Extension Of ‘Secure Rural Schools’ Means Rural Counties Can Breathe Easy…For Now

This story aired May 7, 2015 on NPR’s All Things Considered

President Barack Obama has signed a $200 billion Medicare bill that reforms payments to physicians. Tucked inside that massive Medicare bill was a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act, a federal program that pays rural counties and school districts with a lot of non-taxable forest land.

Secure Rural Schools was first approved by Congress in 2000. Since then, it’s been paying counties that have a lot of federal timber land because local governments can’t make money on that land. It’s not taxable. You can’t develop much of it.

Without extending the program, rural counties across the country would have had $250 million less to work with this year. Congress’ action means counties will get what they’d planned on.

In Idaho, the temporary extension means 34 of the state’s 44 counties will continue receiving Secure Rural Schools payments, estimated to be about 95 percent of what they were paid in 2014.

For some counties, that means they’ll receive millions of dollars.

“It was a huge sigh of relief,” Basin School District Superintendent John McFarlane says. “It got great support in both the House and the Senate, so we kind of felt confident, but politics being as it is, you never know until it gets signed.”

McFarlane’s rural district 40-miles north of Boise in Idaho City would have been considering cuts to programs like preschool, sports, music and art. A two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools means program cuts are likely off the table.

“We’re very, very careful to underestimate revenue and overestimate expenses and that’s worked well for us in the past, and we’re going to continue with that.”

Still, counties and school districts across the country that rely on this money will be in the same spot two years from now, once this extension expires.

“This unpredictability is not helpful for the counties, highway districts or the schools,” Idaho Association of Counties Executive Director Dan Chadwick says. “Some school districts just passed levies, in part probably to make up for the shortfall, only to find the [Secure Rural Schools] money came through after all.”

Chadwick says Congress periodically re-authorizing the payment program isn’t a long term solution.

Chadwick and Idaho’s congressional delegation would rather see rural places with a lot of federal lands have the option of making money by harvesting more timber, or other kinds of natural resource extraction.

But that is an entirely different debate.

“Schools and counties need reliable funding sources and the way this was handled does not foster stability or reliability,” Chadwick says.