Timber funds nixed from spending bill

WASHINGTON — A huge spending bill approved by the House does not include a Senate-backed measure extending a multiyear program of payments to rural counties hurt by federal logging cutbacks.

The House removed the provision Wednesday after the White House objected to the legislation. A White House statement said the timber program should be phased out, as the Bush administration had previously proposed.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., was outraged at the removal of the timber program, which was approved Tuesday by the Senate.

He called the vote extraordinarily disappointing and devastating to counties in Southwest Oregon.

"It is outrageous that the president is willing to borrow $465 million for foreign aid, the majority of which is going to the Republic of Georgia, and $700 billion to bail out his Wall Street buddies, but he is turning his back on schools, law enforcement, and other vital public services in rural communities," DeFazio said.

DeFazio vowed to continue to fight to restore the program, but said lawmakers were running out of options as they prepare for the adjournment for elections.

Josh Kardon, chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the House vote is not the end for the timber program.

"All that means is the House has made its position clear and the Senate has made its position clear," Kardon said.

Neither chamber gets to dictate the outcome, Kardon added: "There will have to be a negotiation."

A bill approved by the Senate includes a four-year, $2.1 billion reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, commonly known as "county payments." The bill also provides $1.7 billion for a separate program that compensates states for lost tax revenue from federally owned land.

Both provisions were removed in the House bill.

The timber law provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon, Idaho and other states, mostly in the West, that once depended on federal timber sales to pay for schools, libraries and other services in rural areas. The law helps pay for schools and services in 700 counties in 39 states. Without the money, teachers and law enforcement officers in rural districts throughout the country could lose their jobs, lawmakers said.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, urged House leaders to find a way to pay for the timber program.

"It is important to understand that these funds are not handouts. Far from it," Simpson wrote shortly before the vote Wednesday. "These funds are critical to the basic education of thousands of Idaho students. In fact, fully one-third of the budget for some Idaho schools comes from this program. They simply cannot absorb the loss of this program."

A spokesman for Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., blamed House Democratic leaders for removing the timber funding. While Bush issued a statement urging Congress to phase out the timber program and remove mandatory funding for payments in lieu of taxes, he did not threaten to veto the bill, said Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for Walden.

"The bill from the Senate had bipartisan support and had county payments in it, and the president said he would sign it. So the question is why did House leaders split up the bill and take county payments out?" Whelan asked.

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