,” Daines said. “We must continue working for meaningful solutions that increase responsible timber harvests on Forest Service lands, create hundreds of new jobs in Montana and provide our counties with sustainable revenues for generations to come.”
Rep. Ryan Zinke called the bill “absolutely critical for public health and local economies in rural Montana.”
“For too many of Montana’s rural and timber communities, funding for infrastructure, education, and other public services is grossly inadequate thanks in large part to federal mismanagement of our forests and public lands,” Zinke said.