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County payments telephone topic

Amendment faces veto

   Renewed funding of payments to counties and schools was front and center, when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., spoke to newspeople from around the state during a conference call earlier this month.
   "We won a huge victory on the floor of the Senate," said Wyden, referring to the Senate passage of extended payments to counties by a vote of 75 to 22. "Seventy-five votes in the United States Senate is an army. This is an extraordinarily large showing."
   Wyden introduced the extended payments as an amendment to the emergency supplemental bill Congress is considering for funding of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It passed the Senate March 27.
   The amendment was introduced early this year after Congress adjourned in December without renewing the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. Congress originally passed the act to help compensate over 700 rural counties across the country for a decline in timber harvest levels on federal land.
   Many counties have relied on the funding -- based upon the average of the three top years of timber receipts -- to fund roads and schools.
   Jefferson County collected its last payment of $837,851 around the beginning of this year. The County Road Department, which receives no general fund money from the county, received $554,611; School District 509-J, about $154,000; and the remainder was used to support Resource Advisory Committees, and several resource projects involving federal lands and adjacent properties.
   Oregon receives the lion's share of the monies -- over half of the total allocation, which is about $400 million.
   Under terms of the amendment, county payments would be fully funded for the current year, but be reduced by 10 percent for each of the next three years for Oregon, California and Washington. In the final year, the funding formula would leave Oregon with about 40 percent of the amount it currently receives.
   The House version of the bill, which passed earlier in March, funds the county payments for one year. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., plan to introduce legislation to extend the funding for seven more years.
   Because both the House and Senate bills have tied the Emergency Supplemental Funding bill to a firm withdrawal date in Iraq, Pres. Bush has indicated he will veto the bills.
   "This may go through one or more vetoes (from the president), but we are going to get this done," said Wyden, who supports troop withdrawal. "It's obvious that Congress feels strongly about a change of course in Iraq; that's what the last election was about."
   Wyden considers funding county payments as his top priority in this session of Congress. Once it is passed, he has plans to make Oregon less dependent on the payments in the future.
   "My plan is, as chairman of the forestry committee, as soon as we get county payments, swing into action," he said. Wyden proposes a biomass program for generating clean energy and creating jobs, and a thinning program.
   "The money is extremely important," he said. "These are two good opportunities, right out of the chute."
   Ultimately, he believes the payments will be funded.
   "The president and Congress are going to go back and forth, but at some point, a bill must be signed because it is important to get money to troops who are in harm's way," Wyden said.