Timber county payment extension in the works

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — U.S. Rep. Greg Walden said Tuesday that House Speaker John Boehner has agreed to include a two-year extension of subsidies to Oregon timber counties in a bipartisan agreement to overhaul the way doctors are paid by Medicare.

The Oregon Republican said the agreement made good on a commitment he and Boehner made last December to secure an extension of the Secure Rural Schools program by March 31.

The House is expected to vote on the Medicare bill Thursday. It then would go to the Senate, where it would have to be resolved with a different version.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said bipartisan Senate support has already been shown in an 18-4 committee vote that included a three-year extension of Secure Rural Schools in the Senate Budget.

“It is good news the House leadership has decided to stop playing politics with the safety net for Oregon counties,” Wyden said in a statement. “Their decision is a concrete recognition that linking the safety net to unsustainable and unacceptable logging practices can never become law.”

The House twice passed a bill last year to ramp up national forest logging, but it made no progress in the Senate, and faced a veto threat form the White House due to reduced environmental protections.

Oregon Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio said the proposal from Republicans originally included provisions for changing national forest policy, which were dropped after Democrats objected. DeFazio added some Democrats who opposed the payments in the past have retired, and there was strong support from rural California Democrats.

“Leadership on my side of the aisle said, ‘We can debate forest policy later. This could bring the whole thing down. Don’t put it in,”’ DeFazio said. “Ultimately, Republicans agreed.”

Walden said in a statement, “This two-year extension gives us time to continue work on a long-term plan to reform federal forest policy” to create jobs, improve forest health, and fund schools and roads.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the speaker understood the needs of rural timber communities and was committed to renewing the payments program.

The longstanding subsidies make up for declines in federal timber revenues shared with counties since logging on national forests was cut back to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon in the Northwest. They expanded from Northwest counties to timber counties around the country. Set to decline 5 percent a year, the subsidies provided about $100 million to 33 Oregon counties last year and $500 million nationally. Since 2000 the program has given $2.8 billion to Oregon counties.

For most counties, the payments are based on historic timber harvests on national forests and restricted to spending on schools and roads. For 18 western Oregon counties, the payments are linked to higher levels of logging on former Oregon &California Railroad lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and can be used to pay for law enforcement.

With the subsidies regularly renewed at the last minute by lawmakers, voters in some Oregon timber counties have regularly rejected tax increases to pay for law enforcement. The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office has said it will have to lay off patrol deputies and dispatchers this July if it does not get more money.

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