The panel that testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the Secure Rural Schools program May 2. (Photo: NACo)

Supporters of the Secure Rural Schools Act are accustomed to pressing their case in Washington, D.C. But this year’s effort to restore federal funding for schools near National Forests has a special urgency after Congress left the program out of the recent budget agreement.

“It’s turned into an annual kabuki process where county governments have to literally come to the Capitol and beg for support,” said David Jackson, communications director of the National Association of Counties (NACo). “Our counties need this funding.”

Schools that participate in the program don’t have a lot of options, Jackson said. “Without a property tax base for support, they absolutely depend on federal funding to pay for schools and other services. Without it, we’re going to be losing many, many educators.”

The Secure Rural School and Community Self Determination Act passed Congress with bipartisan in 2000. The act evened out annual payments to National Forest communities, but annual appropriations have been unpredictable.

“We’re talking about 720 counties here, 4,000 school districts in 41 states, more than 9 million students,” said Allen Pratt, president of the National Rural Education Association. “If we don’t at least maintain the funding we had in the past, these rural schools are in deep trouble. They can’t make a budget, hire new teachers, implement programs or address the unfunded mandates for programs that come down from their states. This is a big, big issue.”

The shortfall is especially tough on schools districts with large swaths of public land.

“Sixty-eight percent of Pocahontas County is federal or state land,” said Sherri Radcliff, treasurer of the Pocahontas County Board of Education in West Virginia. “In 2016, we received $377,700 in Secure Rural School funding. Without an extension, we could see zero this year. That’s a huge hole in our budget.”

Radcliff and many Pocahontas County residents have taken their case to Congress for a solution. “What many people don’t understand is this is money that pays for teachers, for maintenance, for the transportation budget,” she said. “We’re a very rural school district. It takes a huge budget just to run our buses.”

“If we don’t at least maintain the funding we had in the past, these rural schools are in deep trouble. They can’t make a budget, hire new teachers, implement programs or address the unfunded mandates for programs that come down from their states. This is a big, big issue.”
Allen Pratt,  National Rural Education Assoc.

Secure Rural Schools funding is provided through an annual appropriation process in Congress.  A similar program exists to fund county road maintenance and construction, search and rescue, police, fire protection and other services. Dubbed Payment-in-Leiu-of-Taxes (PILT), that funding is also critical to many rural counties. PILT funding was part of the federal “budget deal” passed by the House and awaiting the Senate’s passage. Secure Rural Schools funding was not included, and it wasn’t part of the last budget cycle, either.

Without an extension, school funding from federal lands reverts to the “permanently authorized 25 percent revenue sharing payments under the National Forest Revenue Act of 1908,” according to NACo.

This will leave a big hole in some county budget, according Jackson at NACo. “When SRS authorization expired in FY2014, county payments nationwide decreased by a staggering 80 percent,” he said.

County-by-county payments (both historical and projected) are available from the U. S. Forest Service. Instead of Secure Rural School funding, payments would be based on revenues generated by timber harvest and other natural resource sources.

Many House and Senate members are now working hard to pass legislation that would provide Secure Rural School funding for the short-term. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened a hearing on May 2nd. The following day, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and 14 other Senators introduced S. 1027. Companion legislation, H.R. 2340, was introduced by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA-5th) and 5 co-sponsors.

Still, were the bills to pass Congress quickly, the core problem would remain: how to maintain regular and predictable funding for schools with a tax-exempt public landbase.

Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group that works to improve community development and land management decisions in the West, testified at the Senate Committee hearing and proposed a longer-term solution, a Natural Resources Trust.

According to Haggerty, established such a trust would build “an endowment to fund federal land payments to counties and schools by establishing a permanent trust. The ideas would be to provide security, to stabilize payments and revenue for counties.”

The federal trust concept is modeled after similar state-owned trusts on their lands generating revenue from timber, coal, oil and gas resources. “Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming have state land royalty and severance tax trust funds with a combined value of more than $100 billion,” according to Haggerty.

Had Congress enacted the permanent trust concept in 2000 along with SRS, Haggerty said, “today it would be worth $1.2 billion and would be able to make annual distributions equal to or greater than current levels of annual commercial receipts. In other words, counties would already be better off with predictable and stable distributions from a trust that match or exceed current revenue sharing payments.”

Haggerty said the idea for the Natural Resources Trust was well-received by senators on the committee, but there is not currently a bill putting the concept into law. Haggerty said he was told that “the trust idea seems like a rare issue in Washington, D.C., these days that would have positive bipartisan traction.” He said Headwaters Economics will continue working with senators to put the idea into legislative form.

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