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If federal funds dry up, all of Oregon will lose

The potential loss of federal payments to Oregon counties isn't solely a crisis for rural Oregon - it's an urgent problem for the entire state.

Metro-area residents may have been watching the congressional debate over federal payments with a sense of detachment. They probably have heard stories of impending financial doom in places such as Douglas County, where half of the county operating budget is supported by the federal payments, or in Coos County, where the sheriff is talking of laying off 39 people.

Those dire effects may seem far removed from the metro region until you consider the interdependent nature of Oregon's economy and its communities. The loss of federal payments will have negative impacts right here in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

Metropolitan-area schools will see a direct effect. About $33 million of the federal money is funneled into the state school-funding formula. Since the metro area has the most public-school students of any region in the state, it has the most to lose in education dollars.

But the school money is chump change compared to the economic damage that could occur in every county that's been receiving federal dollars up until now. Clackamas County alone will lose more than $12 million, including the funding for its entire road maintenance-paving program. Thirty-two other Oregon counties will take hits of similar or greater magnitude.

Real people will lose their jobs. More social problems will emerge in former timber communities. Rural Oregon will become less self-sufficient. Urban residents, who already believe they are doing more than their share to fund schools in this state, will see a greater portion of their tax dollars siphoned away to support the rest of Oregon.

The only hope right now is that Oregon's congressional delegation can get a one-year extension to retain the expiring federal payments. Such an extension would provide enough time for U.S. Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden and Oregon's representatives in the House to craft a long-term solution.

Oregon is losing the battle now because the current federal reimbursement program is overly generous to states - primarily Oregon - that historically had high timber harvests on federal lands.

But we also believe some of this might have been avoided if not for the misconceptions people hold about the federal reimbursements. They are not a form of rural welfare. And the payments, although once tied to timber receipts, aren't a reward for logging federal forests.

They were intended to offset the fact that the federal government owns more than half the land in Oregon. That is land - including half of the 1,800 square miles within Clackamas County - that will never pay taxes and can never be put to its highest economic use.

The loss of the federal reimbursements to counties isn't happening to someone else in a faraway place. It's happening here, and it's happening to real Oregonians. And that's why we all should be angry that the federal government isn't living up to the commitment it made to Oregon communities.