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Baucus plan increases aid to counties

| March 23, 2007 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

Lincoln County could see a significant increase in federal payments for roads and schools under a new proposal being promoted by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

The latest effort to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000, which expired last year, would be included in a supplemental spending bill in the Senate next week. The act provides payments to counties containing national forest land with the majority of the money earmarked for roads and schools.

Counties formerly received a 25 percent share of forest receipts, primarily from timber harvest. To compensate for reduced logging revenues, the 2000 law set annual payments at an average of the three highest years of the previous decade.

The new proposal changes the formula to reflect acreage of national forest land within a county. Lincoln County's annual allocation would increase from the $6 million received last year to more than $8 million this year. Payments would decrease over the five-year lifespan of the new law, but Lincoln County would still receive $5.8 million in the final year.

A previous proposal by the Bush administration - which met stiff opposition from Western lawmakers - would have sold off up to 300,000 acres of federal land to fund re-authorization of the law. The plan unveiled Tuesday by Baucus along with Sen. Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would not require the sale of land.

During a telephone press conference, Baucus said funding would come from "loophole closings" in the federal tax code. He declined to specify the nature of the loopholes but characterized them as "non-controversial."

Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose was in Washington, D.C., recently to lobby Congress for re-authorization of the law. Roose and other representatives from the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition left hopeful that the proposal will make it through both the House and Senate.

"We're extremely encouraged," Roose said Tuesday night during a meeting between the county commissioners and Libby, Troy and Eureka city councils.

The potential loss of county revenue if the law is not re-authorized was a major topic of discussion at Tuesday night's meeting. The county received about $3.3 million per year for roads under the expired law, just a bit more than the road budget. If the law isn't re-authorized, payments will revert to the 25 percent formula and the county could expect to receive less than $1 million to fund its road department.

According to the commissioners, that would mean major cuts in not only the road department but in other departments as well. Surpluses from previous years have allowed Lincoln County to invest about $20 million, with the interest used for the general fund.

"Anything that's in our general fund is what's going to be hurt," said Commissioner Rita Windom.

The majority of the schools' share goes into the state equalization fund, but about $500,000 stays with Lincoln County school districts to fund transportation and retirement funds.

While a county task force has been looking at possible budget cuts, Windom said it's "premature" to talk about details.

"We're not there yet," she said. "We're not ready to discuss those things until we know."