The U.S. Senate, by a vast majority earlier this week, said no to President Bush's proposal to sell off hundreds of thousands acres of the public's land. They did this by approving an alternate scheme for funding rural counties' schools. (That was Bush's trumped-up rationale.) So for the second year in a row, Bush's privatization scheme is dead.
WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2007 (ENS) – The Senate today approved a bipartisan plan to extend payments to rural counties affected by declining revenues from logging on federal lands. The plan would provide money to more than 700 counties in 39 states.
Agreed to by a vote of 75-22, the plan was added as an amendment to the $122 billion emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some $425 million of the $5 billion package will be paid for with emergency spending included in the bill, with the remainder funded by closing a series of yet to be identified tax loopholes.
The plan is "a lifeboat to keep rural communities afloat," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and cosponsor of the amendment.
The plan provides $2.8 billion to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act through 2011 as well as $1.9 billion for the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which provides money to state and local governments for loss of tax revenues from federal lands in their state.
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, passed in 2000 with broad bipartisan support, guaranteed payments to eligible rural counties for public education and transportation projects.
The law was enacted because of declining timber sales on federal lands - the affected counties had historically received 25-50 percent of timber receipts from U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
"This is not some kind of welfare program. These are not handout payments," Wyden told colleagues. "This is part of a 100 year deal that came about when the federal forest system was created."
Money from the program has been used to support more than 4,400 schools, help maintain road systems and fund law enforcement in rural counties, but it expired in September 2006.
The Senate must reconcile the plan with the House of Representatives, which only included a one-year $400 million extension to the county payments program in its version of the emergency war spending bill. And President Bush has vowed to veto the spending package, largely due to objections over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said finding a long-term solution to the problem of rural county payments is critical.
"Our counties should not have to rely on emergency funding year after year and be faced with such uncertainty," Feinstein said. "We must provide our rural counties with a stable funding stream so that they are not in the same dire situation next year and can plan for the future."
Land sales are by nature one-time events and so are completely inappropriate as a long-term funding source for anything. And, of course, selling off this country's heritage for a short-term money source is grossly negligent stewardship of the public's property.
After seeing Bush's public land sell-off die last year, even when the GOP still controlled Congress, I knew it would go nowhere this year, in a Democratic congress. Now, it appears to be official.