It’s time to invest in Oregon’s future
If people want to enjoy Oregon’s pristine lands, there’s a price to pay
A solution to the "county payments" issue is proving elusive. Without the funds traditionally provided by timber receipts and, more recently, subsidies from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, several Oregon counties are either beginning to lay off workers or making plans to do so.
As you can infer from our organization's name, this is a big concern to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Many of the workers targeted for layoff are members of our union. But despite what you may think about public employees and their unions, this issue is not about people "keeping their jobs" - it's about good public policy and, dare we say it, the moral obligation of the federal government.
This issue has become much harder than it needs to be. Oregon is the tenth-largest state geographically, yet over 50 percent of our land is owned by Uncle Sam, who pays no property taxes. Counties rely on property taxes to fund their most basic and essential services. To offset that loss of revenue, federal officials agreed decades ago that Oregon counties should receive a share of the funds gained from timber cut on federal forest lands. That system worked fine as long as trees were being cut. But in the 1980s, recession and increased concerns about the environment severely decreased the number of trees harvested, prompting the federal subsidies. It's a fair trade-off given the reality of our geography.
Yet our AFSCME International lobbyist working this issue on Capitol Hill says many legislators "just don't get it." Never mind that Oregon has counties larger than some states, nor that it's hardly our fault God covered the Pacific Northwest with trees. "They need to diversify their economy out there," our D.C. lobbyist hears repeatedly. Hey, if there were an economic diversification silver bullet, Oregon counties would surely have fired it years ago. Achieving such diversification isn't easy when your county's largest landowner is an increasingly uninterested out-of-stater.
The original Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was an understood "deal" reflecting both geography and economics. Many lawmakers from other states don't like the fact that Oregon receives such a large portion of the payouts. But the proportion is based on the reality that this is where the trees are - or at least were. And that argument is disingenuous at best. Oregon has no large military bases that receive seemingly endless federal funding. We receive no subsidies for not growing a particular cancer-causing crop. No cash for acres of unused or otherwise inoperative oil derricks. Nationally, people want Oregon to have pristine, publicly owned forests. We're fine with that, but there's a price to pay.
It appears the best solution for now is a one-year "emergency extension" of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act to be attached to a supplemental budget earmarked to move through Congress sometime in March. We're encouraging AFSCME members to write House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and urge her to throw her considerable clout behind this extension, and we urge the general public to join our effort. It's a band-aid at best, but would buy some needed time to hammer out a long-term solution. Please note that Congress is rarely swayed by e-mail; take the time to write a "real letter" and invest 39 cents in Oregon's future.