Congress not looking out for rural communities

  • Saturday, January 24, 2015 5:37pm
  • Opinion

Money doesn’t grow on trees, nor have

timber sales grown with them. Unfortunately for rural communities near land owned by the federal government — the combination will be particularly destructive to budgets in the coming year.

At the end of the year in 2014, Congress decided not to fund Secure Rural Schools — a program that provided more than $270 million to nearly 730 counties in 2013.

The money is meant to offset a lack of funds in communities where a large proportion of the land is owned by the federal government. Local governments and communities cannot collect taxes on federal land. The federal government owns nearly 43 percent of the land in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, according to borough figures.

For 100 years, the federal government shared revenue from its timber harvests, but when those harvests began to decline, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The act provided payments — based on years with high timber harvests — to counties and schools in 42 states.

Because Congress didn’t fund the program, communities will revert back to the 1908 act, which will provide significantly lower funding than the Secure Rural Schools act.

In Alaska, this means that instead of the $14,245,000 that the state received in 2014, the state will get $535,200.

On the Kenai Peninsula, in 2014 the borough got $676,602 from Secure Rural Schools payments, or about 4.75 percent of the state’s total funding. If that funding mechanism stays the same, that means the borough will get just over $25,000.

Fortunately the Kenai Peninsula Borough isn’t in a position to have to budget for the funds and Craig Chapman, finance director, told the Clarion earlier this week that the borough’s budget leaves room for the possibility that the payments may not come.

Still, the lack of funding is bound to tighten budgets at a time when they’re already snug — especially in a state so dependent on revenue from natural resources.

It is frustrating that funding for a program that communities largely use to fund rural schools and roads could be cut. As far as entitlement programs go, this one seems like a fair trade for those living near a vast area of natural resources that communities are unable to exploit because the federal government controls them.

The Secure Rural Schools funding has a disproportionate impact on the rural communities in Alaska and while the Kenai Peninsula Borough may have a more diverse revenue stream than its hyper-rural counterparts, we’re sure to feel the impact of those cuts somewhere.

Where is the borough supposed to go for a tax base to supplement those funds when the government that owns the lands is deaf to the needs of those who need them the most?

If Congress isn’t going to ensure that forested communities have the revenue they need to fund schools and roads, it shouldn’t deprive them of the ability to fund those projects by barring active management of the land surrounding them.

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