Senate drops timber payments from energy bill

Published 4:31 pm Friday, December 14, 2007

The Senate Thursday removed a provision from the energy bill that would have extended for four years payments to rural counties that once depended on federal timber money to pay for schools and libraries.

A House bill approved last week would set aside more than $1.5 billion to compensate 700 rural counties in 39 states, mostly in the South and West, that were hurt by federal logging cutbacks in the 1990s. An additional $350 million would have gone to rural states through a program that reimburses state and local governments for federally owned property.

The timber plan had support from lawmakers in both parties, but was dropped in final negotiations Thursday as Senate Democrats agreed to remove tax breaks for a wide range of clean energy industries from the energy bill.

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The Senate dropped the tax package after lawmakers failed on a procedural vote to end debate on the energy bill. The Senate fell one shy of the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to a vote. Republican Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined all Western Democrats in supporting the call for a vote. All other western Republicans opposed it.

“Congress had a golden opportunity to do what’s right for rural America, but they chose to turn their backs on our Main Streets,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus led a group of Western lawmakers who negotiated the timber deal.

The House-backed plan would have authorized $554 million for the timber program in the budget year that starts in October, with payments decreasing each year until they reach $202 million in 2012.

Lawmakers from both parties have worked for more than two years to secure money for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which helps pay for schools, roads and public safety in 700 rural counties in 39 states. Most of the money goes to six Western states — Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states also receive significant payments.

“This fight is far from over,” Baucus said. “We’ll come back and try again and again until we make our counties whole.”

Josh Kardon, chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Wyden was extremely disappointed that the timber money was removed, despite support from what he called an overwhelming majority of the Senate.

“A minority of senators on the other side of the aisle are denying rural counties their lifeline,” Kardon said. “In this case 40 senators supported President Bush in stiff-arming rural counties.”

A spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said Craig opposed the bill “because it contained a $22 billion tax increase” that Craig opposes.

Craig is working with other senators to enact an extension of the timber program before Congress adjourns for the year, said spokesman Dan Whiting.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the timber payments critical for rural Washington state.

“Without an extension of this successful program, schools will begin to lay off teachers and librarians, vital infrastructure improvements will be stalled and cuts in emergency services would hit hundreds of our hard-working Northwest rural communities,” Cantwell said.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., called removal of the timber payments “one more in a long list of failures by the leadership of this Congress to get its work done and solve the problems real people are facing every day in our country.”

Walden, in a statement e-mailed to reporters, went on: “No budget. No funding for our veterans. No county payments. No fix for the looming tax hike on the middle class. It’s been all politics all year with no real accomplishment. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. This place is dysfunctional.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who led House efforts to secure the timber payments, called the Senate action devastating news for rural counties that depend on federal funding for services such as schools and law enforcement.

“This is must-pass legislation for those communities, and I will continue to work to get a multiyear extension passed,” he said.