In September, Idaho County Commissioners visited my office as part of their making the case to Congress about the need to reauthorize Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS). While I welcome opportunities to get a sense of local needs, local officials should be spared the time and expense of having to continuously make the case for this federal responsibility.
The federal government must meet its responsibility to rural communities home to federal land and provide much-needed certainty to these counties so they can budget appropriately according to expected revenue and provide much needed services. These payments are a lifeline to rural communities that depend on them for vital functions like law enforcement, emergency response, public health and critical transportation infrastructure.
Lands managed by the federal government cannot be taxed by local or state governments. 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, support search and rescue efforts and other essential county services.
The SRS program expired on Sept. 30, 2018. Without reauthorization, forested counties are subject to payments based on the outdated 25 percent receipt formula. Similarly, the PILT program expired on Sept. 30, 2019, with final payments to counties expected in spring 2020, absent legislative action.
I joined a bipartisan group of 31 senators in sending a letter, led by Senators James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), to Senate Leadership urging the inclusion of a two-year reauthorization of the PILT and SRS programs in any end-of-year legislation.
We wrote, “As history has proved, without the certainty of these two critical programs, schools, libraries, and jails will close. The services counties continue to provide will see a reduction in staffing and resources. Roads will go unpaved and become unsafe. Mental health and physical health services will be scaled back and in some cases even ended. Fewer and fewer law enforcement officers will be forced to patrol larger and larger areas.”
This is one recent step in addition to the many other recent related actions that include the following:
- In September, a bipartisan group of my Senate colleagues and I introduced legislation that would reauthorize the PILT program for ten years.
- Also in September, a bipartisan group of senators and I sent a letter, led by Senator Risch, to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging the expediting of nominations to Resource Advisory Committees (RACs) to assist with disbursement of SRS funds used for important projects such as trail maintenance, weed abatement and watershed restoration.
- Earlier this year, 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.
Thank you to local Idaho community leaders and others for helping make the case of why it is important to meet this federal obligation given the enormous amount of tax-exempt federal land in many rural counties. There are major federal budgeting challenges, but this is a federal obligation that must be met. Enactment of this legislation would provide much-needed stability to these counties so they can provide essential services while bipartisan work continues to end the financial uncertainty thousands of rural counties face nationwide.