Congress has dropped a proposed five-year extension of federal safety-net funding for timber-dependent counties that provided $23 million to Jackson County for libraries, public safety and roads.
Senate and House negotiators met Monday and agreed to a one-year extension that was originally proposed by the House of Representatives, sweeping aside a Senate plan that called for five-year funding.
“I’m just wondering what kind of pork-barrel project was needed that was as important as this,” said Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker. “I just think this is ridiculous that they think this is pork.”
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act benefits 700 counties in 39 states has been attached to the measure that funds the war in Iraq, but sets a timeline for starting troop withdrawals. President Bush has repeatedly said he will veto any measure that puts time limits of troop deployments in Iraq.
The original bill was designed to help counties with large stands of federal forests where timber harvests have declined sharply.
Other counties in Southern Oregon would fare even worse than Jackson County, which closed all of its 15 library branches April 6 and laid off the equivalent of 80 full-time workers. Curry County officials have spoken of declaring bankruptcy, and Josephine County, which also intends to close its libraries, plans to cut back on law enforcement, making arrests only for major crimes.
If a one-year extension is ultimately approved, Walker said it makes no sense to talk about reopening libraries, only to shut them down again.
“One year would not change anything,” he said.
Besides the library layoffs, Jackson County’s budget for next year calls for eliminating an additional 92 positions in public safety, roads, law enforcement and community justice.
Voters on May 17 will decide whether to approve a property tax levy that would raise $8.3 million annually to reopen libraries.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore, in a prepared statement on the Senate-House negotiations, said, “This falls far short of a long-term solution for Oregon. No sooner will counties get up off the mat, then this extension will expire again.”
Smith said that if payments are ramped down, timber harvest should be ramped up to help rural counties, including those in Southern Oregon. He said he will continue to push for a long-term solution to help rural counties.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.