The Western News: Senators make pitch for money critical to county

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg responded to pleas from a Montana delegation that ventured to Washington, D.C., in June in an effort to get Secure Rural Schools money renewed.

Last week, the Montana lawmakers demanded the continuation of the program, which is a critical component of Lincoln County’s budget.

Politicians from both parties pushed the Obama administration to maintain what they refer to as the “contract” between rural America and the federal government. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act is set to expire in September 2011.

Under the agreement, the federal government makes payments to counties and school districts that historically relied on tax revenues from the now faltering timber industry. National forest land makes up 75 percent of Lincoln County.

“They came back and made a nice presentation. I can tell you I’m very much in support of the money there for forest counties,” Tester said recently during a phone interview. “Failure to pass the bill would raise havoc with schools, roads and county government in general. As this moves forward, it’s going to be folks from the West that push for this.”

Lincoln County commissioners Marianne Roose and Tony Berget were among the delegation that met with Tester, Baucus and others in support of SRSCA funding.

Roose, a board member on the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, said a goal was to put a 10-year “ask” together to put into the president’s budget. The requested addition to the budget would need to be finalized by September. The Partnership for Rural America Campaign has garnered attention to the issue around the country.

“One of the things they’ve done this year is reach out to other areas of the country,” Tester said. “It’s important to get the Southeast and Midwest in on it … it’s a sizeable chunk of money.”

This year, the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act provided approximately $419 million in funding to 729 rural counties and parishes across the country.

Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said his county would have to lay off 40 percent of its employees in the road department if the SRSCA money does not come in. In Lincoln County, $3 million would be lost off the top of its budget if the funds are not renewed. The first hit would be felt in the county’s 2012-13 budget. Fallout could include higher property taxes and roads no longer regularly maintained.

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