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Congress fails to add county payments to spending bill

Despite a push by Oregon's congressional delegation, an effort to renew the county payments program by attaching it to a spending bill approved by Congress late Wednesday failed.

The payments, meant to subsidize counties where timber sales on federal land have declined, brought $4.7 million to Josephine County this year.

From the late 1930s until the late 1980s, timber sales on federal land generated enough revenue in Josephine County to fund virtually all county government services.

"It's a complex issue with a lot of stakeholders," said Beth Schoenbach, a spokeswoman for Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, whose district includes much of rural Josephine County. "It's not a quick fix."

The spending measure was Capitol Hill's last major to-do item before the Nov. 8 election, and its completion allows lawmakers to jet home to campaign.

Schoenbach said DeFazio would continue to push for reauthorization of the act, funding that might now be doomed until a new Congress is seated in January.

"Whenever there's an opportunity, Peter's going to bring it up," Schoenbach said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Last week, DeFazio joined with other Oregon representatives — although not Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, whose district includes Grants Pass — who signed a letter to congressional leaders urging reauthorization. Earlier this year, Walden made it clear that he'd rather push for timber policy reform than continually fight Congress over the county payments subsidies.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley made a similar push, but the Senate Wednesday did not attach the funding to the spending bill, which the House voted on later in the day.

The funding was last reauthorized to cover the two fiscal years that end June 30, 2017. Without it, county public safety programs are expected to take a hit in July, the start of the county's fiscal year.

County voters in November are being asked to OK a four-year property tax levy that would bring in $12 million a year to replace the county payments funding, which peaked at $12 million about 10 years ago but has been declining ever since in an effort to phase out the program.

Sheriff Dave Daniel this week declined to specify the impact to county programs.

"Does the future look bright?" he asked. "No, it doesn't."

President Obama is expected to sign the spending bill that was approved Wednesday. The bill keeps the government operating through Dec. 9 and provides $1.1 billion in long-delayed funding to battle the Zika virus.

The House cleared the measure by a 342-85 vote just hours after a bipartisan Senate tally. The votes came after top congressional leaders broke through a stalemate over aid to help Flint, Michigan, address its water crisis.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report