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Counties deserve reliable federal support

Rural counties in Western states have fought for years to receive reasonable compensation for the vast swaths of federal land within their borders. Members of Congress spend considerable time convincing their colleagues from urban districts on the East Coast that they have an obligation to help Western counties provide the public services they take for granted.

A bipartisan coalition of the U.S. senators from Oregon, Idaho and Colorado have proposed legislation that would reauthorize federal payments to rural counties for 10 years. The only puzzling thing about this is that it wasn’t done years ago.

The legislation doesn’t specify how much money counties would get each year — that’s up to each Congress to decide — but it would avoid the need to fight over whether to renew the payments at all.

The legislation introduced Monday addresses the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which has sent federal money to 1,900 counties in 49 states for more than 40 years. The significance of these payments varies widely depending on how much federal land lies in a given county.

The federal government owns 48 percent of the land in Jackson County, and it pays no property taxes on any of it. That puts the county at disadvantage when it comes to funding law enforcement and other services. Jackson County has received varying amounts under the program — as little as $48,631 in 2000, and $1.8 million this year — and 79% of that goes to the Sheriff’s Office, Community Justice and the District Attorney’s Office.

PILT payments are separate from the Secure Rural Schools program, which compensates counties for declines in shared income from timber sales on federal land. Winning approval of those payments, too, is a continual struggle for Western senators, and Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have joined with Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch to propose an endowment fund that would make the Secure Rural Schools program permanent.

As the sponsors indicate, this is not a partisan issue. The financial stability of rural, historically timber-reliant counties depends on the federal government living up to its responsibilities.