Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Hansell described himself as "very pleased" upon learning of the inclusion of county payments in the financial rescue plan signed by President Bush Friday.
After recently spending a week in Washington, D.C., only to see the county payments portion (formally called the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-determination Act) cut from a national energy bill, Hansell was a bit apprehensive when he learned the financial bailout passed Friday.
"The first thing I wanted to make sure was, they passed the bill, but did they strip out the provision?" Hansell said. "That was my first question: Did it pass with the Secure Rural Schools provision? And, yes, they did. Then I was very pleased."
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-determination Act provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon, Idaho and other states, mostly in the West, that once depended on federal timber sales to pay for schools, libraries and other services in rural areas. In all, payments go to 700 counties in 39 states.
How it affects Oregon and Umatilla County
Under a new formula approved Friday, Oregon will continue to receive the largest share of timber payments - about $254 million in the current budget year - followed by California ($63 million) Washington ($43 million), Idaho ($43 million) and Montana ($32 million).
Eric Schmidt, a spokesman for the Oregon Association of Counties, called extension of the timber law "a day of great elation." But he added: "It's a bridge, not a bailout."
Thirty-three of Oregon's 36 counties get some timber money, Schmidt said, and many have taken drastic steps - including firing sheriff's deputies and releasing prisoners - to meet budget shortfalls caused by the delay in timber payments.
Dollars for education will go through the state because of equalization of school funding in Oregon.
"Where it helps everybody, especially local governments," Hansell said, "is money that would otherwise go to school to cover timber payments now goes to other causes."
In Umatilla County it will go to help the road department, Hansell said.
"This will be a revenue source we'll be able to expend on transportation needs," he said.
He said the county budgeted for the year as though it wouldn't receive the payments, so the public works department will now have to add a supplemental budget from unanticipated revenue, Hansell said. It will also help the county deal with rising costs of petroleum-based products used for road construction, such as diesel, gas, grease and asphalt.
How Oregon legislators voted
Four of Oregon's seven representatives in the House and Senate voted for the financial rescue plan.
House of Representative Democrats Darlene Hooley and David Wu, along with Republican Greg Walden, voted for the bill. Republican Senator Gordon Smith also voted for it.
House of Representatives Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio were among those who cast "No" votes, along with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.
Wyden voted against the bailout bill despite the fact that he was the one who asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include the timber provision, which also was backed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Upon hearing of Wyden's negative vote, Hansell said he was worried politics would rear it's ugly head again.
He also disliked hearing of DeFazio's "No" vote.
"For someone whose district benefits more than any district in the nation, for him to go south on Secure Rural Schools, is really disappointing after working so hard," Hansell said. "And again, I hope it wasn't just a political ploy to try and embarrass colleagues who supported it in the House and Senate."
The biggest relief for Hansell now, he said, is the opportunity to plan for the future and not worry so much about county payments.
"We don't have to keep playing this game - every year of trying to get it re-authorized," he said. "Now we can do some long-range planning."
Over the next four years, Hansell said he'd like to work with other Western government officials who benefit from county payments to find a way to make forest harvests sustainable and a money maker again.
"Ideally, and I guess being the eternal optimist, the best thing that could happen is that we be able to manage the forest with a sustainable harvest," Hansell said, "and that would be the goal in the next four years would be to be able to harvest the resource we have. ... I believe we'll have some time now to begin to work on those things."