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Senate drops timber payments


The Senate Thursday removed a provision from the energy bill that would have extended for four years payments to rural counties that once depended on federal timber money to pay for schools and libraries.

A House bill approved last week would set aside more than $1.5 billion to compensate 700 rural counties in 39 states &

mostly in the South and West &

that were hurt by federal logging cutbacks in the 1990s. An additional $350 million would have gone to rural states through a program that reimburses state and local governments for federally owned property.

The timber plan had support from lawmakers in both parties, but was dropped in final negotiations Thursday as Senate Democrats agreed to remove tax breaks for a wide range of clean energy industries from the energy bill.

The Senate dropped the tax package after lawmakers failed on a procedural vote to end debate on the energy bill. The Senate fell one shy of the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to a vote. Republican Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined all Western Democrats in supporting the call for a vote. All other western Republicans opposed it.

"Congress had a golden opportunity to do what's right for rural America, but they chose to turn their backs on our Main Streets," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus led a group of Western lawmakers who negotiated the timber deal.

The House-backed plan would have authorized $554 million for the timber program in the budget year that starts in October, with payments decreasing each year until they reach $202 million in 2012.

Lawmakers from both parties have worked for more than two years to secure money for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which helps pay for schools, roads and public safety in 700 rural counties in 39 states. Most of the money goes to six Western states including Oregon.