At a hearing today of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) brought together Members of Congress from rural districts, representatives from the Clinton Administration, and community leaders to review legislation (H.R. 2389) which would provide rural areas with financial stability in revenues used for local schools and roads.
H.R. 2389, the County Schools Funding Revitalization Act of 1999, is premised on a set of carefully crafted compromise principles adopted by the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, a unique and diverse, grass-roots coalition of over 550 local and national organizations representing rural communities in 35 states. The bill establishes a five-year payment formula for counties which receive revenue-sharing payments for Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. The formula establishes a safety net level or "full payment amount" for each eligible state or county defined as the average of the three highest annual payments received by the state or county between fiscal year 1985 and the date of enactment.
President Clinton has threatened to veto H.R. 2389, depriving hard-pressed communities from receiving fair funding of the government's historic commitment.
"Every chance he gets the President talks about improving education in America," Goodlatte said. "With this veto threat, we can only assume that his support for education does not apply to rural areas. The National Education Association calls this legislation 'a critical step in guaranteeing adequate education funding for rural forest communities,' and that is exactly what it is. If the President follows through with his threat, rural America will know that all his stated support for education amounts to is merely lip service."
Because the Forest Service is the dominant landowner in communities within the national forest system, and localities are powerless to tax the agency, since 1908 the government has shared twenty-five percent of the revenue derived from national forest activities with the surrounding localities. The communities then use this revenue to finance schools and local roads.
In recent years, federal timber sales have plummeted by more than 75 percent from historic averages and the payments have dropped in some communities by as much as ninety percent. Schools have cancelled classes, cut teachers, eliminated extracurricular activities, and cut corners in every conceivable way to keep their doors open. Local economies have been decimated and families dislocated as parents desperately seek to make ends meet.
"I hope the Administration is not so arrogant as to presume Washington knows better than our rural areas what is best for their children, their families and their communities," Goodlatte said. "Band-aids from Washington bureaucrats will not heal the wounds of rural America. To somehow believe that they will would be far worse than mere arrogance. It would be a direct affront to the underpinnings of our representative form of government."