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Loss of timber money on Legislature's agenda

SALEM — The failure of the U.S. Senate to extend subsidies to rural counties for lost timber revenues will be on the agenda when the supplemental legislative session convenes in February.

"Let's face it, this is going to come to the Legislature," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said at a media briefing last week. "The Oregon Legislature is going to have to play a key role."

Still, the Democratic leader said he didn't want to make any promises because of competing demands for funds.

"It's going to be hard," he said. "We don't have the kind of money a lot of people think we may have."

The issue surfaced in Salem after the Senate stripped a four-year extension of the safety net for 300 rural counties dependent on timber revenues. In addition to losing federal forest road and school dollars, the safety net covered revenue lost from reduced harvests on Oregon and California grant lands scattered throughout Western Oregon.

O&C money was used to finance county government, and in Jackson County its loss was what led to the closure and subsequent scaled-down operation of the county's libraries.

Courtney appeared to be pinning his hopes on the November economic forecast that projected an additional $40 million in revenue. That could change when a new forecast is released in February shortly after the Legislature convenes.

"I'm real nervous," Courtney said of the new economic numbers. A drop in tax revenue could affect not only relief for timber counties but other programs that might need additional dollars — for example, potential costs for the recent floods in northwest Oregon.

"We can't just deal with the county issue. There are some other things that we are going to have to deal with," Courtney warned.

House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, said the issue will definitely be on the House agenda. Merkley appointed a special committee following the regular session to assess the problems facing the counties.

"I expect they will have some ideas," he said, adding, "This is not an easy issue.

"We will be lobbying hard to make sure the timber payments get back into the next available vehicle on Capitol Hill," Merkley said.

Both Courtney and Merkley lashed out at the failure of Congress to approve the extension. The bulk of the funds would have gone to Oregon counties.

"This is a social contract to people that Congress must honor," Merkley said.

Added Courtney: "Congress has promised and promised, and this week it again all fell apart. This thing can't go on."

Still, the fact that the crisis, which is having a particularly devastating impact on Southwest Oregon counties, has caught the attention of leadership is encouraging to local officials.

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, who heads the Association of O&C Counties, said he would welcome any support the Legislature could provide. Douglas County stands to lose about $45 million a year in safety net revenues, the same for Lane County. Jackson County receipts would drop by $23 million.

"It would help if they could pick up more of the shared costs of local services," Robertson said, for example the district attorneys, juvenile justice, assessors office, taxation services and county communications.

But Robertson points out that $40 million won't go very far in solving the financial hemorrhaging from the sharp reductions in timber production. It is particularly acute for Oregon and California land grant counties where 50 percent of harvest revenues go to local government.

"But we welcome any help we can get," Robertson said.

The safety net would have given the counties another four years to come up with a management plan that would restore harvests on about half the 2.2 million acres of O&C holdings.

"We need that time to satisfy the concerns of conservationists and the public that we can generate more revenue and still preserve the resource," Robertson said.

He said the counties will be back when Congress convenes Jan. 15.

"There is a lot of support for our position and I think we will prevail," he added.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.