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Wyden Gets Modified County Payments Program Into COVID-19 Relief Bill

Sen. Ron Wyden speaks at a town hall in Tigard, Oregon, in January  2020.
Donald Orr
Sen. Ron Wyden speaks at a town hall in Tigard, Oregon, in January 2020.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has once again secured nick-of-time aid payments for counties in the West whose economies are tied to resource extraction on federal lands.

The COVID-19 relief package passed by the Senate includes a new two-year county and tribal payment program that would award $2 billion of flexible funding for local governments whose revenues have been reduced by federal policies.

“These particular rural counties and Tribes were delivered a devastating blow when COVID-19 hit their communities. They are barely hanging on when it comes to resources for their schools, roads, and health services,” Wyden said in a press release.

The new program will replace — temporarily — payments from the Secure Rural Schools Act.

That act, sponsored by Wyden in 2000, provided aid to timber-dependent counties in Oregon and other states that had funded local services using their share of profits from timber sales on federal lands.

It was originally passed as a six-year program, but was reauthorized seven times.

The program has expired again; counties will receive their final authorized payment this year. Wyden’s new program, meanwhile, would award payments to counties in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

Wyden’s new payment program differs substantially from the one it replaces. It includes tribal governments for the first time, awarding them $250 million per year for two years. And it changes the formula for doling out the funds, potentially shifting which counties will benefit the most.

The Secure Rural Schools Act, passed in response to Oregon’s timber wars, awarded counties federal dollars each year according to a formula that was heavily weighted towards their share of logging profits in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That led to a handful of counties in Oregon, California and Idaho receiving the lion’s share of the payments.

In 2019, for example, counties in Oregon got about 20% of the federal funds, according to a report by the congressional research service.

The program has been criticized for questionable spending by some counties and in recent years its sponsors have struggled getting buy-in from federal lawmakers in other parts of the country.

The new program awards money to eligible counties based on indicators of economic need, including poverty and unemployment rates. The Secretary of the Treasury will oversee the fund and is charged with coming up with a specific formula for awarding payments to individual counties.

Counties can spend the money “for any governmental purpose other than a lobbying activity.”

“We are grateful to Senator Wyden for adding stable and predictable revenue for counties with public lands,” said Coos County Commissioner and Association of Oregon Counties President Melissa Cribbins.

“Rural counties depend on natural resource sectors and recreational economies that benefit both the federal government and our local communities.”

Wyden has repeatedly defended the need for aid to counties with federal lands within their boundaries — and did again in his statement for the record on the new $2 billion aid program.

“These counties help pay for roads, schools, and other services that directly benefit and, in many cases, support federal lands,” he said.

He described them as boom and bust counties “falling faster into recession and slower to climb out of recession when changes occur to particular federal programs or when, for example, a massive global pandemic hits without warning.”

A spokesperson for Wyden said the senator’s goal is to buy a few more years to build support for a more durable source of assistance for rural counties that have large tracts of nontaxable federal land.

In 2018, Wyden introduced a bipartisan bill that would create an endowment fund to provide a permanent funding source for counties with public lands. That bill was cosponsored by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho.

Wyden’s $2 billion program is a small fraction of the $65.1 billion in county aid included in the COVID-19 relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan.

Senate Democrats passed it on a party-line vote; that legislation is up for a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.