Senators Unveil Bill to Reauthorize Secure Rural Schools & Payments in Lieu of Taxes

(Washington, D.C.) – Montana’s Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester have released a plan to provide a long term renewal of two critical programs for Montana counties. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act expired last week, raising concerns about the future of important projects related to construction, infrastructure and education. Along with the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, rural counties rely heavily upon Secure Rural Schools funding for construction, roads, education and forest conservation to make up for the inability to collect taxes on large swaths of public lands.

“Montana counties are already in a tight spot and will have an even tougher time making ends meet and keeping the lights on if we don’t act now.  These programs are contracts between rural America and the federal government that our Montana counties rely upon to balance the books and support schools, roads and jobs,” Baucus said. “Now is the time to secure a long term solution to support smart investments in our rural counties.”

“Rural Montana should not bear more than its share of the burden as we look for ways to cut spending and get our deficit under control,” Tester said.  “These initiatives support good schools and infrastructure that are critical to economic development and job creation.  With the challenges ahead, we will do our part to ensure that Montana’s rural counties are not left behind.”

Text of The County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011 is available ONLINE HERE.

Montana Association of Counties President, Connie Eissinger says the proposal comes at a critical time for counties across the state.  "On behalf of Montana counties, we would like to thank Senator Baucus and Senator Tester for their efforts in protecting these essential programs for Montana's counties and schools.  We all enjoy our public lands however, it is left to the counties to provide road maintenance, law enforcement, emergency services, search and rescue, and fire protection. Counties must be assured that the federal government will fund the loss in taxes and forest revenue due to federal ownership and the loss of timber sales,” said Eissenger.

Mark Haggerty with the independent, nonprofit research group, Headwaters Economics in Bozeman says county payments are a proven way to help rural counties create jobs. “SRS and PILT support quality services and education critical to attracting and retaining families and businesses in rural communities.  SRS funding critically provides resources that communities and agencies use collaboratively to improve forest health and create jobs," Haggerty said.

Senators Baucus and Tester worked with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, along with a broad group of Senators to negotiate the proposal. The bipartisan plan would fund the Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes programs for 5 more years. The bill would provide 700 counties, including 34 Montana counties with national forest lands vital resources to support public schools, county road improvement and maintenance projects, collaborative forestry projects, and wildfire risk reduction programs.  It also would extend guaranteed full-funding under the PILT program to more than 1,900 counties, including 55 Montana counties to help fund essential county government programs.  The cosponsors have committed to work together to find offsets to fund the payments that would be made under the bill.

In Fiscal Year 2011, the Secure Rural Schools program alone is projected to deliver almost $23 million to Montana counties, but the program expired in September 2011. Montana rural counties depend on this funding, as well as the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program that will expire in September 2012 to help support construction, roads, education, conservation and various other services and projects.

For a list of Montana’s top recipients under the Secure Rural Schools program and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program between 2008 and 2010 click HERE.