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Senate approves millions in timber payments

WASHINGTON — A war-spending bill approved by the Senate includes $400 million in payments to rural counties in Oregon, Idaho and other states.

The bill to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also includes $300 million for cleanup efforts at nuclear sites around the country, including the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state, as well $64 million to help rebuild roads damaged in devastating floods in Washington state and $75 million to help alleviate fishery disasters around the country, including West Coast salmon. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez recently declared a federal fishery disaster for West Coast salmon.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said it was crucial that lawmakers continue payments to rural areas that once depended on federal timber money to pay for schools, libraries and other services.

The one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act should keep rural schools and communities afloat, Wyden said.

The act pumped $23 million annually into Jackson County coffers, funding libraries, sheriff's department and other services.

"This should send a strong message to both the House and the White House that funding county payments is a critical national emergency," Wyden said.

The House still has to act on the spending bill, which President Bush has threatened to veto. Last week, the House voted to reject money for continuing the Iraq war.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hailed the domestic spending amendment, which was approved 75-22. A separate amendment to pay for the war passed 70-26. Both margins would be enough to override an expected veto.

"The legislation passed today will help to save jobs, repair roads, care for veterans, and aid rural communities right here in Washington state," Murray said. "Unfortunately, the president believes the only emergencies worthy of American tax dollars are overseas. I urge the president to reconsider once again turning his back on our needs here at home."

The flood money includes $46.2 million for Washington state roads damaged in storms last December and another $17.8 million to repair damage from storms in November 2006. Murray called the money critical to helping Washington communities rebuild.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, urged the House to extend the rural schools law, which was initially adopted in 2000 to help Western communities devastated by logging cutbacks in the 1990s. Hundreds of rural teachers throughout Idaho could lose their jobs if the law is not extended, Craig said, noting that the so-called county payments program accounts for one-third of the budget in some rural school districts in Idaho and other states.

"This was a 'must' vote for equal opportunity for our rural schools," Craig said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he has obtained a commitment from House leaders to vote on a four-year extension of the rural schools law early next month, when Congress returns from a Memorial Day recess.

Lawmakers from both parties have tried for several years to secure a long-term commitment for the program, 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 — Oregon, Idaho, California, Washington Montana and Alaska — although Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states also receive substantial payments.

The money for fishery disasters is in addition to $170 million approved in the recent farm bill for the disaster-plagued Pacific Coast salmon fishing industry.

The governors of Oregon, Washington and California, who requested the federal disaster declaration, have estimated that losses will rise to $290 million as they ripple through the economy. California is seeking $208 million in disaster aid, Oregon $45 million and Washington $36 million.

"Our commercial and recreational fishing industries are facing closures because of record-low salmon populations," said Murray. "This funding will help to support our fishing industry, which is so critical to our state's overall economic health."