Any plan involving the potential sale of federal lands is bound to strike a raw nerve, given the emotional attachment Americans have to their parks and forests. But members of Congress have secondary motives for overreacting to a Bush administration proposal to auction off a tiny fraction of national forestland to fund the $800 million phase-out of the rural county support program.
It's been said that there's nothing as permanent as a temporary federal program. The cliche holds true in this case. Congress evidently intends to make this temporary federal program, which was meant as a short-term fix for counties hit hard by falling federal timber revenues, into another entitlement. And the firestorm of controversy generated by the land sale component provides a convenient cover for doing so.
It is Congress' prerogative to scuttle the plan. That looks likely, given that even Western Republicans are giving the plan a cold shoulder. But those who help drive the nails into the coffin have an obligation to justify its perpetuation and come up with credible ways to pay for it. At $400 million a year, extending the program five years will cost $2 billion. Without budget offsets of the kind proposed by the White House, that money comes directly from the treasury, contributing significantly to budget deficits.
As we stand on the brink of making yet another "temporary" program permanent, we need to ask hard questions about where this money is coming from, where it is going and what good it is doing.
First, though, a little history is in order. Created by Congress in 2000, the "Secure Rural Schools" program was meant to soften the economic hardships facing rural counties as a result of falling federal timber sales. For decades, these counties, in addition to other forms of federal aid, collected so-called "25 percent" payments, splitting a share of certain revenues from federal lands. But the pool of money began to dry up in the 1990s, so Congress severed the program from its budget-neutral origins and guaranteed counties a revenue stream equal to the best years under the old program. The 2000 bill included no budget offsets. That means almost all the money now comes directly from the treasury.
This is frequently referred to as a "rural schools program," but that's something of a misnomer, because the amount of money actually going to schools varies. In Colorado, the law requires that only 5 percent of funds go directly to school districts. There are few other restrictions on what counties use it for. And because funds are fungible, it has become a $400 million-a-year slush fund for county governments - some of which need it more than others.
In Colorado, the program paid out nearly $6 million in 2004. And the bulk of that went to counties that aren't exactly down on their luck. Eagle County, which is home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, received $534,000. Summit County, which is home to Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin ski areas, received $442,000. And Pitkin County, which is home to Aspen and serves as a playground for millionaires and movie stars, got $438,000.
And some of this money is being used for things other than rural schools. Pitkin County, for instance, where commissioners just approved an ordinance limiting the size of mansions, spends just 5 percent of the money on schools. Eighty percent is spent on roads, and much of the remaining 15 percent is set aside for open space acquisition - an ironic twist, since the prevalence of nontaxable public lands in such counties is one rationale for these federal support programs.
Many counties in the west are hurting, some badly. But many of those that receive these payments are not. And are we really doing any of these counties favors or helping them become more economically vibrant by getting them hooked an yet another federal welfare program?
Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey recently laid down a challenge to those blasting away at the Bush administration's phase-out proposal. If they have a better idea about how to fund it, Rey said, he stood ready to hear suggestions. But the silence from Congress has been deafening, even as the drumbeat of criticism drones on.