All six members of Oregon's Congressional delegation joined the governor last week to trumpet an agreement on the payments, which they termed "a lifeline for Oregon's rural communities."
That wasn't hyperbole. Without an extension of county payments, some rural Oregon counties face the specter of reducing school hours and drastic cuts to sheriff's offices, search and rescue, and jail operations.
The latest attempt to stave off such cuts is the result of months of work by the Oregon delegation, in concert with Senate Energy Committee chair Jeff Bingaman. The New Mexico Democrat is expected to introduce bipartisan legislation this week to extend county payments for five years at a level that will salvage essential county services.
More than 700 counties in 41 states have received funding under the original county payments law, authored by Wyden and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and enacted in 2000. That law expired in September 2006, but a revamped, reduced program was extended after a tough renewal battle in Congress.
That extension ended this September, and the last checks will go to the counties in a few months. Failure to issue a new lifeline will mean drastic cuts in many counties; success of this measure would mean $400 million to keep schools, jails and law enforcement working in our rural areas.
A joint statement issued by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley; Reps. Greg Walden, Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, and Kurt Schrader; and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber underscored the proposal's importance, saying that without county payments, "there is no future for Oregon's rural counties."
They stressed that the proposal to be unveiled this week would preserve critical county services while lawmakers work for long-term solutions in the counties dominated by federal lands.
"While passage of this legislation is not guaranteed, gaining Chairman Bingaman's support is an important step in our effort to get the job done. Part of that effort includes educating our colleagues in Congress on the unique challenges facing a state where the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land - as well as the historic commitment the federal government made to those communities," they said.
The elected officials who banded together last week to propose this latest version of county payments have a big job in the weeks ahead. They not only must push for spending this money at a time of budget-cutting fervor, they also need to bring many of their colleagues up to speed about the commitment the federal government made so many years ago to the forest counties. That's no small feat, but last week's announcement offers hope.
While the effort's not a done deal, the unified stand on the proposal to extend county payments was a positive signal to Oregonians - and, we hope, to the nation's lawmakers.