Quit teasing the counties, Congress

December 17, 2007 11:00 pm

Congress dangled the dollars in front of Baker County officials, then yanked the money away before the county's budget writers could type the numbers into a spreadsheet.

This long-distance teasing from Washington, D.C., must stop.

Here's two options, lawmakers:

Extend the county payments program for four years.

Kill the program.

Sadly, Congress seems to lack the fortitude to pick either alternative.

Instead, legislators in early December proposed a one-year extension. Then, a week later, Democrats in the Senate deleted that extension from a pending package of energy laws.

These political games are commonplace at the Capitol, but at county courthouses across Oregon the matter is hardly trivial.

The payments program, which is designed to help counties deal with the drastic decline in revenue from logging in federal forests, supplies about $1 million each year to Baker County.

The bulk of that money — about $800,000 — goes to the county road department. That's about half the department's yearly budget.

The road department can endure the loss of county payments for at least one year due to a $500,000 infusion from the state. But if Congress fails to continue county payments, the department, which maintains more than 1,000 miles of road, would almost certainly have to scale back its work significantly.

We think Congress is obligated to not only save the county payments program, but also to extend it for four years so that county officials can assemble their budgets with some degree of certainty.

Critics contend the program is a subsidy, which it is.

But it's not a handout.

The federal government doesn't pay property taxes, so it's only fair to compensate counties for the lost revenue. This issue is especially relevant in counties such as Baker, where the federal government owns about half the land.

Traditionally, the government has reimbursed counties in two main ways. The first, which continues, directly addresses the property tax matter — it's called payment in lieu of taxes.

The second way is to send to counties a share of the money the federal government collects from selling timber from public forests.

Through no fault of the counties, that source of money has over the past 15 years shrunk to a pittance of what it was.

Congress recognized that this was unfair when it passed the original county payments program in 2000.

It's now time for lawmakers to renew their commitment to counties.