PORTLAND — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said he’s helped negotiate another extension of federal aid for timber-dependent counties.
The Democratic lawmaker told a Portland business conference Monday that the overall 2020 federal spending package lawmakers are expected to approve this week includes provisions extending millions of dollars in aid provided through a 2000 law designed to help rural counties battered by declining logging on federal lands.
Since then, about $3 billion in federal aid has poured into counties around Oregon through the Security Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. But the level of aid has dropped over the years and funding has even lapsed at times. It expired again earlier this year. But Wyden said the new federal spending legislation will keep the program going for another two years, roughly at current levels.
Wyden aides said that should amount to about $80 million a year to all but five counties in Oregon. In 2018, Oregon counties received $76.4 million, according to Rocky McVay, executive director of the Association of O&C Counties. That group represents more than a dozen Western Oregon counties with timber lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Wyden told reporters at the annual Oregon Leadership Summit at the Oregon Convention Center that he’s working with U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, on legislation to create a permanent endowment for the counties. That way, counties could reliably plan for how much they expect to receive.
“What Sen. Crapo and I want to do,” Wyden said, “is get these rural communities off what I call the rural roller coaster.”
McVay said the current funding uncertainty has made it hard for county governments to give voters a clear picture of local finances. The federal program expired in both 2014 and 2016, and the counties went for more than a year without the money. They eventually received retroactive payments that helped ease the pain.
McVay said his group is pushing for the Wyden-Crapo legislation, but he said there’s a lot of skepticism about whether it can be done. He said the lawmakers would need to persuade Congress to come up with as much as $8 billion to fund such an endowment.
Lawmakers unveiled a catch-all spending plan Monday, and they’re rushing this week to ensure the two-part fiscal package passes before federal funding runs out at midnight on Friday.