Pay up, America

January 11, 2007 12:00 am

We're probably preaching to the choir in Baker County, but once more for the record:

The citizens of the United States of America own half of Baker County — and they don't pay one red cent in property taxes.

This wasn't a problem for most of the history of Oregon. The system made sense: managed for multiple use, proceeds of federal timber sales from our public lands would be shared with counties for schools and roads.

Then the timber industry collapsed, taking with it this key source of funding.

Congress stepped in, funding the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act. Following its formula, counties received a direct subsidy from the U.S. Treasury to make up the difference between the timber sales of today and the average from a time period when the timber industry was still healthy.

That money makes up half the county's road budget, about $800,000; and amounts to $60 million a year statewide for schools (the subsidy dollars for schools, unlike county roads, are passed through the state's school funding formula).

But the payments have stopped.

Timber sales haven't recovered.

And our roads are no shorter, and our students are no less eager to learn.

The last Congress failed to pass an extension of the county payments. The new Congress has a bill before it, but lawmakers representing timber counties are outnumbered by lawmakers from areas where the typical citizen likely doesn't know the difference between a National Park and a National Forest, much less what "BLM" stands for.

Our message to the rest of the United States is simple, however: extend the payments, or start paying property taxes like other property owners.

If this Congress fails to act, maybe Baker County should explore sending the Forest Service, BLM and other agencies that manage our public lands a tax bill — and foreclose on the public's land, if necessary.