H.R. Bill 1692, which pushes for a five-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act (SRSCA) which expired the first week of October, was introduced into the Senate late Wednesday afternoon. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, (D-NM,) and Lisa Mukowski, (RAR,) is the result of a lengthy battle of the reauthorization process, the debate is centered around the intention of regulating logging in National Forests, while also securing funding for rural county roads and public schools that began in 1908.
N.C. Congressman Heath Shuler has been an advocate for the reauthorization process, because out of all the districts in N.C. that will suffer, the 11th congressional district stands to lose the most.
“Congressman Shuler has always been a strong proponent of the Secure Rural Schools program and we are encouraged to see some momentum and wide bipartisan support for the initiative in the Senate,” said Whitney Mitchell, Congressman Shuler’s legislative assistant. “We are still waiting to see what the House comes up with and will move forward from there.”
School districts across the country, including Macon County and 24 other rural counties in North Carolina that house a substantial amount of federal lands within their boundaries, receive vital funding through SRSCA. The Macon County school system currently receives more funding than any other county in the state through the SRSCA, and thus stands to lose a significant amount of funding. A total of $223,850 in revenue would be lost from 2008 to 2012 in Macon County if Senate Bill 1692 does not pass. The way the current bill is written, counties will continue to receive funding, but experience a 5 percent yearly decrease in funds over the five-year expansion period proposed in the bill.
According to Angie Cook, head of the finance department for Macon County Schools, when the budget for the 2011-2012 school year was originally drafted, she took into consideration anticipated funding cuts to reflect the uncertainty of SRSCA. “I included an expected revenue of $200,000, which may change depending on the outcome of the bill. We just do not know yet,” said Cook.
The Partnership for Rural America campaign was organized by citizens during the wake of the timber funds decline to renew the contract between the Federal government and rural communities, while promoting the economic and social health of rural America. The campaign actively works to build a broad-based partnership to support the long-term—ten-year—reauthorization and appropriation of the SCRCA. National organizations like the Partnership for Rural America have been at the forefront of the reauthorization process and have been responsible for rallying the support of public officials through public awareness initiatives.
In August, Joel Yelverton, the southern coordinator for Partnership for Rural America campaign, visited Macon County Schools central office to meet with Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman, Rep. Shuler, and representatives from surrounding school districts to discuss the critical importance of the timber funds and to answer questions regarding what steps needed to be taken to secure the reauthorization.
In a statement from the Partnership for Rural America, the organization expressed their appreciation for the Senate recognizing the need for a reauthorization, but expressed concern about the detrimental effects the five percent decrease will have on rural communities. The organization, which has tirelessly fought to retain the rights of rural communities originally outlined in the SRCSA, fears that the economy is not improving at a quick enough rate to allow school districts and rural communities to compensate for the funding that stands to be lost. “While the proposal is well intentioned it represents a significant reduction in historic infrastructure support,” reads the statement. “The net effect is that it starves counties of funds for essential services and will slowly but surely further erode education opportunities for rural forested county school children. What this all adds up to is more unemployment in rural communities that are already reeling from today’s economic climate.”
According to the Partnership for Rural America campaign, the reality is that Senate bill 1692 may establish a reauthorization at a level that does not further weaken rural forested counties. In the mean time, citizens need to understand the seriousness of natural resource and other sustainable job creation which should be the long term solution.
Beginning in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Forest Service, proposed a revenue-sharing initiative, which Congress approved, allocating 25 percent of revenue generated in National Forests be returned to the respective counties which housed the forests. Since the programs inception, states have continued to receive funding from the federal government to offset the loss states anticipated losing from property tax revenues which occurred when National Forest lands were established across the county.
Until the late 80s, the program continued to be successful and served its purpose of jointly protecting the National Forests, while also providing support services and funding to rural counties and schools. After national policy mandated a decline in the use of forest lands, revenues began to decline, resulting in lower pay-outs to rural communities. By 1998, revenues had declined by an overwhelming 70 percent, putting rural communities in unexpected financial distress.
As a result of the financial uncertainty and unexpected loss of critical funding, the SRSCA was established and signed into law in October of 2000 with the intention of subsidizing payments to counties, and took into consideration historic payment levels before the decline. The SRSCA has since provided more than $5 billion for critical services to 729 rural counties, and funds to educate more than nine million school children in 4400 school districts in 41 states. Since 2007, counties and schools have seen payments increasingly reduced as a result of the declining timber industry.