House Passes Landmark Rural Schools Legislation
H.R. 2389 would restore stability to forest communities
(October 11, 2000)
Washington, D.C. Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by voice vote, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-determination Act of 1999 (H.R. 2389) which would provide rural areas with financial stability in revenues used for community schools, roads, and local forest management. In a separate action, the Senate also passed H.R. 2389. The president is expected to sign the bill.
"Our rural forest communities are at a crossroads," Combest said. "Over the last decade federal forest policies have prohibited the use of our national forests to sustain the communities and schools that are located in and around them. As a result rural forest communities and school districts all over America are in tatters — the victims of their own government."
Because the Forest Service is the dominant landowner in many rural communities, 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, however, federal forest revenues 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.
"The commitments made to education in this bill come without strings attached," said Forestry Subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). "That means when a county in Oregon or Arkansas or Pennsylvania or Florida receives federal support for education under this bill the local community — not the federal government — will determine how that funding is best used. If local schools need books, they can buy books. If they need additional teachers, they can hire them. If they need to fix the roof on a school, they can do it. This philosophy of federal support coupled with local decision-making should be a model for the Congress as we work to improve education in our country."
"H.R. 2389 also provides a framework for rural forest counties to rebuild their communities and their way of life by giving them a direct stake in the management of our federal forests," Combest said. "By giving local stakeholders both the opportunity and the funding resources to address local forest management issues, local experts can work together on solutions that are not only good for the forest, but also the local economies that sustain them."
The bill establishes a six-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 1986 and 1999. Eighty to eighty-five percent of the payment would go to fund community schools and roads, while the remaining funds would be used for local land and resource management projects.
H.R. 2389 is premised on a set of carefully crafted compromise principles adopted by the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, a diverse grass-roots coalition of over 1,000 local and national organizations representing rural communities in 36 states, and including national partners such as the National Education Association, the National Association of Counties, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and various labor organizations.
If enacted, H.R. 2389 would increase payments to rural communities by sixty-one percent or more than $1 billion over five years.