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Senate approves extension of county funds

WASHINGTON &

The Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to extend payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.

The Senate plan would authorize about $2.8 billion to extend the so-called county payments law through 2011. Another $1.9 billion would be directed to rural states through a proposal to fully fund the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which reimburses state and local governments for federally owned property.

The plan would help keep Jackson County's libraries open.

"We had a huge victory today &

there is no underestimating that," said Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith.

The plan, approved 75-22, faces an uncertain fate because it is attached to an emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush has vowed to veto the bill because of concerns of a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Even so, Western lawmakers were ecstatic.

"Thanks to the wise action of the U.S. Senate today, rural communities across the country can rest a little easier tonight," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a leading sponsor of the plan.

Without the law &

formally known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act &

thousands of teachers and hundreds of law enforcement officers in dozens of states could be laid off, Wyden and other lawmakers said.

The measure would allocate $526 million in emergency spending this year to 700 counties in 39 states hurt by logging cutbacks imposed in the 1990s to protect the spotted owl and other threatened species.

Most of the money goes to six Western states &

Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska &

although Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states also receive significant payments.

The timber law expired last year. Efforts to reauthorize it have been frustrated by budget constraints and concerns that Oregon gets too much money under the current formula.

The Senate plan would fully fund counties in Oregon and other Pacific states this year, and then gradually decrease Oregon's share, down to a total of 28 percent of the overall program in 2011.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, praised the Senate action but said the Bush administration had some significant concerns.

Specifically, he said the administration disagreed that funding for the current budget year should be made on an emergency basis, without corresponding cuts in other areas.

"The only thing that's happened here is Congress failed to act last year" to renew the law, Rey said.

The administration also is concerned about changes in the funding formula, which appear to reward some wealthy, non-rural counties, such as Boulder County, Colo. and Los Alamos, N.M., Rey said.

The Senate plan differs from a House plan that calls for spending $400 million to extend the program for one year. The House plan was approved last week as part of a war-spending bill.

If the Senate approves its version, the two chambers will meet conference to resolve differences.

The bill is H.R. 1591.